Putting the cat amongst the pigeons – ie raising the extent to which country folk are subsidised by the rest of us

At today’s Lords’ Question Time, I am afraid that a spirit of devilment got the better of me.  There was a question on the progress being made towards delivering broadband to rural communities.  I should make it clear that I am a great supporter of the Government’s proposals to ensure that all citizens have access to broadband services.  However, the automatic sense of entitlement that was being expressed on behalf of rural interests finally got the better of me, so I intervened to ask:

“My Lords, can we be assured that, given the extraordinary extent to which city dwellers already subsidise those who live in rural communities, this will not be another example where urban dwellers will be taxed, or have to pay more, so as to subsidise the often very pleasant lifestyles of those who live in rural communities?

In essence, the answer was that this would indeed be yet another subsidy that everyone else would pay for by the 50p levy on fixed line telephony.  This will go with the subsidy to ensure that all rural households can get digital TV, the subsidy that maintains less well-used roads in rural areas, and, of course, the many subsidies paid to farmers.

This was regarded as being rather “controversial”, but an interesting number of Peers from all parts of the country came up to me afterwards and congratulated me for raising the “elephant in the room” …..

The full series of exchanges were as follows:

Internet: Broadband

Question

2.52 pm

Asked By Baroness Byford

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress is being made towards delivering broadband to rural communities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Davies of Oldham): My Lords, the Digital Britain White Paper outlined the Government’s universal service commitment for broadband at a speed of 2 megabits per second to virtually every community in the UK by 2012. The paper also outlined plans for a next generation fund, to help to deliver next generation broadband to at least 90 per cent of homes and businesses by 2017. The Network Design and Procurement Company will be responsible for the delivery on behalf of the Government.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that response, I understand that Ofgem does not have powers to compel internet service providers to provide broadband in rural areas, which has resulted in some 166,000 people having no internet at all and more than 2 million having inadequate service provision. How will the broadband be delivered in these circumstances, particularly with regard to the proposed new megabyte speeds of 24, 40 and 100? Will this not be more focused on urban areas, leaving rural areas out in the cold?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Ofgem cannot command to be done what cannot be done technically. The noble Baroness is right to identify that a percentage of our households cannot receive the requisite signal. We are addressing that. Under the universal service commitment, which we have been following since the summer, we are committed to ensuring that all households have access to the basic service of 2 megabits per second. The second, longer-term project concerning vastly improved speeds, to which the noble Baroness referred, depends partly on market conditions and provision by private companies, but the Government are also taking steps to ensure that we universalise that service in due course as far as we are able to do so.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, with more and more people in rural communities working from home and the increasing trend to media-rich content, the requirement for broadband speeds is more in the region of 50 to 100 megabits per second? What assurances can the Government give that rural communities will move to these speeds in the future?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is exactly the objective of the next generation access. It is clear that we will not be serving our communities, nor will we be remaining competitive with other countries, if we do not guarantee that next generation broadband is more universally available than it is at present. Certainly, there is provision of broadband at present from, for instance, Virgin, while BT is also interested in spreading its reach in these terms. However, the Government are concerned about that reach and I am grateful to the noble Lord for emphasising how important it is.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, the problem of lack of access to broadband is compounded for those rural communities that have poor analogue TV, no digital TV and often, at best, limited mobile phone connectivity. Do the Government have any plans to provide suitable grant aid to enable local rural communities to develop their own broadband, where it is clearly not commercially viable to provide that through the telecoms company? If there are no plans, will they consider that as part of implementing Digital Britain?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, far from there being no plans, there is a major government commitment to meeting the exact objective that the right reverend Prelate has indicated. We are going to use funds from the digital switchover—£175 million—to guarantee that we reach those areas that have not got digital television at present; the development of broadband goes along with that. The Government have identified the funds that will be made available. We have not the slightest doubt that that is merely objective No. 1. The right reverend Prelate will recognise that we are spreading digital television across the whole of the UK in the next four years.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, can we be assured that, given the extraordinary extent to which city dwellers already subsidise those who live in rural communities, this will not be another example where urban dwellers will be taxed, or have to pay more, so as to subsidise the often very pleasant lifestyles of those who live in rural communities?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that may be regarded as a somewhat provocative question in some quarters. I merely emphasise to my noble friend that we are intending to guarantee that these services are available across the whole country, because they are essential to our future economic and social success. That is why there will be a tax on telephone users of 50p per month for a line—we are not talking about an excessive amount—to subsidise and help to spread the opportunities across the whole country, in circumstances where we could not possibly have parts of our communities having no access at all to these services.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am tempted to invite the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to come with me to visit some of my upland sheep farmer friends, who do not exactly have a luxurious lifestyle. Back in July, Defra announced that money from the European economic recovery plan, which rural development agencies would use as part of the rural development programme, would help to fill some of the holes in broadband provision, not least for my upland sheep farmer friends and for people in places like that. What is the mechanism by which this money will be used and what will it be used for?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are of course grateful for resources from wherever they emerge, but the noble Lord will be all too well aware that £2.5 million from Europe is a flea bite in relation to the total issues to be addressed. While it is welcome and is directed towards particular areas, the context of this question is universal access. That is a massive project and we have given clear indications since the summer of how we intend to tackle it. It can be fulfilled only by a long-term commitment to the objectives that I have identified.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, if noble Lords asked shorter questions and gave shorter responses, we would have time for more questions. We are in the 24th minute.”

