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Mobile Infrastructure Project

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 10 February 2016

[Mrs Anne Main in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the mobile infrastructure project.

It is a pleasure and an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main.

The purpose of the debate is to express the concerns of four distinct communities in my constituency, in Ebbesbourne Wake, the Woodford valley, Broad Chalke and Bowerchalke, with what is in essence the failure of the mobile infrastructure project. We hoped that the project would improve the poor or in many cases non-existent mobile phone coverage in those areas, but none of the proposed masts at those sites have been seen through to completion. I will set out the challenges of the project and the lessons to be learned from it. I will also make constructive suggestions about how we can move forward. It is heartening to see a number of colleagues in the Chamber with experience, I suspect, of similar disappointments with the project.

The mobile infrastructure project, on which I am sure the Minister will give us authoritative detail later, was first announced in 2011. The Government envisaged working in partnership with a private firm, Arqiva, and providing it with capital funding to build new mobile phone masts. The masts were to be operated by four large operators, which would fund the operating costs for 20 years. The aim was to improve the coverage and quality of mobile network services for the 5% to 10% of consumers and businesses living and working in areas with poor or non-existent coverage, and to ensure that 99% of the population had mobile service.

In a series of debates on broadband infrastructure and mobile telephony everyone has been impressed with the progress made by the Government generally in increasing the percentage of people who can access new services. For those who cannot, the situation is extraordinarily frustrating. My understanding is that 600 potential sites were identified at the beginning of the project, and the contract with Arqiva commenced in May 2013. By December 2015, a couple of months ago, the project had cost £9.1 million and only 15 masts were live. The Secretary of State announced that the project will not be extended past its deadline of March 2016, so it is anticipated that by the time the project ends only about 50 masts will have been built, which is perhaps a sixth of the number of masts envisaged five years ago.

The project faced significant challenges from the beginning. First, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport was told that Arqiva had to wait almost a year to receive accurate data on “not spot” zones aligned with operators’ network maps. Arqiva said that it had not anticipated that delay when the project was scoped.

Secondly, perhaps the most typically vexing experience has been of the delays in planning permission and the difficulty of obtaining it for a number of sites. The Minister contacted me about sites in my constituency, acknowledging uncertainty over where they might be, and I engaged with the parishes concerned in an effort to find agreeable sites quickly. In such rural areas with the poorest mobile coverage, however, two factors are significant. The proposed sites are often in areas of outstanding natural beauty or national parks—we have both in my constituency—which can provoke numerous representations, because if a mast is not in the right place, it is there for a long time, causing significant environmental challenges. We must, however, recognise the need to overcome that obstacle, because better mobile coverage is absolutely necessary. Getting right the planning permission, with an economically viable power connection, has been a significant barrier.

We had three proposed masts in my constituency, one of which will be going ahead and will be transformational, proving the possible impact. Does my hon. Friend agree that the lesson we might have to learn if the scheme returns—I hope there will be some kind of renewed funding—has to be on the basis of communities coming forward to an extent and being proactive and willing to accept masts, so that we know there is a good chance of getting planning permission? Instead, the other way around, we have been saying, “Here’s a load of money,” and people get excited, but nothing actually gets delivered.

I am extremely grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. That is where we need to get to by the end of the debate: a real sense of what can be achieved, with a call-out to those communities that are most keen to secure a mast location under the MIP or a successor project, if there is one, so that we can make things happen. Raised expectations that are dashed after two or three years is a most frustrating phenomenon for constituency MPs to deal with.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing this important subject. Does he agree that it is not so much that the project is at fault, but that perhaps it was a bit over-ambitious in the timeframes in which masts can be brought forward, noting difficulties with planning permission, which as he will fully know can be protracted, and issues around the powering up of masts? Perhaps he may want to encourage the Minister to extend the programme.

As ever, my hon. Friend and neighbour alights on the right points. I would like to talk about the short timeframe, because Wiltshire Council tells me that Arqiva contacted it on numerous occasions but the project was dropped at the first sign of local difficulty in obtaining a planning consent because the short timeframe to deliver on a completed mast made it too difficult. The other issue Arqiva said it experienced was that initially the coverage was intended to be for 2G voice and data services, but there was a subsequent extension to future-proof the project with capacity for 4G. I suspect that change of scope mid-way through the project did not help the smooth delivery of masts.

Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are going to go for new masts, it is right to use the latest technology that provides the data and broadband that people want access to as well as voice services?

I absolutely agree. It is critical that we have additional capacity for spectrum frequencies delivered in a cost-effective way. There is no point in taking a quick option that is now out of date and it is imperative that we take that lesson on board.

