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Broadband: Street Cabinets

Volume 740: debated on Monday 22 October 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have so far received about their plan to allow broadband street cabinets to be installed without the prior approval of local planning authorities.

My Lords, the Government wish to roll out the best, superfast broadband of any major European country by 2015 to meet demand and hasten economic growth. Six representations have been received, from English Heritage, MPs’ constituents, a local council and private individuals. English Heritage raised the possible impact on the physical amenity, but wished to contribute supportively. The others had similar concerns and asked about plans to consult, which I can confirm will take place.

My Lords, will the Government think again about allowing broadband providers to install their bulky and intrusive equipment wherever they decide is convenient for them without a requirement for planning permission or even for local consultation? While no one wishes to thwart the distribution of superfast broadband, can we not handle this in a civilised way and in a spirit of genuine localism? Should not the claims of amenity and quality of the built environment be weighed alongside the claims of economic development and adjudicated through the local planning system, as has long been the practice in our country?

I can understand the noble Lord's concerns. However, the changes to the formal planning process do not mean that broadband providers have carte blanche to install street cabinets or poles wherever or whenever it suits them. They must still notify planning authorities of their siting plans and consider requests for changes to be made. In exceptional circumstances, planning authorities can remove permitted rights to develop by using an Article 4 direction. The main broadband suppliers have agreed to develop a code of practice with DCMS whereby the siting of cabinets must have regard to proximity to any existing street furniture, minimising the visual impact and of course ensuring optimum safety on the streets. Sensitivity to locals is the byword, with planning and assessment made in advance.

For the benefit of the whole House, for those who do not know, is the broadband cabinet the equivalent of a walk-in telephone box or is it, as I understood from the supplementary question, a container for equipment? If it is a container, what size of object are we speaking about?

To pick up the last question, the new cabinets will be 1.6 metres high and 1.2 metres wide. They will be green and will be taller and deeper than the models currently being used on the street. They are not as such designed, having perfunctory casings, but they will blend in where possible.

My Lords, getting the planning regime right for street cabinets is clearly important, but does my noble friend agree that it is also vital that if we are to get investment and competition in broadband, particularly in rural areas, there are open standards and open access to these cabinets for service providers, as recommended by the Lords Communications Committee?

I very much agree with my noble friend. It gives me the opportunity to explain the benefits of superfast broadband. There are many statistics that are extremely positive. For example, a 10% increase in broadband household coverage boosts the economy from between 0.1% and 1.4% of GDP. It also allows firms to develop and adopt more productive and efficient ways of working. It is also a great boost to home-workers who, while being based at home, will spend and circulate money more locally.

My Lords, what steps have been taken to ensure that the design of these cabinets will be the best possible? Is there scope for running a competition?

I do not believe there is scope for running a competition because so many of these street cabinets are being rolled out. However, I again reassure the House that the cabinets will be and must be sensitively sited. Although they are on the large side—I have already mentioned the camouflaging—in some cases there will be overhead cabling, some of which, instead of going into the street cabinets, can be placed inside church steeples, which is a good use for churches.

My Lords, as my noble friend has described the cabinets as being quite small in size rather than bulky and intrusive, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, would have it, should we congratulate the manufacturers on producing something that can be placed so discreetly?

I thank my noble friend. There is every hope that the cabinets will be discreetly sited and will not impact on localities too much.

My Lords, does the noble Viscount accept that, however discreetly they are sited, they seem to be an open invitation to every bill poster who passes them?

I am not aware of that. I am sure that occasionally there may unfortunately be graffiti or otherwise, but let us hope not. We need to find ways around that.

My Lords, does the noble Viscount recognise the importance of siting these cabinets sensitively not just from an aesthetic point of view but from the point of view of those who want to walk in safety on the pavement? It is important to be aware of the potential hazard that cabinets like these can cause to blind people and others who want to walk safely on the pavement.

The noble Lord makes an extremely good point. I know that DCMS officials have already had discussions with Ofcom, BT and Virgin Media regarding a proposed code of practice that includes ensuring that these cabinets are placed in positions of safety on the streets and so, for example, not on street corners or on narrow streets. That will allow individuals, including disabled people, to pass by.

My Lords, I am low on the learning curve. How many of these cabinets per square mile will there be once the project is fully rolled out? I have to say that I was not worried about them at the start of this Question, but I am becoming more and more worried.

I would like to reassure the noble Lord that, although it is difficult to describe precisely where they will be, they will be positioned where they need to be positioned around the UK. I would also like to reassure the noble Lord that they will not be on every street corner. They will be sited very discreetly on occasional streets.