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Superfast Broadband: North East Hertfordshire

Volume 635: debated on Thursday 8 February 2018

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Amanda Milling.)

I asked for this debate to enlist the Minister’s help in getting North East Hertfordshire up to speed with superfast broadband. My constituency contains towns such as Letchworth and Royston, which already have good broadband speeds, but there are also many small rural hamlets that do not yet have superfast broadband.

North East Hertfordshire is, geographically, by far the largest constituency in Hertfordshire, yet we have a far lower level of superfast broadband coverage than other parts of the county. I ask the Minister to help me push coverage in my constituency up to the Hertfordshire average of 95% this year, and then to complete the job of reaching the target of close to 99% in 2019.

I have been pressing hard on this, and in the last year, according to the House of Commons Library, coverage in my constituency has gone up from 67% to 77%, but that is far from good enough. We need sustained efforts from Ministers, Openreach and Hertfordshire County Council’s delivery organisation, Connected Counties, to push the figure higher and quicker.

In the last few months I have discussed this matter personally with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; the managing director of Openreach, Mr Steve Haines; and the previous and present leaders of Hertfordshire County Council, the late Rob Gordon and David Williams.

Long ago it was agreed by the Government and this House that the Government would have to fund the roll-out of superfast broadband in non-commercially viable areas such as my local hamlets. Indeed, I was one of the MPs who persuaded the Government that they had to be involved. I remember lobbying Secretaries of State, including my right hon. Friends the Members for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt) and for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), for such funding and being pleased with their recognition, in successive phases, of the strong case for such coverage being essential infrastructure akin to other utilities. Money was made available.

Despite my part in securing that funding, it has been disappointing and frustrating to watch the lack of progress in connecting up my rural areas. Although successive Ministers have assured me that the county as a whole has achieved first 92% and then 95% coverage, it has only recently been acknowledged that the coverage in my area has edged up at a snail’s pace to the current 84%. It is galling for my constituents to learn that ultrafast broadband is being piloted in Bishop’s Stortford when they are languishing with no coverage or with a few crumbs, such as 0.8 megabits per second. To give an example, 61% of the village of Little Hadham, which is three miles from Bishop’s Stortford, is receiving under 10 megabits per second.

It should not be forgotten that this is not a remote area. Some of the places with the worst coverage, such as those in the Hertford Rural South ward, are less than 20 miles from London. Many people now work from home for some of the week, which is encouraged for London workers to take the strain off the transport system. My constituents, particularly those with caring responsibilities, would like the opportunity to work from home, but they cannot do it without broadband.

There is also a high number of small businesses in those areas, many encouraged by the offer of office space in former farm buildings. Diversification on farms is encouraged by our local councils and by the Government. To give another example, the villages of Weston and Sandon lie close to Stevenage. Stevenage has download speeds of close to 70 megabits per second, whereas 83% of Weston and Sandon is unable even to receive 10 megabits per second.

I am grateful to the Which? organisation for pointing out to me that recent data from Ofcom showed that the average download speed in North East Hertfordshire is 47.8 megabits per second, whereas neighbouring constituencies are at the 60 megabits per second mark. However, Which? analysis of speed tests found that the median download speed in North East Hertfordshire is only 13.9 megabits per second and a quarter of speeds recorded were less than 6.8 Mbps.

I would like to offer the Minister my analysis of the problems in the roll-out process. Connected Counties has operated with Openreach to identify areas that might not be commercially viable, with Connected Counties then offering Openreach subsidy to do the works. When take-up turns out after all to be commercially viable, Openreach returns the subsidy to Connected Counties and it can be used for less commercially viable areas. I am told this return of subsidy has happened in about 50% of cases. It seems to me that it clearly demonstrates that the subsidy has been used for many areas that are in fact commercially viable, meaning that less viable areas have had their roll-out delayed. This overcautious assessment of commercial risk has meant that those like me who pressed for subsidy for areas that are not commercially viable, such as the North East Hertfordshire hamlets, have seen it delayed and been disappointed.

