HC Deb 24 October 2000 vol 355 cc39-46WH 12.30 pm
Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

I am delighted to have secured this important debate, and I am pleased to be here with a Minister who was so persuaded by my arguments last time we were in the Chamber debating the subject that he put down his notes and spoke without his brief so as to respond to my specific points. I hope to persuade him with my arguments again today so that he is encouraged once more to speak without his brief. I contacted his office to give a clear indication of the line of questioning and I hope that that was helpful. I am sure that the Minister knows that the regulation of cable companies in Cornwall is a serious issue and that the special circumstances that apply there should be properly understood and appreciated.

Many people who know me will be surprised to see my name associated with a debate about anything to do with the internet and information technology. If I am not the most IT-Challenged Member of Parliament, I must at least be one of the most challenged in the House and, therefore, the world. Despite that obvious handicap, I shall continue, as we must discuss important issues that relate not to use and understanding of the internet but to the practicalities of laying cables in an area such as Cornwall where transatlantic communications cables are being laid.

I want to bring to the Minister's attention the impact of what I consider to be the lax regulation on people, their livelihoods and the environment of west Cornwall. I shall speak about the lessons learnt about the regulatory framework surrounding the laying of telecommunications infrastructure and make a case for updating it. I had hoped to raise the matter sooner, as important developments have occurred this year. I refer especially to cable landing stations. Those large aircraft-hangar-style developments have been initiated in the middle of sensitive landscapes. Many of them will cover some 2,500 sq m, and we expect more. Despite all that has occurred in west Cornwall, I do not think that to introduce tougher measures now we would be to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted. Our experience so far is not the end of the road and there is further development to come.

First, we need to understand what fibre optic cables are. As I understand it, such cables carry laser light signals for long distances and provide a quick and high-quality means of sending internet communications. Now they are available in multicolour form. I understand that up to 100 colours are available, each of which can provide a different stream of information. During the past five years, eight companies have brought transatlantic cables to the Cornish coast, which is the most economically attractive place for such development. On each occasion, the local community was given scant notice and suffered a lot of disruption. People's lives and businesses were often blighted and the environment also suffered through the rutting of country lanes, and so on.

Not just cables but landing stations are needed to transfer data streams between transatlantic cables and on-land cables, and they need a controlled environment for multiplex trackers and various other voodoo-sounding things that I do not understand, but which I imagine to be important to the technology.

During the past three years I have written 20 or 30 letters to Ministers in the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to raise issues on behalf of constituents who are extremely troubled about the fact that local authorities are pretty powerless to influence the way in which such companies operate. I had a meeting with the then Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), in February last year. Fortunately, he accepted that there were problems and agreed to approach some of the companies to ask them to stage an exhibition in the local community to demonstrate the benefits of the technology for the community. It was a cunning ploy on my part, as I knew that there were no benefits for the local community because the fibre optics went straight out of Cornwall to other areas and that local businesses were being disadvantaged, not advantaged, as a result. I shall return to that point in a moment.

I also asked the Minister to contact all licence holders under the Telecommunications Act 1984 to ask them to find ways of co-operating in future. Rather than company after company disrupting our lives in west Cornwall, they should be forced—or, rather, encouraged, as nothing is specified in regulations to force them to do—to co-operate and bring their cables through together, in shared multiducts. The Minister honourably wrote to all licence holders in March last year. It was a nice letter, but he could use only the art of persuasion and not regulation, and it has made not a jot of difference to how the local community has suffered.

The problems experienced are not limited to obvious disruption for people using what is often the only route out of their village to the nearest town. They include long delays, sometimes in the middle of summer; long queues and unacceptable disruption to people's lives, to businesses and to people coming to the area on holiday; damage to the road surface, as I experienced when on a bicycle recently, and an increase in the number of manhole covers. According to the highways department at Cornwall county council, in some areas the road is in a serious state of deterioration. That blights businesses and communities. In addition, the Wildlife Trust tells me that, where cables are laid off the road in sensitive habitats that are not sites of special scientific interest, companies are not compelled to reinstate the environment.

Cable landing stations are a blight on a sensitive landscape and seriously compromise planning regulations. In all other circumstances, we would not allow development such as we have seen in west Penwith. Furthermore, development is piecemeal. We do not know what will happen next. Another cable company may come, or it may not. Ten may come. We are obliged to accept that. No strategy or structure is involved. Development is virtually unregulated.

