Skip to main content

Rural Broadband (North Yorkshire)

Volume 573: debated on Wednesday 8 January 2014

I am informed by the Clerk that because the last debate ended early, an extra nine minutes of this sitting is allowed, should people wish to have it.

It is a proud pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Main. I am delighted to have been given this opportunity to debate rural broadband in north Yorkshire.

Before speaking specifically about York and north Yorkshire—the most beautiful area within God’s own county—may I touch briefly on the wider broadband roll-out? I am pleased that, as part of their long-term economic plan, the Government have recognised that the future of our economy rests on the ability of our infrastructure not only to cope with the demands placed on it, but to exceed those demands and facilitate new opportunities for growth. This is no less true of superfast broadband than it is of our rail, road and air infrastructure.

The Government’s investment in superfast broadband is, to my mind, one of their greatest and most important achievements in this Parliament, yet sometimes it does not get the plaudits that it deserves. It has by no means been an easy task. It has required huge investment from the Government, totalling roughly £1.6 billion, and some hard work from all those involved in organising the roll-out, including the people physically on the ground, upgrading the telephone cabinets with the fibre.

However, all the hard work and commitment has been worth it. The recent findings from the UK broadband impact study reveal that for every £1 the Government invest in broadband, the UK economy will benefit by £20. That represents fantastic value for money in the short term. In the short term, the network construction will add around £1.5 billion to the economy, creating 11,000 jobs this year alone. In the longer term, it will increase annual gross value added by £6.3 billion. Its benefits will be spread across the country, with approximately 89% of that in areas outside London and the south-east, such as York and north Yorkshire. That vindicates the Government’s commitment to investing so much in this programme and shows that all the hard work that is being put in on a local level is delivering real results.

The roll-out has not been without its problems and it has faced some public criticism for the degree to which one company has achieved a monopoly over the roll-out contracts. There is also some concern about the apparent shortcomings in the contracts, with BT being obliged only to upgrade telephone cabinets with their fibre-to-the-cabinet approach. Some of my constituents have expressed concern that, because they receive their telephone lines from an upgraded cabinet, they are being counted by BT as though they were part of the 90%, despite being too far away from the cabinet to receive the upgraded superfast internet speeds.

However, I have received assurances from the chief executive of BT Openreach that that is not the case, and that only those who receive superfast speeds are counted. Superfast North Yorkshire has subsequently clarified that, although there may be issues about how coverage is measured in other parts of the country, the north Yorkshire contract only counts those who are capable of receiving superfast speeds.

Locally, the roll-out so far has been a roaring success. The project, which has been overseen by Superfast North Yorkshire, has been run well. When it first set out on its mission, it had a total of 670 cabinets to be upgraded—I think the technical term is “deployed”—but, to date, 350 cabinets have been upgraded, which marks 52% of the total. However, it is expected that this figure will rise to 370 next week, ensuring that the project is well over halfway to completion.

In north Yorkshire, roughly one cabinet is updated per working day. As a result, phase 1 of the roll-out is expected to be completed by October 2014, well ahead of the national target, which originally intended to provide only 90% of all households with speeds of up to 25 megabits per second by the end of 2015. That target now appears to have been pushed back, and phase 1 might not be achieved nationally until the end of 2016. Will the Minister clarify that? What might that do to the expected release of phase 2 funding?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He paints a positive picture, with which I agree, of how north Yorkshire is delivering superfast broadband because of the Conservative-led Government’s money. Does he agree that the National Audit Office report, which was very critical of the Government and BT, surprisingly did not even consult on the north Yorkshire example and that in future the NAO should look more closely at what we are doing in north Yorkshire?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. North Yorkshire’s achievements are a glowing example of what can be done at local level. I am surprised that north Yorkshire was not part of the investigation.

Take-up of superfast broadband in north Yorkshire is outpacing the national average by a considerable margin. After 12 months, take-up in the north Yorkshire intervention area is 13.4%, which proves that Superfast North Yorkshire’s demand-stimulation activity is working extremely well. It also demonstrates that there is latent demand for superfast broadband in the rural areas around north Yorkshire and York. I am sure that north Yorkshire colleagues here today can testify to that and have many examples from their constituencies.