Provocative – me?

Internet: Broadband

Question

Back to top

2.52 pm

Asked By Baroness Byford

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress is being made towards delivering broadband to rural communities.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Davies of Oldham): My Lords, the Digital Britain White Paper outlined the Government’s universal service commitment for broadband at a speed of 2 megabits per second to virtually every community in the UK by 2012. The paper also outlined plans for a next generation fund, to help to deliver next generation broadband to at least 90 per cent of homes and businesses by 2017. The Network Design and Procurement Company will be responsible for the delivery on behalf of the Government.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, while thanking the Minister for that response, I understand that Ofgem does not have powers to compel internet service providers to provide broadband in rural areas, which has resulted in some 166,000 people having no internet at all and more than 2 million having inadequate service provision. How will the broadband be delivered in these circumstances, particularly with regard to the proposed new megabyte speeds of 24, 40 and 100? Will this not be more focused on urban areas, leaving rural areas out in the cold?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, Ofgem cannot command to be done what cannot be done technically. The noble Baroness is right to identify that a percentage of our households cannot receive the requisite signal. We are addressing that. Under the universal service commitment, which we have been following since the summer, we are committed to ensuring that all households have access to the basic service of 2 megabits per second. The second, longer-term project concerning vastly improved speeds, to which the noble Baroness referred, depends partly on market conditions and provision by private companies, but the Government are also taking steps to ensure that we universalise that service in due course as far as we are able to do so.

Lord St John of Bletso: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, with more and more people in rural communities working from home and the increasing trend to media-rich content, the requirement for broadband speeds is more in the region of 50 to 100 megabits per second? What assurances can the Government give that rural communities will move to these speeds in the future?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is exactly the objective of the next generation access. It is clear that we will not be serving our communities, nor will we be remaining competitive with other countries, if we do not guarantee that next generation broadband is more universally available than it is at present. Certainly, there is provision of broadband at present from, for instance, Virgin, while BT is also interested in spreading its reach in these terms. However, the Government are concerned about that reach and I am grateful to the noble Lord for emphasising how important it is.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter: My Lords, the problem of lack of access to broadband is compounded for those rural communities that have poor analogue TV, no digital TV and often, at best, limited mobile phone connectivity. Do the Government have any plans to provide suitable grant aid to enable local rural communities to develop their own broadband, where it is clearly not commercially viable to provide that through the telecoms company? If there are no plans, will they consider that as part of implementing Digital Britain?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, far from there being no plans, there is a major government commitment to meeting the exact objective that the right reverend Prelate has indicated. We are going to use funds from the digital switchover—£175 million—to guarantee that we reach those areas that have not got digital television at present; the development of broadband goes along with that. The Government have identified the funds that will be made available. We have not the slightest doubt that that is merely objective No. 1. The right reverend Prelate will recognise that we are spreading digital television across the whole of the UK in the next four years.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, can we be assured that, given the extraordinary extent to which city dwellers already subsidise those who live in rural communities, this will not be another example where urban dwellers will be taxed, or have to pay more, so as to subsidise the often very pleasant lifestyles of those who live in rural communities?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that may be regarded as a somewhat provocative question in some quarters. I merely emphasise to my noble friend that we are intending to guarantee that these services are available across the whole country, because they are essential to our future economic and social success. That is why there will be a tax on telephone users of 50p per month for a line—we are not talking about an excessive amount—to subsidise and help to spread the opportunities across the whole country, in circumstances where we could not possibly have parts of our communities having no access at all to these services.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am tempted to invite the noble Lord, Lord Harris, to come with me to visit some of my upland sheep farmer friends, who do not exactly have a luxurious lifestyle. Back in July, Defra announced that money from the European economic recovery plan, which rural development agencies would use as part of the rural development programme, would help to fill some of the holes in broadband provision, not least for my upland sheep farmer friends and for people in places like that. What is the mechanism by which this money will be used and what will it be used for?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are of course grateful for resources from wherever they emerge, but the noble Lord will be all too well aware that £2.5 million from Europe is a flea bite in relation to the total issues to be addressed. While it is welcome and is directed towards particular areas, the context of this question is universal access. That is a massive project and we have given clear indications since the summer of how we intend to tackle it. It can be fulfilled only by a long-term commitment to the objectives that I have identified.

