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Project Gigabit

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 21 September 2021

Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Chamber.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Project Gigabit and community-led internet service providers.

It is a massive pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I also offer a massive welcome to the Minister. I am hugely grateful for the opportunity to raise a massively important issue to rural communities. This is a half-hour debate, yet it is great to see friends and colleagues from Cumbria and beyond who share my concerns.

We want to talk about the extremely urgent issue of Project Gigabit. The deadline for applications for the broadband voucher scheme is in three days. After that, the Government plan to cancel, or at least park, the scheme for now. Every day we become increasingly dependent on digital technology, not only for leisure but for work. The covid pandemic has led to more of us working from home, so access to quick, reliable and affordable broadband has never been more important than it is today.

In my community, one in four people in the workforce works for themselves. The impact on small businesses, particularly start-ups, of a very high quality broadband connection is utterly transformational—or something that can delay their access to the world of commerce. I welcome the Government’s Project Gigabit on paper, with its promise to deliver at least 85% gigabit-capable coverage across the UK by 2025. However, I am alarmed that this well-intentioned scheme will, in practice, result in thousands of rural homes, many of which were on the verge of being connected to hyperfast fibre-optic broadband, missing out altogether.

I am talking about towns and villages that have been working with the community-led internet service provider, Broadband for the Rural North or B4RN—known to most of us as “barn”. I am delighted that Michael Lee, the chief executive of B4RN, is with us today in the Gallery. B4RN has brought hyperfast broadband to more than 9,000 properties across Cumbria, Lancashire and Northumberland. It offers 100% of properties in a community a fibre connection to the premises, no matter how hard they are to reach, and with no additional cost passed on to the individual. It even offers free connections to schools, churches and village halls.

It has been able to do all of that through the Government’s various voucher schemes. In the last quarter alone, B4RN has connected 587 more properties to the network, though its plans for the next few years have been put into serious doubt because of Project Gigabit’s procurement process. B4RN’s business model gathers vouchers from households in a rural area and then pools them to deliver a scheme that connects every home, including those that are the most remote and difficult to reach. It then delivers immensely fast broadband at speeds that BT will only deliver if customers pay through the nose, and they would be lucky even then.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing this matter forward for debate. The fact that there are representatives here from many parts indicates the importance. Does he feel that, when it comes to funding, the hardest-to-reach parts of the UK find the cost of installing as a group project an issue, as it is for some of my constituents? Then it can be extended to the smaller parts of communities and further afield. Does he feel the Minister should respond clearly to what he has said, and ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can benefit?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. For us, B4RN has done something unique from a not-for-profit angle, to fill in the gaps from the grassroots up. That is a model that we should see emulated in other parts of the country, rather than have it accidentally—I would say—snuffed out by a good idea at Whitehall that turned out to be a bad idea in practice.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making a very good speech. The problems facing my vast, remote constituency are similar. Does he agree with me that the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ proposed scheme of broadband catch-up zones is much to be commended? Does he also agree that the UK Government would do well to take that on board, to avoid rural communities in our constituencies and other parts of the UK playing perpetual catch-up with urban communities?

My hon. Friend knows all about remote and rural communities, which make us in Cumbria look bijou, concentrated and urban by comparison. Yet, obviously, the challenges we face are very similar. Yes, understanding that the most difficult-to-reach parts of our country broadband-wise are the ones where we should start, rather than the ones we fill in after the fact, is something that we have pressed successive Governments to take seriously. B4RN tackles that.

The great shame is that the Government’s decision to end the voucher scheme in just three days’ time, while the procurement process takes place, will basically turn Project Gigabit into “Project Pull the Plug” for many of our towns and villages. Rather than allowing B4RN to carry on connecting our communities, the Government will instead allow big multinational companies with a track record so far of failing to meet rural need in Cumbria with a free shot at connecting properties in our communities. The difference between them and B4RN, however, is that they will not connect 100% of the properties. The Government will say that they are only obliged to connect 80% of properties—which they could probably have connected commercially anyway, but have not. We all know where the other 20% will be, do we not? They will be the most rural, the most remote. The communities that B4RN offered hope to will now be victims of “Project Pull the Plug”.