The achievements of Superfast North Yorkshire are remarkable given that it is dealing with one of the country’s most rural counties. The county’s rurality, however, also has its drawbacks. Although I have no doubt that Superfast North Yorkshire will meet its 90% coverage target well before the rest of the country, I remain concerned that there is a deepening digital divide between the 90% and the 10%, who appear to be being left behind by phase 1 of the roll-out.

I see the divide first hand in my constituency. Communities such as Haxby, Wigginton, Dunnington and Elvington are already enjoying the benefits of superfast speeds, which are coming soon to areas such as Wheldrake. Even small, quiet villages in my constituency, such as Rufforth and Stockton-on-the-Forest, have recently had their cabinets upgraded, yet there remain a number of small communities in my constituency that are sadly too far from the local cabinet to benefit. Those communities include Askham Bryan, Askham Richard, Hessay, Acaster Malbis, parts of Naburn and Holtby to name a few.

A constituent of mine from Askham Bryan informs me that the maximum download speed he can obtain is 1.2 megabits per second, which is typical of the rest of the village. He says:

“1.2 mbps permits basic web usage such as email and relatively slow browsing. However, any attempt to stream data-hungry applications such as live TV are not possible. Multiple users online at the same time in the same household also seriously compromises the performance of even basic applications.”

My constituent relocated to Askham Bryan from London without moving jobs, under the presumption that the investment in broadband in the region would enable him to access facilities such as web-based video conferencing, which have become the norm for many and would suit the flexible working arrangements that he has put in place for himself.

True to form, Superfast North Yorkshire has been excellent at engaging with our local rural communities, and the chief executive officer has met Askham Bryan parish council to discuss the problems it faces and the potential solutions. In the specific case of Askham Bryan, it is increasingly likely that other technologies, such as fixed wireless, 4G or satellite broadband, will need to be deployed to provide the village with the speeds it needs and deserves. The parish council has contacted independent wireless broadband providers, which have explained that the technology is available to the village and is relatively simple to implement. The lack of certainty on the future direction of the roll-out, however, has prevented the parish council from going any further.

That point is important because the wireless broadband providers appear to be willing to invest their time and money if there is a chance that BT will subsequently upgrade the village’s cabinet. As such, much greater clarity is needed on the future of the roll-out, so that communities on the wrong side of the digital divide are able to plan their next steps based on certainties rather than possibilities.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, and I strongly support his argument on the success of the roll-out of superfast broadband across our county. He makes a powerful point on extending the roll-out beyond the 90% target. Does he agree that we now face the question of how we achieve that next stage? Superfast broadband makes an enormous difference, and he has articulated the challenges that face the broadband have-nots, including some of the villages in his constituency. The same applies to villages such as Lower Dunsforth and others in my Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency, and it is important that such communities are able to access broadband as quickly as possible.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. All Members representing north Yorkshire and York will have examples in their constituency of communities that are suffering from the digital divide and that are among the 10% rather than the 90%. It is important that we have clarity on where we are going, and I am sure the Minister will set that out, as he has in the past. We need that clarity for the future so that we may build on the success of what has already been achieved in north Yorkshire.

We must not forget the role of local authorities. In my constituency, I have been encouraged by the levels of communication between Superfast North Yorkshire and City of York council. Superfast North Yorkshire is encouraging the council to contribute to an intermediary project that will enable Superfast North Yorkshire to continue extending coverage to some of the most rural areas.

Superfast North Yorkshire has successfully pulled together a further £8 million for the project to extend phase 1 of the roll-out, which will potentially increase coverage to between 92% and 93% of the county. That sum is made up of £3 million contributed by North Yorkshire county council, £3 million from the European regional development fund and £2 million from Broadband Delivery UK’s contingency fund, for which my north Yorkshire colleagues and I, ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), assisted in lobbying.

