Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): There are 21 Bills in the Queen’s Speech, and I could talk quite a lot about most of them, but I want to focus predominantly on the digital economy Bill. The announcement of that Bill will resonate in my constituency, because it creates the right for every household to have access to a high-speed broadband facility. I represent a very rural area, where people will be watching this with interest.
We use the phrase “a digital economy”. It is a nice slogan and a nice catchphrase, but in a world that is more reliant on the internet and mobile communication—as I look around the Chamber, I see that many colleagues have their iPads and their mobiles with them, and we are all using the internet—I argue that there is no other form of economy. Without the internet, we will struggle, and it is the rural economy in the High Peak that I am concerned about.
When we came into office six years ago, only 45% of the country had access to superfast broadband. To date, we have provided superfast broadband to 90% of the UK—an extra 4 million homes and businesses. By the end of next year, we will have reached 95%. That is the result of a huge investment by the Government, local councils, devolved Administrations and BT, which totals some £1.7 billion. That is no mean achievement. However, we cannot stop there; we need to continue working to connect significantly rural areas such as the High Peak. The progress made since 2010 is welcome, but the rurality of the High Peak makes it crucial that we continue to drive this forward. We cannot rest on our laurels thinking, “Aren’t we clever?” and congratulating ourselves on a job well done.
There are many advantages to living and working in the countryside, and particularly in the High Peak. We have fabulous countryside, outdoor pursuits, clear air and breathtaking scenery. The area could be called the playground of England. However, there are challenges, and some might say that there is a price to pay for all those benefits. Things that many urban areas take for granted are not as readily available in rural areas. When I was elected to this place six years ago, I was struck by the fact that when I leave the flat to come to work, there is a bus every five or six minutes. In rural areas, we get one every half hour or every hour.
Some things are very different in rural areas, and fast, efficient broadband is one of those things. It is crucial to a successful business. No matter how beautiful the surroundings, how breathtaking the scenery or how clear the air, if a business cannot operate profitably and successfully, all those wonderful things pale into insignificance. Rural areas such as mine need businesses. We need them to be successful, so that they can create jobs and support the local economy. We have a fantastic tourism industry, but in the winter we need other businesses to support our local economy.
Although we have made great strides in rolling out faster, better broadband, the last 5% that we talk about is just as important as the first. A new broadband universal service obligation that gives all citizens and businesses the legal right to a fast broadband connection is something that I would welcome with open arms. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) mentioned it. He used to work for BT, so he will have greater knowledge of this than I do, but I agree with everything he said.
I have said in this Chamber and elsewhere on many occasions that, in my view, broadband is now the fourth utility. Many years ago, we had a small business based in my home village of Chapel-en-le-Frith. In those days, we used to advertise in the Manchester Evening News and the Exchange and Mart, and the phone number was the main thing that people looked for. The phone number at the time started with 0298—it was before the 1 was put in—and we moved the business to Greater Manchester, which was only a few miles down the road, to get the 061 area code so that people would see the phone number and think, “Ah, that’s Manchester.” Somebody in, say, Bolton would look at it and think, “They are just down the road,” although actually we were not that close. Those were the sorts of decisions that people made then; that was in 1982.
Things have changed hugely since then—as, I suspect, have most of us. Businesses that want to start up or relocate look for different things, but one of the first things that they consider nowadays is the availability and speed of internet access. Existing businesses have also contacted me to express their concerns about broadband provision. This is about not just attracting new investment and new businesses to rural areas, but retaining the businesses that we already have.
There is an industrial estate in Buxton, in my constituency, called Tongue Lane. Several companies trade on the estate, employing many local people between them. I want to touch on two briefly. Bells Shoes exports hundreds of pairs of shoes around the world. Over the years, it has grown from a high street retailer—it is well known on the high street in Buxton, in Spring Gardens—to a significant exporter of shoes across the world. It is a testament to its commitment to the area that it has remained in Buxton.
Otter Controls—everybody in this room probably uses one of its products—makes thermostats. It was started after the second world war, when the founder of the company devised the bimetal strip to enable the temperature to be controlled in electrically heated flying suits for the Royal Air Force. That, in itself, is a fantastic story, but we are time-limited today, so I cannot go into it. The company operates on Tongue Lane industrial estate and employs many local people.
Both companies, and others on the estate, have contacted me recently about the inadequate broadband provision. The estate was not originally included in the Digital Derbyshire scheme, but because of savings and advances in technology, it now will be. That is good news, not only for the companies but for the many local people that they employ. As both companies are significant exporters, it is also good news for UK plc.
There will be a discussion about what is termed “fast”: how fast will it be, will it be fast enough and can it be made faster? The initial commitment, as part of the universal service obligation, is 10 megabits per second, but we need to be sure that that is future-proofed. As more and more services are provided online as time progresses, it must be possible to speed it up. I am sure that those finer details will be explored during proceedings on the Bill. I welcome the fact that Ofcom will be given the power to review the speed to ensure that it remains sufficient for the needs of the day.
We need to ensure that that commitment is matched by delivery. The last 5% will be, by its nature, the most difficult. It will be a challenge, and it will not be easy, but if we give people the legal right to such broadband, we have to be able to deliver it. What is more, it must be available at an affordable and competitive rate. I recently met BT and Digital Derbyshire in the village of Chinley, where a new fibre-enabled cabinet has been fitted. That is a welcome move, but there are still areas of the village of Chinley that will not be served by the cabinet. In other areas of the High Peak, Councillor Sarah Helliwell, who was newly elected last year, is already dealing with requests from her residents in the Hope valley who are desperate for faster broadband. Other constituents of mine, such as Andy Byford and Steve Otty, who has corresponded directly with the Minister, are eager for a faster, better and more viable internet connection. Although we are getting better and faster connections in the High Peak, they are by no means universal. The coverage is still varied and patchy. The word that has been used is “universal”, and the coverage must be just that. As I have said, to achieve that will be difficult, challenging and, in places, expensive. I stress again that as well as being universal, it must be affordable.
I have great confidence in the ability of the Minister and the Government to deliver this huge commitment. I look forward to the day when I can tell prospective businesses that I am trying to attract to the High Peak that we can offer them fast, effective broadband that is suitable for their needs. I look forward to being able to say to High Peak residents who tell me that they want faster broadband that they, too, can receive a broadband service that lives up to their expectations and requirements, no matter where they are.
There is much else to talk about in the Queen’s Speech, but I will leave it there on the digital economy Bill, because other colleagues want to speak and I am conscious of the time. I congratulate the Government on the measure and I look forward to its being delivered as quickly and efficiently as possible.