Stronger, fairer, and more innovative London economy (Supplementary) [8]

Session date: 
July 1, 2015
Question By: 
Andrew Dismore
Organisation: 
Labour Group
Asked Of: 
Harvey McGrath, Deputy Chair of the LEP, and Cathy Walsh OBE, Further Education Representative of the LEP

Question

Andrew Dismore AM:  Thank you, Chair.  I would like to raise the issue of connectivity and broadband, which does not seem to be moving on particularly well.  A few weeks ago, Emily Thornberry [Member of Parliament (MP) for Islington South and Finsbury] raised in Parliament an example she had of a business in central London taking nine hours to upload a two-and-a-half-minute film, which is not particularly helpful.  What are you doing to try to do something about this problem of connectivity?

 

Answer

Answer for Stronger, fairer, and more innovative London economy (Supplementary) [8]

Answer for Stronger, fairer, and more innovative London economy (Supplementary) [8]

Answered By: 
Harvey McGrath, Deputy Chair of the LEP, and Cathy Walsh OBE, Further Education Representative of the LEP

Harvey McGrath (Deputy Chair, London Enterprise Panel):  It is a problem in parts of London where, ironically, broadband speeds are much slower than you would find in some rural areas.  There is a Connectivity Working Group, chaired by Ed Lister [Sir Edward Lister, Deputy Mayor for Policy and Planning], which is pulling together members of the industry, members of local government and others to address this issue.

Part of it has to do with the way in which state aid provisions apply such that subsidies are, in effect, given for rural connectivity that do not apply in cities and therefore the economics for the providers - businesses like BT - are different when it comes to the city as opposed to those rural areas.  That needs to be addressed and I believe there is some progress on that front.

Secondly, we need to be clear about what the particular area issues are on a fairly granular basis.  There is a mapping exercise that needs to be done and is now being done to identify what those specific issues are.

Finally, we need to do something to break what I would describe as the monopoly provider of the basic backbone infrastructure that exists to make that more accessible to others and to unlock what is clearly in some areas a logjam where, left alone, the market is not going to solve this.

Andrew Dismore AM:  Thanks for that generic answer.  One of the issues is not just speed but also actually getting connected in the first place.  The Barnet Society in my constituency has identified roughly 3,000 properties just in and around High Barnet that are either not connected or on some of the slowest speeds in the country.  It gives a very good example of an information technology professional from Hungary who is working in a building in Barnet High Street, directly opposite Barnet and Southgate College.  The College has fast broadband; he has 4MB downloads.  What he says on your point about rural places is:

“If Barnet College has a high-speed service, why can’t I have one, too?  Even in rural Hungary, we can get speeds of 20 to 30MB.”

If they can get it in rural Hungary, why can we not in suburban Barnet?

Harvey McGrath (Deputy Chair, London Enterprise Panel):  Yes, agreed.

Andrew Dismore AM:  Then a couple of other examples from constituents.  David, a constituent from High Barnet, felt he was rather conned by BT.  What he says is this:

“Before moving to Chipping Barnet from North Finchley, I used the BT [fibre-to-the-cabinet] FTTC fibre availability checker to see if I had access to modern speeds.  The checker said that my cabinet, Barnet Exchange 38, would be fibre-upgraded by September 2014.  It even cited the fibre connection speed.”

He moved and it was not connected.  The availability checker was wrong.  Now he has been told by Openreach that Barnet Exchange 38 is not going to be upgraded as part of the Openreach commercial fibre rollout.  There is no prospect of a fibre connection at all and so he is now stuck with the very slow speed that he had ten years ago.  He makes the point that BT’s online service for checking fibre availability cannot be trusted and in 2014 it is ridiculous that a street in a London borough cannot have access to the modern digital technology enjoyed by all the streets around it.  That is one example.

Another example from –

Jenny Jones AM:  Oh no!

Andrew Dismore AM:  - a constituent who works from home says this:

“As a resident of Granville Road Barnet, I wish to express my frustration regarding the incredibly slow internet speed we have been experiencing for a long time.  It is too slow to do anything, let alone watch BBC iPlayer.  It means that I am never able to work from home and see my own children, as my office is in Fulham, which is a long commute.  It is not acceptable that, living in a London suburb, the speed of our connection is slower than in the remotest parts of the country, yet the houses opposite do have high speeds.”