Lord De Mauley: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, if noble Lords asked shorter questions and gave shorter responses, we would have time for more questions. We are in the 24th minute.

5 thoughts on “Putting the cat amongst the pigeons – ie raising the extent to which country folk are subsidised by the rest of us”

  1. It is such a shame that the vast majority of people in rural areas, real rural areas that is, don’t actually have “very pleasant lifestyles”, because if they did, you would have a point (much as you would have done had you directed the remark *specifically* at the self-appointed “leaders” of the “rural community”, whatever that is).

    You seem to be operating under the delusion that living in a rural area is some sort of privileged lifestyle choice – doubtless it is for the large number of rich idiots who move into the countryside and then proceed to systematically wreck it*, but it is nothing of the sort for most people in rural areas. Do you have any idea of how difficult it can be to live in a rural area if you’re working class (or, heaven forbid, outright poor)? Or seriously ill? Actually, I suspect that you probably do, but it’s the sort of thing that is easily forgotten in certain situations.

    Though the idea that sheep farmers are in some way the most “disadvantaged” group of people in rural areas (or even close to being so) is hilarious and even more objectionable than anything you said…

    *Amusingly, such people are often the strongest supporters of bloodsports and other such invented “rural” traditions nonsense.

  2. Interesting comments, but the digital divide and use of public money to avoid widening it is not just a pure rural divide. One of the geographic things with the UK is that you are often only a few miles from a large town, whereas in the US the nearest large town may 70 to 100 miles away.

    In essence people with slow or no broadband can be found in cities and towns, sometimes whole areas of housing estates are blighted by a slow broadband service.

    There seems little opposition to spending the digital surplus on the USC, but as yet what the USC will achieve has not been defined.

    The 50p levy has less wide support, but is at least a case of government trying to do something. The test case is whether not having widespread next generation coverage will harm the economy – most reports on this are saying no not at this time, but the danger is that by the time a report recognises this the economy will be harmed.

    In terms of a joined up economy, has anyone considered the CO2 savings and fuel saved by people working from home for a day or week, broadband certainly makes it feasible for many office based jobs to be done as well from a home office as in a cubicle.

  3. I feel we are currently subsidising the urban areas at the moment. BTw are rolling out 21 cn to urban areas, where is MY investment return for my line rental? Our idyllic rural lifestyle includes 2 LPG terminals, an Oil Refinery, and soon a new power station as well as 2 ferry terminals. so it seems we have all the disadvantages to support the urban areas need for both food and fuel, and yet we are begrudged a decent telecoms infrastructure?

    For the record, BTw have artificially inflated prices in market 1 exchanges so we pay more for less speed and lower caps than those in the urban LLU areas, this pricing regime which creates huge disadvantage to rural communities is sanctioned by the regulator. Remind me again how we are subsidised? Right now charges to my ISP for my IPSC bandwidth are double the WBC costs, soon to be even higher, apparently to “leverage” the move away from IPSC, so how come I am being ripped off like this by BTW when they have not yet provided the route to migrate to the lower cost facility?

    I have always been a believer in the 2nd chamber, but the parochial views being expressed by some, and the fact that they cant even get the name of the (useless) regulator right, I seem to recall OFGEM was the name of the now defunct gas and electricity regulator – the new regime seems happy to let the industry run wild, as has happened to BTw

    Congratulations My Lords, you have clearly illustrated how out of your depth some of you really are, and how the chamber is now becoming unfit for purpose.

  4. I agree with Alun. You obviously don’t really know what it’s like to live in a rural area. I’m a dairy farmer’s wife, he draws £300 a month out of his business and has made a loss for the majority of the 14 years we’ve been married. We have no mains gas and although we are lucky enough to have broadband (being 2 miles from a BT exchange) it’s very slow and people only 5 miles away can’t get broadband at all. I was born in Surrey where I had good public transport, a plentiful choice of shops with competitive prices and plenty of employment opportunities. Now I have to commute 30 miles each way to work, struggling through the snow in the winter. Diesel costs an arm and a leg and we even have to pay higher road tax on essential 4x4s because city folk have abused them.

    If you townies aren’t careful there will be no farmers left and when you retire to your rural ‘idyll’ you’ll find there are no working age people there to provide care services for you. When you’re all starving you just might start to realise how important rural communities are.

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