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Broadband (Rural Areas)

Volume 599: debated on Thursday 10 September 2015

2. What recent discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on ensuring broadband roll-out in rural areas. (901267)

I spoke to the Culture Secretary earlier this week. He confirmed that we have now rolled out superfast broadband to 83% of properties. Earlier this summer with the Chancellor, I launched the rural productivity plan, which is all about making sure that rural people have the same access to connectivity and opportunities as those in urban areas.

That is all very well, but the Minister must understand what is happening in places such as Cumbria, where people are being told on the one hand that their properties do not meet the commercial criteria for BT to go in, and on the other hand that Connecting Cumbria, the body set up to roll out rural broadband, does not have the funds available. These people do not care where their fast broadband is to come from, but they want to know that the Government are going to get a grip, so will the right hon. Lady work with the Culture Secretary to address this problem urgently and give some hope to my constituents?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is vital that we have superfast broadband across rural areas, including Cumbria, and I note that in Barrow-in-Furness it should be available to 96% of properties by early 2018. The Government’s digital taskforce, of which I am a member, is looking at how we connect those final properties and ensure that everyone has access to this vital service.

The Churches are keen to offer their buildings to help address better rural broadband provision. Would the Secretary of State be willing to convene a roundtable of interested dioceses and suppliers to share the findings of the rural superfast broadband pilots?

I would be extremely keen to discuss that with my right hon. Friend. In fact, I recently visited a church in Feltwell in my constituency that has linked up to superfast broadband and offers services to the local community in the church, which I think is a fantastic model.

My question is along the same lines as the previous question. Has the Secretary of State thought about working with rural schools as hubs to ensure that superfast broadband is concentrated there, where it is incredibly important?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are looking at all possible options, including schools. We already have broadband connections through the transport networks, and we are looking at what more we can do, such as having smaller boxes to access more remote properties and using satellite connectivity. We are looking at all those options and further announcements will be made in the autumn statement.

9. Residents in the rural parts of my constituency, such as Affetside and Holcolme, which after all are just a few miles from Manchester city centre, are 100% unconnected to superfast broadband. Some of them are trying to run small businesses, and for them it is cold comfort to know that nearly everyone else has a good internet connection. I urge my right hon. Friend to ask her colleagues across Government to ensure that superfast broadband is rolled out to rural areas, especially those near big cities. (901278)

I note that in Bury North superfast broadband should be available to 99% of premises by 2017, and I will be working very hard to ensure that the 1% also have access to high-speed services.

A recent study by the Oxford Internet Institute has shown a growing gap in broadband access between urban and rural communities, with 1.3 million people in rural Britain being excluded from high-speed broadband and a further 9.2 million having a poor connection. Will the Secretary of State tell the House by what date superfast broadband coverage will be universal?

I point out to the hon. Lady that in 2010 only 45% of properties were connected to superfast broadband. We are now up to 83%, and we have a commitment to get to 95% by 2017. By the end of this year, we will have universal access to broadband of 2 megabits per second. We will be making further announcements on the issue, because it is vital that rural areas have that connectivity.

I do not think that is good enough. The Secretary of State is letting the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and BT get away with a super-slow broadband roll-out in our remote rural areas. It seems she is too busy trying to bring back foxhunting, letting down our dairy farmers and allowing culling and pesticides to destroy our wildlife to do her job of championing rural areas across Government. When will she start punching her weight across the Cabinet table and get an end date for the superfast broadband roll-out? Until she does, remote rural areas will increasingly be put at a great economic disadvantage.

Frankly, I think Conservative Members will treat that statement with some derision, given the previous Labour Government’s failure to deliver for rural areas over many years. This summer we launched a rural productivity plan, which is all about ensuring that rural areas get good connectivity, good transport links and affordable housing. Under this Government we have seen the gap in productivity between rural and urban areas closing for the first time in years.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) suggested, it is often in the last 5% that we find some of the most enterprising people, although at the moment they live in areas that are inaccessible to rural broadband. Will my right hon. Friend consider a survey of such areas to see just how many small businesses there do not yet have broadband access?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I recently opened a new cabinet in Mundford, a village in my constituency where I found a textbook publisher who works internationally, a software company, and a company that produces databases internationally. We have some of the most amazing businesses in rural areas. In fact, two of the fastest growing sorts of businesses are consultancy and IT. That is why getting superfast broadband roll-out is a real priority for this Government, and that is why we have set up the digital taskforce.