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Rural Broadband

Volume 723: debated on Thursday 1 December 2022

We are investing £5 billion through Project Gigabit to deliver lightning-fast, reliable broadband to hard-to-reach areas across the UK, and we are making great progress, having already launched procurements with a value of £780 million. Today, we announced the award of a new £108-million contract to connect up to 60,000 homes and businesses across Cumbria with the fastest broadband speeds. We are also boosting our voucher scheme: we have increased the value of the vouchers so that people can apply for as much as £4,500 towards the cost of installing gigabit-capable broadband in rural and particularly hard-to-reach areas.

I assure the Minister that the people of Nether Wallop, Over Wallop and Barton Stacey do not feel that Project Gigabit is delivering for them. They have seen changed criteria; an inability to split postcodes, which is difficult when they are on a county boundary; delays in the processing of their applications; and then being told that they will not be able to reapply until 2023, because the project will still not be procured for those areas. They want answers and delivery, not the news that the project is delivering in Cumbria.

I thank my right hon. Friend, although I cannot agree with her on the importance of Cumbria, which is one of the hardest to reach areas of our country. That we are taking that area as one of our first shows just how much we care about narrowing the digital divide. More than 95% of premises in my right hon. Friend’s constituency now have superfast broadband, which is up 55% over the past 12 years. During the same period, gigabit-capable coverage has risen from 0% to 71% in her constituency. I appreciate that particular villages and parts of people’s constituencies do not have the coverage they need, and that is why we are significantly boosting the voucher scheme. We have launched two of our procurements in areas that cover my right hon. Friend’s constituency in Hampshire. I also host regular Building Digital UK drop-ins for colleagues—I hosted one yesterday—and if she would like to come along and speak directly to BDUK officials, we shall look into the villages affected.

Everyone loves Cumbria, but some of us love Lancashire even more. Residents of Station Road in Singleton have experienced repeated delays to the installation of fibre broadband, with the project unlikely to be completed before 2026. In Lancashire the awarding of installation contracts for Project Gigabit is still a year away, and the voucher scheme remains suspended. While some rural areas enjoy great connectivity, many on the margins of commercial viability, such as Station Road, do not. How can we prevent our rural communities, especially those in Lancashire, from falling ever further into a digital divide?

I am sorry to hear about the challenges in Singleton, and I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend’s constituents. He is right to highlight the digital divide, which we are ruthlessly focusing on closing. We will shortly reopen the voucher scheme across Lancashire. We have increased the value of vouchers, and we are assessing alternative procurement approaches to Lancashire. My hon. Friend should please engage with BDUK, which I would be happy to put in touch with him.

I am pleased for Cumbria, Mr Speaker, but just 10% of Blaenau Gwent has access to gigabit broadband, compared with a 72% UK average. The swift roll-out of Project Gigabit will be essential for levelling up across our local economy, so will the Minister please ensure that areas with the least coverage, such as Blaenau Gwent, are prioritised first?

As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, the Welsh Government lead on that procurement in his constituency. We work closely with them, to support them in trying to accelerate the work they are doing, but I am happy to look into his particular circumstances. It was wonderful to visit south Wales last week, and I thank him for the work he does with the film, television and screen industries, which I also represent as a Minister.

The Welsh are never knowingly undersold—two for the price of one.

Let me plead with the Minister: as she knows, communities along the M4 corridor still do not have the superfast broadband roll-out. That is not to do with delivery; it is about the companies saying that they are unable to install on streets within three miles of the M4 motorway. I have raised with the Minister many times, from the Dispatch Box and the Back Benches, the fact that communities in my Ogmore constituency have some of the lowest speeds in the whole UK. I ask her to raise this issue again with the installers to get it fixed, and ensure that my communities have far better broadband connectivity.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his work in this area in his previous role. I would be grateful if he could write to me about the specific companies that are causing challenges in his area, particularly in relation to the M4 motorway, which I would be happy to look into.