Successful community providers such as B4RN have pulled people together, strengthening communities in the process as volunteers literally go shoulder to shoulder to dig trenches and to connect homes and businesses. Personally, it was a real privilege for me to join residents digging in Old Hutton and to build lasting friendships in the process. Landowners large and small had waived payment, because they know that B4RN is not for profit and that the beneficiaries are their local neighbours. Communities such as Old Hutton, once the least connected place in Cumbria—I tell you, Dame Angela, that is saying something—now have world-class connections, thanks to B4RN and to Ministers in the past who listened.

Today’s debate will give us an insight, if the Minister will forgive me for saying so, into whether she will be one who listens. Her predecessor was a very nice man, but on this he did not listen. He visited Mallerstang in the constituency of the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) and met Michael Lee, the chief executive of B4RN, who explained why removing the voucher scheme would kill off so many schemes that could connect rural communities in Cumbria. The Minister came, got his photograph and must have left behind everything he was told—or, he let it in one ear and let it slip out the other ear on the train ride back south.

The Government’s plan for rural broadband bears all the hallmarks of one of those great bright ideas dreamt up in Whitehall—a bright idea that, in reality, does inexcusable damage to rural communities, all the more inexcusable because so many of us have explained patiently and in detail why that is so. However, it does not need to be that way, and the Minister has the power to fix it today. If communities where B4RN is demonstrably engaged and actively planning are moved into the deferred procurement scope, and if voucher application remains open for those communities during the procurement process, B4RN will be able to continue to help level up remote rural communities through the delivery of future-proof fibre-optic infrastructure.

Our rural communities are under enormous pressure. The Government’s failure to restrict second home ownership and continuing to permit innocent tenants to be evicted so that landlords may quadruple their income through holiday lets mean that the very survival of many of our villages is at stake. Access to fast broadband is one way to ensure that local families can afford to remain in our area and to make a living—to run their businesses, to maintain a foothold in Cumbria, and to be able to stay there and raise their children there, keeping schools open and communities alive. For the Government to pull the plug in that way would be either cruel or foolish, or both. They may no longer pretend that that will be an unintended consequence of their plans, because we have shown them clearly what the consequences are.

Even if we believe the Government when they say that the voucher scheme might be replaced in a year or so, that will be too late, because all that might be left to connect will be the 20% of properties that BT and co chose to ignore. The voucher scheme will be of little use then, because B4RN depends on pooling funding from the vouchers of all the community in order to connect all the community. By securing the business of the towns and villages, it builds up the money to connect the homes, farms and hamlets that are most rural and otherwise financially unviable. The Government’s procurement plan, which abandoned the hardest-to-connect 20%, will be the death of the B4RN business model. When the Government designed the plan, they did not know that—fair enough—but now they do and they have no excuse. The Conservatives will be killing off rural broadband in Cumbria. They know that, and today we will find out whether they care.

The Minister will need to look these communities in the eye, especially those that the Government choose to dump, and explain why she has chosen to pull the plug. Hot off the press today I can reveal the communities that the Conservative Government have chosen to pull the plug on: Kirkwhelpington, Great Salkeld, Storth, Woodburn, Sedbergh, Kirkby Lonsdale, Nateby, Lazonby, Melmerby, Brough Sowerby, Crosthwaite, Hugill, Far Sawrey, Kirkby Ireleth, Hawskhead and Claife, half of Skelwith Bridge, Ackenthwaite, Whassett, Broughton-in-Furness, the Rusland valley, Lowick, Great Langdale, Skelton, and 548 properties in the village of Burneside. There is a list of other communities still hugely at risk because of Project Gigabit’s procurement plan, but B4RN will do everything it can to deliver within a year. I make the decision on the hoof to not name them because it would take acres of time and I do not want to blight them. There is a massive chance that they will succeed because B4RN will do everything it can, despite all the odds stacked against it.

Every one of the communities that I have listed will rightly feel that they have had the rug pulled from under them by the Government. Those communities were pulling together, voluntarily giving up their time and energy, and working with a tried and tested B4RN model to deliver to some of the most remote parts of our country. Getting connected is a matter of life and death for some of those communities. It is about the ability to learn, trade and communicate. It is the difference between communities thriving and being sustainable and being cut off and therefore unsustainable.

