The Church of England recently signed an accord with the Government to enable churches to improve broadband and mobile connectivity, particularly in rural areas. It sets out how the Church can collaborate with providers to help to achieve that.
The tower of St Peter in Drayton, for example, could really help with connectivity in an area that suffers from a lack of connectivity. Could my right hon. Friend give my constituents some guidance as to how best to find their way through the planning system, to help them make an application in relation to the church?
My hon. Friend’s constituency has seen a significant improvement in broadband coverage, which is currently at 95.5%—up from 19% in 2010. However, there are undoubtedly not spots, and I encourage her to get churches to contact Church House to find out how they can avail themselves of this new opportunity. In this accord, the Church has reached agreement with broadband providers to provide a standard contract to make that easy. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Gardiner, for this initiative on working together to get our rural and urban mobile and broadband not spots covered.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her part in securing the accord. On International Women’s Day, it seems appropriate to mention Lady St Mary church in Wareham, in my constituency, which is already installing telecommunications equipment in its—or her, I should say—tower. What more can my right hon. Friend do to encourage others to follow where Wareham and Dorset are leading?
My hon. Friend is doing a good job of demonstrating to the whole House the difference it can make when we, as Members of Parliament, make our constituents in not spots aware of this new agreement. If Members have churches with tall towers or spires, these can be used to bounce the broadband signal into existing not spots. The example, on International Women’s Day, of the church he refers to gives encouragement to all. I know that the Isle of Purbeck suffers from poorer coverage, and I would encourage him to get the churches in his constituency to apply too.
I hear what the right hon. Lady says, but will she include in the work that the Church is doing churches that have been closed? They are often in the most rural and isolated areas, and their status is sometimes unclear. This could be a very important way in which we could make use of these buildings.
The Church of England has put its entire assets at the disposal of the Government to help crack the problem of the not spots—that includes its churches, its schools and its land, where necessary. For example, we can beam a signal from a church spire to the brow of a hill—the land may belong to the Church—down into the next village, which does not have a signal, and thereby get coverage. Those assets are all bound up in this accord.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her responses. It is really good news that the Church of England is making its buildings available for this purpose. However, does she agree that it is equally important that historical artefacts, which can be displayed tremendously in small parishes in rural communities that have dedicated Royal British Legion facilities, could also be displayed in buildings owned by the Church of England across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
This new accord on wi-fi and mobile coverage will make the churches a hot spot, not a not spot, in communities. That may well bring in people who want to have the benefit of a good signal and, by the way, to discover the wonderful heritage and artefacts that the churches offer. I should add that although this accord has been signed with the Church of England, the Government want to offer the same opportunity to other denominations, because the aim is universal coverage.