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Rural Broadband

Volume 534: debated on Thursday 3 November 2011

We have already announced plans to roll out superfast broadband to 90% of the country by 2015. Good progress has been made, with nine parts of the country already at procurement stage, including Highlands and Islands, Lancashire, Cumbria, Wales, North Yorkshire, Rutland, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, Surrey, Kent and Medway.

Broadband Delivery UK has allocated £8 million to Hampshire for the delivery of rural broadband. Although that is very welcome, and much more than was received under the last Government, residents in the rural Test valley are still concerned to know not only when they will receive faster broadband but how long it will take to get there. What can be done to speed up the process?

Absolutely. First, we need Hampshire to submit a broadband plan explaining how it will get broadband access to 100% of Hampshire residents, with 90% of them getting superfast access. We are strongly encouraging councils to look at the 10% who will not get superfast immediately and to make it as easy as possible for them to get superfast access by 2015, especially by those communities finding their own community solutions.

I recently met the Leicestershire county council champion for broadband, Mr Byron Rhodes. He is very grateful for the financial assistance he is getting from the Government, but he has asked me to make the point that councils would appreciate having the maximum flexibility in delivering their own solutions. Does the Secretary of State agree that councils are best placed to deliver maximum connectivity, as they know their own areas best?

I absolutely agree. We have quadrupled the amount of money going into superfast broadband roll-out. When £530 million became available following the BBC licence fee settlement, we could have signed one big contract with BT for a national roll-out. Instead, we parcelled it up into 40 lots, and made it available to councils so they can take ownership of solving broadband problems in their areas. The response has been superb and there is enormous enthusiasm, so that was a good localist solution.

Many of those in rural communities who use superfast broadband will log on to Amazon to buy books and other artefacts, but does the Secretary of State agree that Amazon needs no help from the British Library? Will he look into the worrying development that the British Library is allowing users browsing its online catalogue to click through to Amazon, which will potentially have a major effect on the book retail market?

We obviously want to support the retail book market, but as a Government we have to be neutral about whether people obtain their books through the internet or by going to bookshops. However, I will certainly look into the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises. The reality is that companies such as Amazon are doing a great deal to promote reading. I think that partnerships with organisations such as the British Library can have a positive impact. I will happily look at what he says.

This week’s “Communications Infrastructure Report” by Ofcom reveals that 14% of British homes still do not have access to decent broadband. By delaying Labour’s universal broadband pledge by three years, are not this Government letting down rural businesses and communities?

I gently remind the hon. Lady that we have quadrupled the amount of money available for superfast broadband; we have brought forward the roll-out of superfast broadband from the next Parliament, which was and still is Labour’s policy, to this Parliament; and in October the Chancellor announced £150 million to get rid of mobile coverage gaps and increase mobile coverage to 99% of the population. I think that our record is pretty good.