I want to be constructive in how I address the Minister in the debate, because whatever has happened, the Government’s aims were absolutely correct. It is extremely disappointing that the project did not meet its original aims. It has underspent and I understand that that money has been returned to the Treasury, so there is scope for representations to be made to the Treasury in the coming weeks to look to repurpose that money for further projects. I want to put on record my support for the legally binding deal the Government secured with mobile phone operators to guarantee mobile coverage for 90% of the UK land mass by 2017, tackling partial “not spots”. However, that is of little comfort to those who have no hope because they are in “not spots” where there is no prospect of achieving mobile coverage. We need to intervene quickly.

If we are to be successful, we need to overcome the planning permission issue. Given the need to gain planning permission for such a large number of sites, was the project’s three-year timeframe realistic? Wiltshire Council found the timeframe that Arqiva had to deal with the technical feasibility, stakeholder engagement and planning processes too short.

Questions should be asked about the tender process for the contract. Arqiva made much of its ability to engage with stakeholders and obtain planning permission quickly—I saw that in an article on its website last year—but it would be useful to understand what the Department believed Arqiva was capable of doing in terms of the project’s aims and what its assessment was of why technical and planning difficulties were not overcome.

When there are future projects to tackle “not spots” and improve capacity, the Minister should consider working with the Department for Communities and Local Government to create fast-tracked and more streamlined infrastructure planning consent routes specifically for that purpose. I am a strong advocate of this Government’s and the previous Government’s commitment to localism and working constructively with local councils, but I would observe the feedback I received from Councillor John Thomson, the deputy leader of Wiltshire Council. He told me:

“we feel the lack of early and timely engagement with the right stakeholders such as AONBs and the right landowners from the very beginning of the project has significantly contributed to the failure across all nine potential sites. Wiltshire Council have asked Arqiva for an explanation as to why individual sites did not get taken forward, but to date have not had any report from them”.

The project has been deeply disappointing and frustrating for so many of our constituents. Future projects must work with stakeholders, who are often committed to the aims of the project and want the work to be completed, but it seems that when anxiety was expressed in the early stages, projects were pushed aside and not completed as they should have been.

In conclusion, I would like to focus on the challenge. I know that the Minister has worked extremely hard to find solutions, but we are all very aware that we need to have timely, appropriate and technically achievable goals that we can take back to our constituents and say, “This will be delivered in a reliable timeframe”, because many people are cynical about the initiative.

I am anxious that the Minister should update us on what the Government are doing to tackle poor mobile phone coverage in the light of the experience in Salisbury and south Wiltshire and the failure of the project, notwithstanding the positive initiatives in other respects. We need to give business the infrastructure it needs and meet its need for connectivity. Some of these communities have poor landline connections, broadband is intermittent and they are not in the phase 2 for the roll-out of superfast broadband in Wiltshire.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. These issues affect not just Wiltshire residents, but Dorset residents. Doubtless the Minister will be positive and bullish, as is his custom, but I would invite him to recognise that while the 90% target is good, for the 10% who are left, including those Dorset residents who do not have coverage, it becomes more and more frustrating for them as more people get coverage.

My hon. Friend makes the exact point that we all wish to make. There is real urgency around the project. We know that the money has gone back to the Treasury, but I urge the Minister to focus on how we can re-establish the scheme and ensure that individual applications can be expedited quickly in the second half of the year, when so much work has already been done, so that we can go back to our constituents and say, “There is hope.” There will be an opportunity and if applications are in and certain criteria are met, we can go back to our local authorities with an assurance and deliver on a promise, which, while I do not want to be melodramatic, has been cruelly taken away. That is a significant inconvenience to businesses, individuals and families who find themselves unable to speak to other family members—they cannot ring their children—and feel totally cut off just five or six miles from the city of Salisbury. It is not good enough, and the Government need to address that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main. I still fondly recall my visit to your constituency to see the wonderful heritage and that brilliant museum that you have there—what a lucky MP you are!

I feel in a relatively philosophical mood as I gaze at 12 colleagues who are a sort of jury, ready to give a verdict on the programme. I must admit that I am guilty as charged. I do not think the programme has been a success, and I do not think that Ministers often say that about their programmes. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson) predicted that I would be bullish about the programme in my usual bombastic—he did not say that word, but perhaps he meant it—fashion, but I will not be bullish about it.