What benefits does such development bring? In responding, DTI Ministers have constantly emphasised that the intention is to make the United Kingdom the best place in the world to engage in e-commerce, and we should all applaud and work towards that. For Cornwall, however, there is precious little benefit. The fibre optic cables go to switching stations up country, and we have no access to the fibre optic technology ourselves. In that respect, we have all the pain and none of the gain. Indeed, many small, vital information technology businesses, some of which have relocated to the area and some of which have grown in the area, are now at a commercial disadvantage because they send pictures and designs on copper wires, and are therefore much slower than their competitors who have access to fibre optic technology.

Why is that happening in west Cornwall? Companies are landing their transatlantic cables on the coast of Cornwall, not sending them to London or elsewhere, because such action lowers the cost, lessens the risks of broken signals and maximises technological efficiency.

What benefit does this bring to Cornwall? Some people in my area answer that question by saying, "Sweet fibre optics." The scales of natural justice are tipped so far in favour of the cable companies that it makes the situation absurd. It costs £700 million to lay a transatlantic cable. We think that we are doing well in Cornwall because we have objective 1 status and that will give us about £300 million over seven years. We consider that that is a bonanza and we want to make a difference to the future economy of Cornwall with that money. Given that it costs £700 million to bring a cable across the Atlantic, the amount of money that it costs to install cable stations and lay the cables along our roads is chicken feed to the companies involved. It is a multi-billion pound industry, but it is not regulated or enforced to pay any compensation to the local community for the fact that it is disrupting lives.

What regulations exist? From my conversations and correspondence with Ministers in both Departments, it is clear that we are probably talking about deregulations not regulations. The Telecommunications Act 1984 provides companies with a licence. It is a licence for them to do pretty well what they want to do over a 25-year period. Companies need to give the local council only 28 days' notice if they want to dig up the road. In most cases, that is all the notice that they do give. There is precious little that the local authorities can do even about reinstatement. They can force the companies, but sometimes that is difficult if the reinstatement is not up to an adequate standard.

The New Roads and Street Works Act 1991 contains some planning regulations, but few. Planning policy guidance notes 8 and 12, the Town and Country Planning Order 1995 and circular 1/97 are all relevant, but they do not seem to have made an impact on the planning side of the technologies and developments. I accept that they have resulted in an amount of stone facing and scantle slate roofing of the structures in some cases, but the regulations do not deal with the size of the structures and the fact that they are genuinely alien to the landscape. In the past, local authorities used to work alongside the electricity, gas and water boards. I know that that is regarded as a joke by many hon. Members, who think that one board dug up a road one day, while another board carried out some work a week later. However, at that time local authorities felt that they had some control over such matters. Now they have no control.

An urgent review of the regulatory framework is needed to give local authorities the teeth to reduce disruption and damage, and enable them to protect the environment. Moreover, they must be able to insist on compensation commensurate with the damage done. I appreciate that the Government are expected to ensure regulatory stability by both European and our standards, and that the industry expects regulatory stability, but what about community stability and the economic stability of small businesses in rural areas? What about landscape stability and the integrity of planning stability? Much could be done about that.

The Government need to consider several options, including giving local authorities greater notice and allowing them to have more say in such matters. Local authorities must be able to insist on routing being carried out elsewhere along motorways and railways. They could require the companies to pay a fee or provide a bond to the local authority that is held until it is satisfied that the road has been adequately reinstated. They should insist that cable companies have single windows of opportunity to lay their cables and that they should use those windows to lay a substantial number of cables. The terms and conditions on which excess cables are sold or leased should then be negotiated. An occupation charge should be levied for the use of the highway, to encourage those who are laying the cables to do their job quickly and not to hang around. There should be penalties for companies that do not comply with the regulations. Perhaps the Government should consider charging the internet equivalent of a barrelage charge in places such as Cornwall, where we have to suffer the landing stations as well as disruption to our lives.

When I asked for this debate, I received calls from a number of companies with interests in mobile phones asking me not to raise questions about masts. I shall not do so, but if I had the opportunity to do so, I would say that they, too, need planning—I got that one in as well, after all.

It is difficult to predict the future of the technology. The Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), wrote to me in November 1998, when she was a DTI Minister, in response to an issue that I raised with her. She said that she saw my concern as something of a temporary problem. She thought that it would be resolved in a few years and said: it is unlikely that it will bring a rash of new companies. Hardly had the letter appeared on my desk when a rash of new companies arrived.

