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Superfast Broadband

June 24, 2015

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) on securing the debate. I suspect he will not speak to such a full Chamber for much of his first term in Parliament. The attendance today reflects the importance attached to this issue by all hon. Members.

It may not have escaped my hon. Friend’s notice that I do not have the most rural of constituencies, but there are also significant issues with superfast broadband in urban areas. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) is well aware of that, as it is something we addressed in the last Parliament.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab): I believe that I know what the right hon. Gentleman is going to say. In advance of his speech, may I say that, despite the fact that he sits on the Government side of the Chamber, I am likely to agree with everything he says on behalf of my constituents in Islington South and, in particular, Tech City?

Mark Pritchard (in the Chair): Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman continues, I will just remind the hon. Lady that she has only just arrived in the Chamber, so did not hear my earlier comments about the number of interventions and their brevity. I hope next time she will arrive a little earlier in order to hear the Chair’s remarks.

Emily Thornberry: I hope that my intervention was short enough, Mr Pritchard.

Mark Field: London councils will have a chance to have their say as well. I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words. She tempts me to start a different speech—there are various things I should love to say today if she is going to be agreeing with every word.

One of the most significant delays in connecting a business or resident to broadband infrastructure, even in the heart of London, is the time taken to negotiate the legal permissions that are needed to allow that infrastructure to cross the public highway or to take it into a building. That is particularly the case in built-up areas. It can take some 18 months for the parties to conclude those negotiations; the usual period is about eight months. During that time, of course, a broadband provider will not be able to supply the building.

To speed up the entire process, the City of London corporation is leading a group of central London boroughs—including Islington and Hackney—known as Central London Forward in a project to produce a standardised agreement for permission to install broadband infrastructure. I am pleased to say that Westminster City Council, my other local authority, is also a main leader on the project. The City and Westminster councils have invited all the key players to participate, from broadband providers through the great estates in the west end to major developers across London.

The product of all that activity will be a standardised agreement known as a wayleave, which all parties will be able to use as a template for their negotiations. I have no doubt that such a standardised agreement will speed up connections to broadband infrastructure, because parties will not have to start their negotiations from scratch. The Minister has played a leading role in the process, and I thank him for helping to contact the key parties and for championing activities to improve broadband connectivity.

Although the Minister can happily say that Greater London compares favourably with other world cities, with an overall 88% level of coverage, that figure is not reflected in what is the economic heart of the capital, and indeed the country. It is not just my constituents who are missing out but the entire UK economy, and he will appreciate just how important it is that digital infrastructure in central London does not fall behind that of rival global cities.

Locally, BT’s approach seems to be based on a belief that there is insufficient demand to invest further. I share some of the concerns that have already been raised about that. As well as the more distant rural parts of this United Kingdom, large swathes of urban areas—with important small and medium-sized enterprises—are poorly served, and are restricted to woefully outdated copper broadband. In addition, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) said, the European Commission is preventing the Government from subsidising the rollout of superfast broadband in inner cities and beyond. Perversely, that means that remote villages sometimes have better broadband connections than those available in my constituency, which contains the political, business, cultural and technological heart of the UK.

There has been a significant market failure. I may not express this quite as robustly as it was put earlier, but I will be interested to learn what the Minister is doing to address the problem. I accept that it requires co-operation with internet service providers, Ofcom and the European Commission, but it is time we stepped up to the plate. Although I hope we will not have such a well-attended debate in future, simply because I hope many of the problems will have been solved, I look forward to hearing the contributions of hon. Members from both sides of the House today. It is beholden on the Minister to recognise that this is a very real problem, not just for outlying rural areas but for the heart of our cities.