Is there not an international aspect to this? If the United Kingdom is to compete and succeed on a world trade stage, it could mobilise the skills and abilities in some of the remotest parts of the UK as part of that victory.

That is absolutely right. Traditionally, it is hard to earn a living in remote areas, but with high quality broadband we can live in a glorious place. I often say that if someone could live and raise their kids in South Lakeland and make a living, they would. We have an opportunity to do so. That applies to many other people and Members who have similarly glorious constituencies.

The Government’s decision to end the voucher scheme this week will be a body blow to the communities I have listed and to the others that I have chosen not to list for now. It is all the more cruel because of the real hope that our communities were offered that, through the B4RN model and the voucher scheme, they could and should have been connected. When B4RN comes to a community, it does not just build a world-class fibre optic network; it builds a community. It becomes a focus of energy, endeavour and a collective triumph against the odds. Communities that have been through the B4RN process are glued together with new friendships, new common interests and a new sense of community.

The Minister should know that the damage her decision will do to our communities goes far beyond the technology and to the very heart of those communities and community life. Those of us who have been through the experience and are proud to vouch for B4RN and for the hundreds of volunteers who have delivered the connections are at a loss as to how the Government can ignore that lived experience.

I have two simple solutions to solve the crisis, and then I will draw my remarks to a close. First, will the Minster commit to ensuring that all properties in areas where B4RN is already demonstrably engaged are given deferred scope procurement status? That will ensure that those areas are not part of the initial procurement scope of the regional supplier and that a B4RN build supported through voucher funding will still be available.

Secondly, will the Minister allow any pre-registered packages associated with deferred scope areas to remain open through the rest of the procurement process to ensure that the B4RN build programme is not disrupted? How can the Government claim to be levelling up when they are removing the chance for people living in the most rural areas of Cumbria, Lancashire, Northumberland and elsewhere to access hyperfast fibre-optic broadband in their homes?

This is a model that the rest of the country could learn from and emulate. Instead, it appears that Ministers—at least so far—have not been interested in learning from success and instead want to impose failure. That is why I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak today and to plead with the new Minister to listen to B4RN, to local MPs and, more importantly, to our communities, and not to be the Minister responsible for promising Project Gigabit but delivering “Project Pull the Plug”.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing the debate. We are neighbouring MPs and we share very many similar issues, so I very much welcome this debate. What I do not welcome, however, is the hon. Member and his party colleagues starting to put out literature in my constituency, including pieces and photos by him. May I remind him that we share the same issues, but we do not share the same constituency?

Rural connectivity is a huge issue for Penrith and The Border and for rural Cumbria, and it has been brought into sharp relief during the pandemic. 4G coverage in the north-west is around 73%; that needs to be improved. My constituency of Penrith and The Border has some of the hardest-to-reach areas in the whole United Kingdom; 11.6% of households have a speed of less than 10 megabits per second.

I very much welcome the fact that the Government are prioritising Cumbria in the roll-out of the gigabit programme and with the shared rural network. The £5 billion of funding is welcome for the United Kingdom, and I will keep banging the drum for Cumbria to be at the front of the queue for that. The £5 billion shared rural network is very important. We know that sometimes the fibre will not get to every household, so we need to extend 4G coverage to get to some of the hardest-to-reach areas, and I welcome the fact that that is happening in Cumbria as well. The forecast of 4G coverage of 73% will go to 88% with the shared rural network, which I welcome. I also welcome joint funding initiatives across Government through the Borderlands programme, which has earmarked approximately £28 million for the 4-gigabit programme.

I had the great pleasure of welcoming—the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale referred to this—the previous Digital Minister to my constituency, to Mallerstang near Kirkby Stephen, to see the great work of B4RN in connecting households. We had the pleasure of actually connecting up one of the households ourselves.

I am working closely with parish councils, service providers such as B4RN, BDUK—Building Digital UK—the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Connecting Cumbria. I believe that we need to work together to secure these deliveries for our hard-to-reach communities. I very much recognise the anxiety that communities are feeling about this procurement process and the voucher scheme now. I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale about that.