We do not know what will happen in future, but we do know that we are talking about a multi-billion-pound industry. It is important, and we want to support it, but we also know that people's lives and livelihoods are blighted, that the planning system and landscape are compromised and that we can see only pain and very little gain in a place such as Cornwall. The Cornish economy and internet businesses are being disadvantaged as other areas and businesses benefit. A local organisation called Digital Peninsula is currently making proposals on behalf of 100 small companies in the area, which constantly tell me about the problems caused by their obvious disadvantage.

People in my area believe that the scales of natural justice have tipped so far in the companies' favour that the situation has become almost absurd and the scales have almost fallen over. They believe that the regulatory framework has failed to keep pace with technology and commercial developments and needs to be updated after the enactment of the Telecommunications Act 1984. It is now time for the Government to take action and urgently to review the regulations.

12.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Chris Mullin)

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. George), but I am afraid that I shall stick fairly closely to my brief as I am probably as IT challenged as he is. In fact, I am challenged by almost all forms of technology beyond the bicycle.

The hon. Gentleman has raised an important matter that I recognise to be a cause of great concern among many of his constituents. He did so reasonably and cogently. I appreciate that work by telecommunications operators has caused disruption not only in Cornwall, but elsewhere. However, a number of factors in Cornwall mean that such works can have a greater impact there. Those include narrow lanes, proximity to the Atlantic and the various other factors about which the hon. Gentleman spoke.

The recent growth in international communications traffic is a reflection of the United Kingdom's success. The modern broadband networks that are now under construction are vital to meeting our target of making the United Kingdom one of the best places in the world to do business electronically. I must challenge one point made by the hon. Gentleman in that respect. He seemed to suggest that Cornwall would not benefit from these developments. That is not quite right. Although Cornwall may be slow to benefit from competition in modern telecommunications development, it will do so in due course. Some benefits have already been provided, and in future there will be big benefits for Cornwall and the rest of the country. Cornwall county council is a member of the South West Grid for Learning, which has secured Department for Education and Employment standards fund money. In the first phase of the project it is planned that 31 secondary schools will be broadband connected by March 2001. It is also planned to link libraries and primary schools into the network in the near future. Those are definite benefits to Cornwall. Developments in information and communications technology offer a real opportunity for peripheral and rural economies such as Cornwall to overcome some of the disadvantages of location and the scale of local labour markets.

The information society is a theme of the objective 1 programme. It is early days yet, but the indications are that several projects are expected to come forward for increasing the number of businesses utilising e-commerce and improving the ICT infrastructure within the county. Those should all ultimately benefit Cornwall's economy.

Pressure for more development will continue and we believe that the key to avoiding or minimising disruption from street works and other development lies in a combination of measures. The planning system is one of the tools available. Local authorities are not completely powerless, a point that I shall touch on in a minute. National and local planning policies play an important role in respect of many mast developments and cable landing stations, but other measures also contribute to controlling cable-laying activity.

A modern network brings many social and economic benefits, but it is essential that the drive to develop the industry is balanced against environmental objectives. Planning policy guidance note 8, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, is the relevant document. In particular it emphasises the need for telecommunications development to take place in a way that keeps the environmental impact to a minimum.

Under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, licensed telecommunications code system operators have the right to lay cables without the need to make an application for planning permission. However, a prior approval procedure applies to cable laying in areas such as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and sites of special scientific interest. I imagine that the hon. Gentleman has a number of those in his constituency. In those areas the local planning authority can refuse approval where it considers the development will pose a serious threat to amenities.

The powers granted to telecommunication operators by the DTI enable companies to lay cables in public streets without the need for separate licences from local highway authorities, but those rights come with obligations.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Mullin

I want to give the hon. Member for St. Ives a full answer and he left me only 12 minutes in which to do so. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I shall carry on.

Licences contain conditions designed to reduce disruption from street works activity. For example, licences require operators to explore the possibility of duct sharing in order to reduce unnecessary digging. Where practicable they are expected to install sufficient ducting for future growth in demand, so reducing the need for further street works and wherever feasible to install ducting in footpaths rather than the road, to minimise traffic disruption. I recognise that some of the roads the hon. Gentleman described do not have footpaths. I am familiar with Cornwall.

