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Rural Broadband

Volume 565: debated on Thursday 4 July 2013

9. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the roll-out of broadband in rural areas. (163123)

The Secretary of State meets regularly with his counterpart at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to discuss the roll-out of the £530 million rural broadband programme. We are determined to deliver that quickly to provide 90% of premises with superfast broadband at 24 megabits a second and elsewhere with standard broadband of at least 2 megabits a second. Further discussions will focus on the £250 million of additional broadband funding that was announced as part of the spending review.

It is clear that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been briefing against Broadband Delivery UK in recent weeks. The Minister must acknowledge that it is his Government’s decision to abandon Labour’s pledge of good broadband for all by 2012 in favour of superfast broadband for some by 2015 that has left rural businesses and residents in the digital slow lane. How does he justify the devastating impact of that on the rural economy?

I am sorry, but I cannot accept that. One reason why the hon. Lady is sitting on the Opposition Benches is that her party lost the rural vote, partly because it left rural Britain in a digital no-go zone. We have set out a programme that, by 2015, will see the rural economy playing its part in the rest of the economy through the extension of superfast broadband, and I think she knows it.

I would like to report that there is good progress in rolling out superfast broadband in Gloucestershire. Does the Minister agree that that is one of the core reasons why the private sector is able to create more and more jobs?

I am delighted that things are moving on in Gloucestershire. Of the 44 county projects, 27 are now contracted and the remainder will be by September. We will start to see fibre being laid in huge quantities around rural Britain, and it will be as easy to run a creative industry firm in a converted farm building in my hon. Friend’s constituency as it would be in the middle of Gloucester.

Has the Minister carried out any assessment of the impact of digital exclusion on deprived communities such as mine, particularly for young people, who increasingly need internet connections to complete schoolwork, apply for jobs and so on?

We have indeed. We know, for example, from the work that PricewaterhouseCoopers has done that there is an average benefit of £365 a year to families who have proper digital access, for precisely the reasons that the hon. Gentleman gives. I was at a remote location in Northumberland national park the other day seeing a satellite solution that was providing an extraordinary benefit to the eight houses at the end of a long valley, so I am well aware of the points that he makes.

I very much welcome the moneys that the Minister’s Department has made available to extend broadband into the hardest-to-reach places, but identifying exactly which places those are and what it will take to achieve that is no trivial exercise. Will he reserve some of the funds for councils such as Wiltshire that have submitted an expression of interest but still need to conduct the detailed survey work required?

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is convening a meeting in the next few days with a number of community-led schemes that are concerned about the uncertainty over whether they will be among the final 10% hardest-to-reach areas. Over the next few weeks, we will have a much clearer view of where there are problems. We want to ensure that we iron out those problems so that people know that they are in that 10% and can then access money through the rural community broadband fund.