Given the pace of the roll-out in north Yorkshire and the European regulations that are in place, the additional pot of money will not get Superfast North Yorkshire past the summer of 2015 before its hugely successful programme comes to a grinding halt. All that will be left is a wait for the next tranche of Government funding for phase 2. Given the complexities of procurement, planning and the roll-out, it would be a tremendous shame for Superfast North Yorkshire to have to kick-start the roll-out again in 2016. During a 12-month shutdown Superfast North Yorkshire would, due to its own success, lose many of the skills it has built up.

Whether City of York council’s executive chooses to contribute to the £8 million project is entirely at its own discretion. I am led to believe, however, that of the £530 million granted to local authorities from central Government, City of York council was allocated some £1.4 million. I therefore call on the council’s executive to honour its responsibility to the communities in my constituency that I have mentioned and to ensure that that important Government funding is well spent.

I finally come to the central purpose of the debate. From the Minister’s recent response to my question, I am aware that the finer details of the phase 2 roll-out are still being worked out. Given the fantastic work of Superfast North Yorkshire and its partners, however, I ask the Government to look seriously at granting the region an early release of the next phase of funding.

I have already touched on the several strong reasons for doing so. Take-up in north Yorkshire is well ahead of the national average, which proves that there is latent demand for rural broadband in the region. Superfast North Yorkshire has achieved great things across the region and the hard work that has been put in deserves to be rewarded. It has not let the absence of further funding hold it back, but even after taking the initiative and securing extra money for the interim period, it is unlikely to get beyond the summer of 2015. Finally, considering the fantastic pace that the roll-out has gathered in north Yorkshire, it would be an awful shame for those who have worked so hard to have to kick-start the roll-out again in 2016 after an indefinite pause.

To those points, I would like to add a further call on the Government to provide greater clarity over the future of the roll-out—I hope the Minister can do that in his remarks—so that those communities left behind by the digital divide can plan ahead for how they will try to bridge it. While I welcome the additional £10 million for broadband as part of the national infrastructure plan announced in the recent autumn statement, I appeal to the Government to continue to support that hugely important programme with the necessary resources and to ensure that we make the most of the new technologies available to us.

I am again thankful for the opportunity to speak. The Government pride themselves on rewarding those who work hard and want to get on. Superfast North Yorkshire has worked tremendously hard, and I hope that the Government will give it what it needs to finish the job.

Order. The debate will finish at 5.9 pm. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the Minister and of the Member who secured the debate to make a brief speech?

Thank you, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy)—my constituency neighbour —on securing the debate. I also refer the Chair and hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I start by congratulating Superfast North Yorkshire, BT and the Government—for the cash—as we have made good progress in a relatively short space of time. With the project now halfway through and the target of 90% of homes having access to superfast broadband well down the track, the problem is that some villages will achieve only 2 megabits. They can see that that is the case and feel that they are being left in the slow lane. A constituency such as Selby and Ainsty faces real challenges. There are well over 100 villages. Many of them are on the border with other local authorities, where the exchange is across that border. Residents in villages such as Ryther, which currently has a 365 kilobit download speed, Newton Kyme, Catterton, Bickerton, Kirkby Overblow, Ulleskelf, Fairburn and many more have all expressed frustration at the pace of roll-out.

The problem appears to be the lack of a transparent plan to deliver the committed 2 megabits to the remaining 10%. The fact that the people who currently get the worst speeds have no visibility on when or whether they will be upgraded gives rise to considerable concern. I understand that Superfast North Yorkshire is about to leaflet every home in north Yorkshire to ensure that people are aware of the need to order the upgrade, because if they do not order it, they will not get it. Doing so might make the last 5% highly visible. It is now clear which areas are at risk of not being upgraded. They are the areas with the strongest support for the roll-out programme, because speeds are currently the lowest. They are also the areas that would have been the most supportive of the spending of the additional funds to upgrade the service. They might now be realising that they could see no improvement from that investment.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in addition to clarity on the 2 megabit issue that he so eloquently articulates, BT’s feet must be held to the fire with regard to the cabinets across north Yorkshire that it originally said were commercially viable? It now says that they are not, leaving communities such as Cononley in my constituency stuck between what they thought was going to be commercially viable and being outside the intervention area.