In view of growing concerns about the impact of cabling activity the Government have reminded operators of their licence obligations and we have urged them to do all that they can to minimise the disruption arising from the construction of new networks. We shall continue to do so and I take the opportunity to repeat that message today.

I am sorry to hear that this has not had much impact. There is one rather more practical measure that may be of interest to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents. Street works carried out by licensed telecommunications operators are subject to the controls contained in the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991. Except in the case of protected streets, where street works may be executed only with the consent of the street authority, the Act does not allow authorities to refuse undertakers permission to carry out street works if they have a statutory right to do so. But it is not a free for all: undertakers—utilities and others with apparatus in the street—must reinstate road surfaces. They must give the required notice of forthcoming works and they must co-operate with each other and the street authorities.

For their part the authorities must co-ordinate their own and undertakers' works. Further powers in the Act are aimed at controlling the time spent on street works and at minimising disruption. Undertakers, whether in the telecommunications industry or other fields, have statutory rights to carry out street works as part of providing the public with services that are regarded as essential in a modern society. On the other hand, road users and local residents are rightly entitled to the minimum disruption from those necessary activities.

For some years now, the liberalisation of the telecommunications market and the resulting growth in the number of excavations has given rise to increasing concern about the consequent disruption to traffic. There has been some consensus that there may be a need to tighten controls. Accordingly, we consulted on ways of countering traffic disruption caused by street works, and announced our intention to implement section 74 of the 1991 Act, which allows charging for contractors who overstay. Provided that Parliament approves the section 74 regulations that we intend to lay before the end of this year, they will be brought into force early next year. We will also introduce guidance on best practice on street works. I hope that that will provide a little comfort for the hon. Gentleman. Additional controls may be needed, and we shall carry out an early review of the effectiveness of the existing ones, including the section 74 regulations. In that context, the Government have tabled amendments to the Transport Bill in another place, as a reserve measure to allow highway authorities to charge undertakers for street works from the first day of works—so-called lane rental. That, too, meets one of the points made by the hon. Gentleman in the concluding section of his speech.

I am aware of concerns about the insensitive siting of cable landing stations. Licensed telecoms code system operators are permitted, subject to certain conditions and exceptions, to install, alter or replace any telecommunications apparatus. However, cable landing stations normally consist of buildings—large and, in some cases, inappropriate buildings—which are specifically excluded from the definition of telecommunications apparatus. Developers proposing to install such a building will therefore need to apply for planning permission. I assume that all those to which the hon. Gentleman referred applied for local planning permission. Local authorities therefore have some influence on the siting and construction of such buildings.

Where planning applications are submitted for telecommunications development, it will normally be for the local planning authority to determine the application. The starting point in that process will be the development plan. The Cornwall structure plan includes a policy that provides for telecommunications development in ways that will maximise the use of existing sites to limit the impact on the landscape. Local plans can contain more detailed policies such as the emerging Penwith local plan, which provides detailed locational and environmental guidance.

Penwith district council has also recently published supplementary planning guidance on "Cable Stations and Associated Development". The guidance makes clear that the council believes that there are few if any sites where landscape needs can be fully addressed by further development of the kind that has taken place up to now. For that reason, the guidance introduces more stringent criteria. We are pleased that the council is seeking to provide a more detailed framework against which planning applications for cable landing stations in Penwith can be assessed.

Mr. George

I appreciate that my intervention must be brief. Will the Minister or his Department issue guidance on the use of obligations under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, especially in relation to achieving some form of compensation from companies for the disturbance and blight on the landscape that has been described?

Mr. Mullin

I cannot comment on that at the moment. It is one of a number of practical suggestions that the hon. Gentleman has made, which I shall consider. Under the section 74 measures that I mentioned, it will be possible, where companies overstay, for a hefty charge to apply.

Telecommunications development is vital to the success of the British economy. The benefits are accruing now and will continue long into the future. However, the Government fully acknowledge the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for St. Ives about the localised but often significant disruption that such development can cause. Cornwall will benefit from the new technology, and, as far as future development is concerned, we want to make various changes—I referred to some—to the regulatory regimes within which the industry operates. In addition to introducing overstay and lane rental charging, we are consulting on revised planning guidance and we are prepared to consider licensing controls. The Government are willing to consider any new ideas to tackle what I acknowledge is a serious problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to One o'clock.