Have Ministers met the chief executive of Openreach, Clive Selley, and the chief finance officer Matt Davies to discuss this and tighten up assessment procedures? Since my latest push on speeding up broadband roll-out, further progress has been made, and it has continued since the last House of Commons Library information became available. The leader of the county council has told me this week that the latest assessment puts coverage in my constituency at 84%, but it is all by fibre to the cabinet, rather than the fibre to the premises that is needed in many small hamlets.

I was staying with friends this weekend in a very rural location in deepest Suffolk and was surprised to learn that they have fibre to the premises with high speeds, when my constituents 20 miles from London have none. I have already taken up with Ministers, Openreach and Hertfordshire County Council the particular case of Wellpond Green and Westland Green, near Standon, whose residents petitioned the House about their situation. In early 2016, many residents signed up with Gigaclear, a competitor of Openreach, for superfast broadband to be installed by March 2017. In about June 2016, Connected Counties, along with Openreach, announced that it was to install superfast broadband in those hamlets by March 2017. The effect was that many residents withdrew from Gigaclear, which decided not to go ahead.

Then in January 2017, to the anger and dismay of residents, Openreach announced that the roll-out had to be re-mapped, and in June 2017 a timetable of 2018-19 was given for superfast broadband. That caused understandable outrage, as the residents had only decided not to proceed with Gigaclear because Openreach had offered the same timetable of March 2017.

I have discussed that unacceptable situation with all those involved and was pleased that Steve Haines of Openreach agreed to bring forward the start of works in the hamlets to June 2018, but the Minister should be aware of the great unhappiness locally with what has happened. Anything she can do to encourage Openreach to bring forward the works even further would be very helpful.

I recognise that the national roll-out is an enormous undertaking with a limited number of providers in the field. Nationally, a great deal has been achieved. However, the subsidy for which I campaigned was designed to ensure that areas that were not commercially viable were connected up. In the past year we have seen coverage in my constituency driven up from 67% to the current 84%, up 17%, but I want to see us hit the county average before the end of 2018 and the national target as soon after that as possible. In this day and age, people living in rural locations near London expect superfast broadband, and it is in the Government’s interest to achieve it. I hope the Minister will ask Openreach, Connected Counties and Hertfordshire County Council to do all they can to ensure that North East Hertfordshire comes up to speed this year and that the unfairness for Wellpond and Westland Greens is addressed now.

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald) for securing this debate and for his extremely well-informed speech, from which I learned a great deal and which I shall read again after the debate. He has clearly been involved in this issue for a long time and has outstanding knowledge of the problems. This debate gives me the opportunity to update the House on the Government’s plans and progress towards ensuring universal high-speed broadband.

Broadband connectivity is crucial, even more so in rural communities throughout the UK than in our urban centres. The Government and local partners are investing £1.7 billion in the superfast broadband programme. The programme has provided superfast coverage with speeds of more than 24 megabits per second for more than 4.75 million premises in areas that otherwise would not have been covered by a commercially funded roll-out. Some 95% of homes and businesses in the UK can now access superfast broadband, up from 45% in 2010. As a result of efficiency savings in the initial roll-out, at least £210 million of funding will be available to support further investment. Because of the high levels of take-up, we will also have gainshare funding from the additional profits from the network, projected to reach at least £527 million. That means that a total of £737 million will be available to support further roll-out.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire will recognise that improvements have been achieved in his constituency over the past few years, and he quoted some figures. Since the beginning of last year, superfast coverage in his constituency has increased from 71% to 84%, while 92% of premises have speeds of 10 Mbps or above. The Connected Counties project, to which my right hon. and learned Friend referred, is delivering across both Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and has to date provided superfast broadband access to more than 71,000 premises that otherwise would have been left behind. That equates to more than 96% superfast coverage across Hertfordshire. Additionally, 23,000 premises are still to be covered through the project’s current roll-out plans.

Beyond the scope of the Connected Counties project, Hertfordshire County Council is progressing the option of a new procurement exercise. I understand that the council has already undertaken an open market review to understand the latest commercial plans in the county. That is evidence of the council’s commitment to ensuring that areas are not left behind.