As usual, my hon. Friend is spot on. His remark leads quite nicely on to my next point. One of the features of the contract is that if take-up is high, money can be clawed back and then used to extend the project to further cabinets. For that reason, encouraging people to sign up for faster speeds is extremely important.

I take issue with something that my hon. Friend mentioned. Take-up has actually been relatively modest. Good areas typically have 25% to 30%. I am quite happy to be put right on that, but I am sure that take-up has been significantly less in other areas. That may be partly due to the lack of clarity about needing to place an order, which will hopefully be put right, or it might be that people who already have 10 megabits or more simply think that there is no need to upgrade to get 40 megabits.

Finally, the vision for this excellent project was to provide superfast broadband for 90% and at least 2 megabits to 10% and to revitalise rural economies. That vision generated support and enthusiasm for the project. Just because it is hard does not mean that we should be walking away from delivering something that was initially so enthusiastically received. In the next of my regular communications with Superfast North Yorkshire and BT, I hope to be given some comfort as to how the remaining 10% will be addressed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer (Julian Sturdy) on securing the debate, and I am pleased to see him joined by my hon. Friends the Members for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) and for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). As one can see as the camera pans around, God’s own county is represented by four of the finest elected representatives to be found in any legislature in the world. It is a testament to their power and influence that not a single member of the Opposition has dared to turn up to challenge anything that my hon. Friends have to say.

Now that I have taken my tongue out of my cheek, I must say in all seriousness, for the edification of their constituents and any local journalists watching the debate, that my hon. Friends have been assiduous in lobbying for their constituencies and to secure the best settlement to deliver the best broadband deal for their constituents, because they understand its importance. They have been aided and abetted by John Moore, the chief executive of NYnet, which is the company set up to deliver broadband to North Yorkshire, as well as the excellently led, Conservative North Yorkshire council. It is important to explain to those who might be new to the broadband debate that North Yorkshire was one of the first councils to participate in the Government’s rural broadband programme, because it was oven-ready, as it were, when the programme was announced. That is why, while I will go on to talk about the general success of the rural broadband programme, North Yorkshire stands out as one of the most successful areas.

Just to extend the mutual congratulations slightly, I want to put on the record our thanks to the Minister for being so responsive over the past few years to relentless e-mails and letters from all of us. His responsiveness has made a massive difference.

I am grateful, but perhaps we had better stop there, Mrs Main, and get to the substance of the debate, or people will start to turn against us.

North Yorkshire is one of the largest rural broadband projects in the country. It was the first to get under way under our rural broadband programme. We have put almost £18 million into the project, together with more than £8 million of European funding—if I am allowed to say that in public—and £9 million from BT, making a total investment of more than £35 million. The project is now on track to be completed by October this year, which is ahead of schedule. We also recognise the need to do more, and partly in response to the relentless e-mails, letters and conversations, we allocated a further £3 million to North Yorkshire, because that leveraged an additional £5 million of funding from the local council and in European money, allowing coverage to be extended further.

As for what we have achieved so far, the current contract will get 670 cabinets enabled for superfast broadband, which will deliver 168,000 premises as passed. Mindful of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York Outer about distinguishing between access to fibre and getting superfast speeds, I can say that that means 150,000 premises achieving speeds greater than 25 megabits. It is important to stress that we distinguish between those who have access to cabinets that have been enabled for superfast broadband and those who actually receive the speeds, because we recognise that some premises are too far from the cabinets to get the designated speeds.

More than half the cabinets have been deployed so far, which is 350, or 52% of the total; 95,000 premises have been passed, or 57% of the total; and 86,000 of those premises receive speeds of 25 megabits or more. By the end of next week, we expect 370 cabinets to have been enabled, so the project is going well. It is important to stress that this has been helped not only by the assiduous nature of the MPs’ holding the Government to account, but by NYnet on the ground and a proactive council, which have been vital. Some people have criticised the way in which we have gone about working with local councils, rather than having a national tender, for example, but having councils that are partners with BT has made a huge difference, because it joins up with things such as planning to ensure that broadband is rolled out all the more speedily.