I think that when Ministers defend their programmes, they should have credibility. I am happy to defend the superfast broadband roll-out, which I think has been an unequivocal success despite the occasional criticism I receive. I am also happy to defend our record on libraries, despite the brickbats that I get from library campaigners, but I am fully prepared to stand up in the Chamber and admit that the mobile infrastructure project has not been as successful as we had envisaged. We set aside £150 million. We talked about 600 sites. Our heart was in the right place. We wanted to eliminate “not spots”, precisely because of the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) raised: mobile phones are essential to many people in their daily lives. We wanted to eliminate the “not spots” that exist as best we could. I am grateful to him for securing this important debate.

I am in the middle of my mea culpa, but I might as well give way and make this as tortuous as possible.

I am rather concerned, because the Minister seems to be beating himself up. The truth of the matter is that if his Department is guilty of anything, it is perhaps not having anticipated how long it takes to get infrastructure projects of this sort off the ground. All he needs to do is say that the project essentially is a good one but we need to allow it a little more time, so that projects of the sort to which my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) alluded have a chance.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, and I will address that point in a minute.

I want to start with some of the obstacles that we encountered. First, there was the issue of coverage. I said earlier that I was in a philosophical mood. What we had to try to establish, to quote Shakespeare, was, “What is a not spot?” Trying to establish where a “not spot” is—that is, exactly where we will get no mobile coverage—can be difficult when dealing with radio frequencies. For the benefit of hon. Members who have not taken a close interest in the programme, a “not spot” is where no mobile operator can get a signal. A partial “not spot” is where there may be a signal from one mobile operator but not from another.

We therefore had to narrow down what a “not spot” is. That proved a useful exercise, because it allowed us to work with Ofcom and the mobile operators for the first time to establish a much more robust system of identifying where we were not getting mobile signals. Of course, the programme was announced at around the same time as the 4G auction, so we ran smack bang into the middle of the 4G roll-out programme, which was clearly going to change coverage criteria and therefore add another factor.

The next issue was planning. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury makes a good point—we had not anticipated just how difficult some of the planning issues are, particularly when we were dragging four operators with us, metaphorically kicking and screaming. Although we were paying for the mast, we were asking them to meet the operating costs going forward, which include the land rental as well as the transmission costs for what is, by definition, an uneconomic area.

As an example, I will take my hon. Friend through the saga of North Hill farm in his constituency. A planning application was approved at the end of October 2015, but the council—I am sure he knows some of its councillors—then decided that even though planning approval had been given, the colour of the mast had to be subsequently approved. Apparently, if a range of colours had been given, that would not have caused a delay, but the council wanted specific approval of the mast’s specific colour. That was compounded by the fact that the council and the area of outstanding natural beauty partnership did not respond to Arqiva’s request for guidance on what colour mast they wanted, to enable the council to make an application to discharge the planning condition—in other words, the colour of the mast.

I just want to finish the saga. Arqiva submitted a discharge of condition application in November. That was received by Wiltshire Council, which discharged the condition on 30 November. That was a full month after the deadline we had set for all planning applications to be determined, thus taking it out of the MIP programme.

Planning issues have proved difficult. We have had communities campaigning against masts and putting concrete blocks in front of the base stations to prevent any further work.

It is good to hear the Minister nailing his colours to the mast, as it were. We have had similar issues in South Suffolk. It seems to me that all of the problems point to this: masts can go up and we can have new projects, but we have to learn lessons, and the communities that want the masts will have to be far more engaged and willing to come forward and accept them, rather than just be passive in the process.

I agree with my hon. Friend.

Let me say what we have done since the MIP programme. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury talked about light at the end of the tunnel and giving people hope, and we have made some important changes. For a start, we are bringing in changes to allow mobile operators to erect taller masts, which will enable the signal to go further and have a significant impact in rural areas. We are going to change the electronic communications code, which governs access to masts and has a significant effect on the cost of maintaining infrastructure. We want to bring that forward through a digital economy Bill.

Subsequent to the MIP programme, we negotiated a change in the licences for mobile operators so that they now have to meet 90% geographic coverage, not just the 98% premises coverage. That will make a difference. The merger of O2 and Three, which we are waiting to see the result of, may make a significant difference. We have made Government property available for mobile masts, and all hon. Members might consider engaging with their councils on any property that would accommodate a mast. Those are all significant changes.

Of course, the emergency services programme that is just getting under way with EE should see the erection of 300 masts across the country, which will have a significant effect on “not spots”. As the 4G roll-out continues, we expect the area of “not spots” to fall to as low as 2% of the entire country, and the area of partial “not spots” to fall to as low as 12%—half what it is at the moment.

I hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury says about a possible way forward, and I will certainly keep my mind open. We would have to overcome the scepticism of the mobile operators. One difficulty of the programme is that the companies do not want to participate in it—I do not say that pejoratively—because they are landed with the operating costs of the masts. We, the Government, pay the installation costs, but the companies are landed with the operating costs for masts that are, by definition, uneconomic.

I am sympathetic to the proposal about communities coming forward with sites where the council is willing to give planning permission. I remind my hon. Friend that planning permission for a mast still exists on the site I mentioned, should he be able to tempt a mobile operator to erect a mast on it.

I now have at least three hon. Friends who wish to intervene. I will start with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole.

I am grateful. The Minister mentioned a 2% target for “not spots”. Can he give a date for when he envisages that being achieved?

The Minister will be aware that permission has been given for a very large mast in Exmoor, which my constituency covers. Unfortunately, the licence for the site is running out because it has taken so long to get, so we cannot build a mast. Is there any way that extensions could be given where masts have been given approval but cannot be built because of that problem?

I am not sure which licence my hon. Friend is referring to, but as he and I talk almost every day about broadband issues, I am happy to follow up on that specific point about licences. I have to put on the record what a vociferous constituency MP he is on behalf of his constituents’ broadband and mobile coverage.

I thought I had a third hon. Friend wishing to intervene, but they seem to have disappeared. I am not sure how long I have, Mrs Main.

All I will say in the time remaining is that we have erected 16 of the masts and are hoping to get 60 up and running. Arqiva has a chief executive in the saddle, Simon Beresford-Wylie, who is very much focused on the project and has pushed through a lot of the applications.

A lot of my hon. Friends have suggested that the scheme could be extended. We took the tough decision, given the problems we have had with it, to impose a deadline. We had regular meetings about the scheme and how we could make it work more effectively and so on, and it was finally decided, partly in the light of the changes I outlined earlier—the taller masts, the electronic communications code, the emergency services programme, which is significant, and the changes to mobile licences—that it was right to concentrate minds and bring in a deadline. However, the Government’s mind remains open to any suggestions from my hon. Friends who are quite rightly advocating better mobile phone coverage on behalf of their communities.

There is a juxtaposition: there is, of course, a social priority for good mobile phone coverage, but it remains the case that the mobile phone operators are private companies. They are therefore investing their own money in building networks, as well as paying the Government significant sums for the spectrum allocated to them that they won in an auction.

Just as we have done with the superfast broadband programme, it is right that the Government intervene as and when we can. Given the significant difficulties we have come across with the mobile infrastructure project, the way forward is changing the licences, changing planning regulations to allow taller masts and give better coverage, and implementing the emergency services programme, which comes in behind. I should add that the emergency services programme will benefit from the MIP, because a lot of the groundwork on identifying “not spots” and identifying some of the very significant logistical errors in erecting masts will go a long way towards informing the emergency services programme.

I am sorry that I sound a bit Eeyore-ish in responding to this debate, but hon. Members can tell that I have been living with this programme for the past three or four years, and I thought it was time I came to the House and gave a frank view from the Government Benches on how the programme has worked.

The Minister says, absolutely fairly, that the last scheme was stopped. Perhaps, to interpret what my hon. Friends are suggesting—this is certainly what I feel—we could have an improved and amended scheme in the months ahead. Therefore, if there is a village that does not have access to the emergency services programme and has no credible other technology to provide a mobile signal—for instance, if it is in a dip and needs a mast—will there still be the potential for a scheme whereby willing communities can come forward within the next 12 months?

At the moment, no. To meet my hon. Friends halfway, I suggest that if we had a series of proposals whereby a community was genuinely willing to have a mast and the council was onside, it would be incumbent on the Government to consider those proposals. To refer back to my earlier remarks, we need to look at the particular sites that concern my hon. Friends, then see whether they fit within the emergency services programme and consider the potential way forward. I suggest that if my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury convenes a group of colleagues who wish to come and see me with definitive statements of masts that they would like to see progressed, I will happily hold that meeting after the February recess.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for his constructive remarks and see them as a green light to carry on the campaign.

Notwithstanding the reticence of the operators to engage in the project, there is a real imperative for the Government to force them to deal with this issue. I hope that the Minister recognises the widespread interest in the matter across the House and across our constituencies, where many people feel let down. However, I am grateful for what he has said and for the hope that he has given so many people who have contacted me in recent months.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks, and I am grateful for the additional six minutes, which I think took the debate forward significantly.

Question put and agreed to.