I make a plea to the new Minister not to let this procurement exercise cause anxiety for these communities, but to allow the people who have worked closely with providers such as B4RN to keep the exercise going so that we have continuity and so that these community projects can actually be delivered. There are many, many schemes across Cumbria that are almost over the halfway line, and they need just a bit of extra time and a bit of Government support, so I make the plea to allow the voucher application system to remain open during the procurement process.

It is important that we allow communities to continue to work with providers such as B4RN so that some communities can be moved to the deferred procurement scope, and then we will not pause the process for these households and communities that are desperate to get connected. We can then stop the mad dash to get over the halfway line, and give communities and providers time to get people connected. I make a plea also that, after the procurement process, the providers work together. There is plenty of rural United Kingdom and rural Cumbria to go around. We want people to work together sensibly so that households are not left out, so I make a plea for everyone to work together.

I also make a plea to Opposition politicians: let us all work together; let us not play political football with this. We can work together—central Government, local government and communities pulling together. We all want the same thing: we all want better broadband and better connectivity. We have much more chance if we all work together, with the Government, to secure that aim.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for securing this very important debate and for making what I thought was a compelling speech. I wish today to assure him, for the very same reason: we want to do the right thing for his constituents and for all residents and business owners in rural and hard-to-reach areas. We want to make sure that they are not left high and dry in the nationwide gigabit upgrade.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted that access to high-speed broadband is important for schooling, for businesses and for building communities in more rural areas, and we all understand this from the very difficult past 18 months. I know that that determination is shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) and other colleagues in the Chamber today, including those from the highlands. The Prime Minister promised to end the spinning wheel of doom and he keenly follows the progress we are making to connect the country to lightning fast, reliable gigabit broadband. I will set out some of the progress we have made before I turn to the situation in Cumbria.

Working with Ofcom, we have given the commercial market a long-term framework that supports investment in gigabit broadband. We have reduced the barriers to roll-out, alongside further legislation that will help even more with issues such as wayleaves where we can get the infrastructure laid. We have also introduced active incentives for financial investment. As a result, our plan is working and gigabit-capable broadband is rolling out rapidly. Since January 2019, the UK’s gigabit-capable coverage has increased from 5.8% to nearly 50%, and that is expected to rise to 60% by the end of December. In addition, the Government and major providers’ joint investment of more than £1 billion is filling those gaps in rural 4G coverage.

There is a lot more diversity now in the broadband sector. I appreciate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale’s comments about larger providers, such as Openreach, but our local full fibre networks and rural gigabit connectivity programmes have awarded contracts to multiple operators, many of them smaller providers such as Gigaclear, Airband, Fibrus, Axiom, Quickline, Truespeed, Full Fibre and Wessex Internet. Our gigabit broadband voucher scheme has suppliers actively providing connections to communities in rural areas in every part of the UK.

However, we have to accept—as we do—that the market will not go everywhere, which is why we are backing Project Gigabit with £5 billion so that hard-to-reach communities are not left out. That is how we want to level up and ensure that our rural communities have the same chances and opportunities as our urban towns and cities. We are adding to the half a million rural homes and businesses already covered by Project Gigabit, thanks to our support. Through Project Gigabit, the Government are going to provide support to ensure coverage is available to the final 20% of premises that the market will not reach. That is a considerable undertaking that is going to involve everybody, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border said. It is very important that we work together on that.

As part of Project Gigabit, we are investing more money—up to £210 million over the next three years—in gigabit vouchers. That builds on the success of the previous voucher programme that began in May 2019, which has subsidised the cost to connect more than 88,000 homes and businesses to gigabit-capable broadband so far. Our nationwide task is a lot larger, and if we are going to reach every home and business, the Government have to subsidise broadband networks to around 5 million premises. We have already made great strides with that objective, but we still have the most challenging parts of our four nations to reach. If we are going to get that done quickly, the lion’s share of the work has to be done through Government procurement contracts, working with both local and regional suppliers. I am very pleased to say that Cumbria is scheduled to be the first area to go into the procurement process. Provided that suppliers confirm the proposed project is viable, the procurement will get under way within the next few weeks.