Despite criticism of the programme, the results are now beginning to speak for themselves. For example, in Rutland more than 9,000 premises have been passed, and we expect that project to conclude by the summer; 95 more communities in Norfolk are now accessing fibre broadband, thanks to the programme; and in Suffolk, 90 miles of fibre cable have been laid, and 10,000 homes and businesses are getting broadband three months ahead of schedule, with a further 2,500 premises in 16 communities getting it in the autumn.

Many authorities are going further than our original target of 90%: Cambridgeshire is going for 98%; Lancashire 97%; Rutland 94%; and Wales, which has passed 100,000 premises and is now six months ahead of schedule, 96%. By the end of 2013, with 43 out of 44 projects signed, half of them already had live coverage. Superfast Cornwall has seen more than 194,000 premises passed by fibre and is aiming for 95% of fibre coverage. Northern Ireland has more than 90% of fibre coverage.

I take this opportunity to pay tribute to BT and its engineers. Over the Christmas period, all of us have seen, or experienced, the horrendous weather that led to trouble with power lines and so on. The flooding still afflicts a great many areas of the country. Throughout that entire period, however, BT engineers were working to meet their milestones. I have been told stories of engineers working with water up to their shoulders as they were preparing to lay fibre, or working in holes where the pumps had to be kept on permanently to keep the water from flooding them, so that the milestones could be met. BT gets a lot of criticism for the programme, but most of it is unwarranted. It is worth our pausing to pay tribute to the work of the BT engineers, in particular over this Christmas period.

On the core points made by my hon. Friends, I would characterise the tone of their remarks as, “It’s going well, but could do better.” We could do better in two or three areas, the first of which might be the allocation of the next £250 million. It is worth making the point that, having allocated a little more than £500 million to reach 90% superfast broadband, the Chancellor has allocated a further £250 million to reach 95%. We want to get that money allocated as soon as possible.

I was not in a hole up to my shoulders in water, but I can assure my hon. Friends that my officials and I and BT were all looking at the issue over the Christmas and new year period. We hope to make an announcement shortly, but I know that they appreciate that we have to get it right and ensure that the money is allocated properly and fairly. I can be certain, however, that good partners like North Yorkshire will, I hope, receive appropriate funding to carry on their good work.

Furthermore, it is important to acknowledge, as I have already done, that there is a difference between a fibre-enabled cabinet and people getting superfast access. I reassure my hon. Friends that we make the distinction. They also mentioned the concern about BT first saying that a cabinet is commercially viable, but then saying that it is not and that it should be part of the rural roll-out. Detailed planning is undertaken, but circumstances on the ground can change, so there needs to be a degree of flexibility and give and take. I can, however, again assure my hon. Friends that when BT finds that a cabinet is not commercially viable and seeks to put it into the rural programme, we do have detailed discussions. Likewise, sometimes there are parts of the rural programme that become commercially viable.

As for clawing money back from BT when take-up is higher, I assure my hon. Friends that where the take-up of broadband exceeds the target set under the contract, we do claw money back. That money is put back into the programme to extend coverage further.

Finally, I assure my hon. Friends that we are also looking at the £10 million that the Chancellor has allocated to us to take superfast broadband from 95% to 100%. That is money for test-bed experiments. It is important to stress that, in particular in rural areas, prices rise exponentially for that very last 5%.

Does the Minister have any experience of hard-to-reach areas in other parts of the country implementing wi-fi solutions? Does he have any knowledge of the take-up, or experience of how well such solutions work? In one of my villages, Ulleskelf, I helped to launch a wi-fi service more than a year ago. My understanding is that the take-up has been low—

There are individual solutions and it is important that we remain open to them. I receive e-mails from individual providers which claim that they can provide commercial solutions for the last 5%. It is important that we hear from all potential providers, which is why we have set aside that money to stress-test solutions before making that final allocation to get us to 100% superfast broadband.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.