Infrastructure Bill

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): The development of an electronic communications code in part 7 has been closely followed in my constituency. because all too often the standard of infrastructure in the City of London and surrounding areas as regards mobile telephone coverage and broadband lags behind that which commercial tenants nowadays expect to find in a world-leading business district. It is vitally important that this situation be improved if London is to keep up with its global rivals in established sectors and in the emerging tech industries. In particular, we cannot allow the business heart of the capital to be left behind in state-of-the-art technology such as fibre optics and 4G—and eventually 5G when that arrives.

New rights to upgrade and share communications infrastructure could play a very important part in improving that situation. Could we introduce a simpler procedure for landowners to require the removal or repositioning of equipment, where necessary, in order to enable redevelopment to proceed? That might sound counter-intuitive, but at present, especially in areas such as the City of London with very high rates of development, there is a strong incentive for landowners to resist the installation of equipment such as telephone masts in the first place if they fear that the presence of that equipment will obstruct future redevelopment of the site.

I entirely understand the reaction by the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), to the late tabling of amendments dealing with the communications code, now removed by amendment 91, and the fact that further time is required to consider the new code. That is necessary; let us get the code right if we can. It is also important to ensure that the code strikes an appropriate balance between landowners and network operators, because only by so doing will it be effective in bringing about the expanded coverage that we all so desperately require. I hope, however, that the process will not take too long, and that we can move forward swiftly with the introduction of a new code, having taken account of the views expressed by industry representatives.

Mr Hayes: Just for clarity, the Government will move ahead with the reform of the communications code. We will begin a full consultation in the next few weeks, with a view to bringing forward draft legislation, for exactly the reason that my hon. Friend gave: to ensure that we have the agreement of all those who are most directly involved or affected and to ensure that there is agreement across the House.

Mark Field: I am very encouraged by the Minister’s words and I know that that will be true of many of my commercial constituents, as it were.

I ask the Government to consider two other things as this important work continues. The first is the position of infrastructure that has been installed before the new code comes into force, whenever that is. As I understand it, the new rules will not apply automatically to such dated infrastructure. Although I understand the reluctance of the Government to interfere in pre-existing legal relationships, I suggest that it would be beneficial to find some means of encouraging existing infrastructure to be brought under the new code as swiftly as possible.

Secondly, there are numerous cases in the City of London in which lengthy wrangling between freeholders and network operators over the terms and conditions for the grant of the necessary consents has delayed the installation of mobile masts or broadband facilities by several months. In the most serious instances, that has prevented business tenants from taking possession of new offices on time or forced businesses to occupy new office space with no functioning communications. Naturally, this is principally a matter of negotiation between private parties, and I would not expect any Government to interfere in such issues, so there are rightly limits to the extent to which they can furnish a solution.

However, when the Bill is enacted, there will be an opportunity under the code for the relevant industry bodies, which have been referred to, to encourage the adoption of model terms and conditions to deal with the issue. Although that is not a complete answer, it would be a constructive step and I hope that it is taken. The City of London corporation has held positive meetings with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport on the matter and will be looking to provide further support where possible, potentially in conjunction with the Greater London authority.

I have spoken before in this House about the need to ensure that adequate investment in the electricity distribution network can be made to meet tomorrow’s demand for new connections, without imposing unreasonable costs on today’s consumers. This is not the occasion to delve into the intricacies of the matter. Suffice it to say that the need for action is increasingly pressing. In relation to my constituency, I am aware that the Government are working with interested parties such as Ofgem, UK Power Networks, the Greater London authority and the City of London corporation with a view to developing new models that might enable the necessary upfront investment to be delivered, with the costs being recouped from customers over time as new connections are made. It is not yet clear whether the amendments that were made in Committee to extend the second-comer rules to independent connection providers will prove directly relevant to that work, but if so, they are to be welcomed.

In conclusion, I commend the Government for the attention they have given to this important matter in part 7. I urge them to continue that focus to ensure that we get it right. As with telecommunications as a whole, this is a crucial, bread-and-butter issue when it comes to London’s future competitiveness as a commercial centre.