I recognise that the communities that have not yet got coverage—my right hon. and learned Friend referred to some of them—will feel left out. In the case of Hertfordshire, the local authority has managed the current delivery contract with BT to maximise coverage to as many premises as possible, as quickly as possible. That can sometimes leave gaps on the ground where some areas are covered and adjacent areas are not, as my right hon. and learned Friend outlined in his speech. However, the alternative would have been to prioritise some communities over others during the roll-out, which would have been less efficient and would have involved the local authority in making invidious choices to determine which communities should get covered first. In that context, the approach taken by Hertfordshire County Council seems reasonable. Broadband Delivery UK has managed the programme effectively. Very few major infrastructure projects achieve their delivery target on schedule and with so much funding being returned.

I recognise the need to ensure that new housing has superfast coverage. Openreach has committed that all new build developments with at least 30 properties will have fibre to the premises. That will ensure that almost all new housing has full fibre access. We are also continuing to focus very much on the remaining 5% of premises that do not yet have superfast access. Across the UK as a whole, we are confident that at least half the remaining premises will get that superfast coverage through the continued roll-out.

However, even with this further delivery, some premises will remain without the superfast broadband that they need. We are therefore working hard on our commitment to ensure universal high-speed broadband of at least 10 Mbps by 2020. We will shortly set out the design for a legal right to high-speed broadband in secondary legislation, alongside our detailed response to the consultation. Ofcom’s implementation is expected to take two years from when we lay secondary legislation, meeting the Government’s commitment of giving everyone access to high-speed broadband by 2020.

In the meantime, the Better Broadband Scheme is available for any home or business with speeds below 2 Mbps. This provides a subsidy of up to £350 for any eligible premises for satellite broadband or, where available, other solutions including fixed 4G, fixed wireless, or community fibre projects. This scheme has now supported more than 13,000 homes and businesses.

Communities that currently do not have superfast broadband can also consider the option of undertaking their own community project. Community projects can either be completely self-managed and delivered, or can involve communities co-funding with providers such as BT, via the community fibre partnerships scheme. Our focus until now has been on extending superfast broadband coverage, but we also need to move to ensure a transformation in the UK’s digital infrastructure, so that it is based on fibre, or full fibre, to the premises. Currently, only 3% of premises have a fibre-optic connection. We accept that that is not good enough. We have a target of at least 10 million premises having a full fibre connection by 2022. Recent industry announcements show that that is achievable.

In answer to my right hon. and learned Friend’s question, I have met Clive Selley, the chief executive of BT Openreach. When I next meet him, I will raise with him the debacle that my right hon. and learned Friend described when residents turned down the offer from Gigaclear on the basis that BT Openreach was apparently going to deliver on their needs in a timely manner, only for them to be let down. I do take that to heart; the residents must be deeply frustrated and upset by that, and I will raise it with Mr Selley when I next meet him.

Virgin Media, KCOM, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear and others all have plans for significant new fibre coverage. Last week, Openreach announced its plan to reach 3 million premises by 2020 and its proposals to get to 10 million by 2025 if the conditions are right. I was very pleased to hear today the TalkTalk announcement that it will reduce its dividend in order to connect 3 million new premises with full fibre. I congratulate the board of TalkTalk on that decision.

The Government have a number of measures to support full fibre roll-out. The Government’s local full fibre networks programme has six wave 1 projects under way and bids for wave 2 were received on 26 January. We expect to announce the successful wave 2 projects in March and, in line with our manifesto commitment, we will also make full fibre connection vouchers available for companies across the country in 2018.

The digital infrastructure investment fund is now in place with Amber Fund Management Ltd and M&G Investments to provide £400 million of investment capital, alongside private capital, for new expanding providers of fibre broadband. Our barrier-busting taskforce is also now established and tackling the barriers to fibre roll-out across the UK. We are also introducing a five-year relief from business rates in England for new fibre infrastructure.

We are therefore making good progress in providing rural broadband coverage, but we recognise that we need to finish the job and it is our intention to do that fully. We will also be pushing hard on full fibre coverage. I welcome the continued interest and support from the Members of this House, and their expertise—particularly that of my right hon. and learned Friend—as I continue to drive this work and ensure that we deliver against our goals.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.