While residents and businesses in Cumbria will be the first to benefit from our programme, it means the county is also at the forefront of our learning and understanding. Far from being cloth-eared, as I know the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has stated in his local paper, I want to reassure him that we are listening hard to people’s concerns and we continue to be open minded about the best approach. I hope this debate is the opening of that conversation, certainly with me in my new role.

My officials have met B4RN several times and examined each project it has put forward in a lot of detail. I am pleased that the chief executive is here today and, in fact, I understand that my officials are going to meet him later today. Not only that; my excellent predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), visited Cumbria last month and met communities in the midst of the broadband build. He also met B4RN and listened to the concerns, and I shall be happy to keep that conversation going.

I cannot stress enough how much the Department admires and applauds B4RN in its unique community-minded approach. As a network provider, it is almost unique in the UK. We do not want to dampen that enthusiasm or that business model. I have come from a position in the Cabinet Office where we were looking at how to transform the UK’s procurement regime now that we have left the European Union. One of our key drivers is looking to get more social value into the money the Government spend, as well as diversifying supply chains and encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises to get involved. I certainly do not want to crowd people out.

Residents involved in every one of B4RN’s projects tirelessly work to drum up support and interest and to persuade landowners to grant permissions to cross their land and so on. That is seriously impressive community work. I welcome that the vouchers have been used to provide coverage to 3,500 premises in Cumbria. I hope that that number will continue to grow, but our task—let us be honest here—is to help in the region of 60,000 premises, so the procurement approach has to do the heavy lifting when it comes to the Project Gigabit programme.

I apologise for interrupting the Minister’s helpful speech. The 60,000 figure is very important, but does she recognise that as things stand, unless she defers the deadline for the voucher scheme on Friday, the communities that I have listed, which I got from B4RN, will be in limbo at the very least? While they could have looked forward to a connection very quickly, over the next year or so, they will now be at best put back several years. Can she not think of a way of doing both: of ensuring that she connects the 60,000 she talks about, while not dumping and pulling the plug on those communities that I just listed?

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern for those communities. We all appreciate the importance of broadband in those places. I think the best thing to do from this juncture is that the meeting between officials and Mr Lee goes ahead, and I ask for an update from that meeting and we talk about the best approach going forward.

My team in Building Digital UK has undertaken extensive work, along with the local authority teams in Cumbria and other areas, to get ready for the first procurements. A detailed consultation has been undertaken with the commercial market to identify the least commercial areas in which to subsidise build. That will ensure that taxpayers’ money is fully focused on levelling up the communities that would otherwise miss out. We know that some suppliers will be able to provide coverage more quickly with vouchers to communities where they are already active with projects. We will therefore accommodate that as far as we can in our approach.

However, not all planned voucher projects get off the ground and result in the intended coverage. It is important to ensure that the procurement process is ready to pick up those areas rather than leave anyone behind. We need to ensure that the existing voucher schemes really are credible. For that reason, we are structuring the procurement so that we do not slow down current voucher projects, while providing a back-up option through procurement so that residents and businesses do not miss out. It is about ensuring that there is a balance between supporting early coverage in areas where there are firm plans using vouchers, while ensuring that communities do not get left out and that we do not have to continually change the premises included in procurement. We need to ensure that those procurements are stable.

I am listening with great interest to what the Minister is saying. It is curious that no Scottish Members are present apart from myself, because the situation in Scotland is very patchy indeed with regard to broadband. May I cast a fly across the Minister? If it could be demonstrated by Her Majesty’s Government that the roll-out of broadband is highly efficient in such areas as Lakeland, would that not be a blow in favour of keeping the United Kingdom united?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important intervention, because the Union is so important to all of us in the Chamber. I want to do what I can in my ministerial role to support the connectivity of all four nations in our country.

As some of us have mentioned, the world is in the middle of a digital revolution and covid has accelerated that process, digitalising almost every part of our everyday lives and making the infrastructure that connects us more important than ever. That is why it is at the top of the Government’s agenda. As I mentioned, I will ask BDUK for an update from the meeting with Mr Lee in the coming days. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale for his very important and compelling speech.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.