The point I am making here is, first of all, how can we possibly compete with other global tech clusters when it can take nine-and-a-half hours to upload a two-and-a-half-minute film?  Also, people ought to be able to work from home because it reduces their travelling time.  It also reduces the demands on public transport and, by definition, the pollution that follows from that.  The further out they are, the less chance they have of being able to work from home.  Therefore, that increases the amount of commuting that is being done.

It really does seem to me that this is not just an issue about speed, although speed is extremely important.  It is also about access as a whole and we just have this catalogue of excuses from BT about its assessment of the economic viability.  What do you think about that?

Jenny Jones AM:  All of it?

Andrew Dismore AM:  Yes, if you like.

Harvey McGrath (Deputy Chair, London Enterprise Panel):  As I have said and as we all know, there clearly is a problem.  The Connectivity Working Group that I have referred to is taking that forward.  The LEP has said that it wants an accelerated response to that problem.  We will, where we can, put more resource behind it if that is what is required.  It is an issue and we need to address the issue.

Andrew Dismore AM:  You raised the issue of the state aid point and you said it was moving further forward.  My understanding is that Birmingham Council devised a scheme to plug the gaps in its broadband coverage but then Virgin and BT both challenged it on the basis that it would adversely affect their business models and distort competition.  Never mind the impact on the consumers: that was obviously secondary from their point of view.  They stated that it had been approved by the European Commission.  Why, in those circumstances, do we not try to do the same and say to BT, “OK, see you in court”?

Harvey McGrath (Deputy Chair, London Enterprise Panel):  Let us see what develops here.  In certain boroughs - for example, in the City, in the Square Mile - they are effectively taking some of that action by putting in their own cabling and driving a commercial confrontation with some of the suppliers.  There is, clearly, a lot that needs to be done here and we will be very supportive of trying to take it forward.

Andrew Dismore AM:  Do you think we should make it a condition of planning consent for new developments that they should have broadband connected?

Harvey McGrath (Deputy Chair, London Enterprise Panel):  That, indeed, is one of the things that is being discussed.  I have just moved an organisation from one building to another in central London and the only delay in the whole process was getting broadband connectivity, which took three months.  There is a real case for having a requirement that buildings are certified as ready and perhaps building that into the planning permission would be a smart thing to do.

Andrew Dismore AM:  We had a new development in Mill Hill on the old army barracks site there and broadband, for most of that site, is not available.  It seems to me crazy that the local authority or the Mayor - because it would have been a scheme that went to the Mayor - should not have said, “OK, a planning condition is that broadband should be installed on this estate”.

Nicky Gavron AM:  Can I just come in?  Chair, with your permission, can I come in on this?

Jennette Arnold OBE AM (Chair):  No.  Just a moment.  Just indicate you want to speak and I will bring you in when we have finished.  We have other people.

Kit Malthouse AM MP:  Chair, it is a point of information, I think.

Jennette Arnold OBE AM (Chair):  Just wait because the questioning is still with Assembly Member Dismore.

Jenny Jones AM:  He still has time.

Andrew Dismore AM:  I will ask the question.  Do you think that is what should happen?  Do you think we should make that part of the planning process?

Harvey McGrath (Deputy Chair, London Enterprise Panel):  Yes, my view is that we should.

Andrew Dismore AM:  The last thing I wanted to ask about was really the Super Connected Cities Plan.  As of December last year, vouchers went to only 2,232 businesses, which is less than a quarter of the target.  It does not really seem to be working.  It is a bit of a sticking-plaster solution, is it not?  I suppose it is as good as far as it goes, but it is not actually resolving the problem.

Harvey McGrath (Deputy Chair, London Enterprise Panel):  No.  It is a very small step in the right direction, but you are right.

Andrew Dismore AM:  Do you know what is happening about trying to deal with the European state aid problem?

Harvey McGrath (Deputy Chair, London Enterprise Panel):  I understand that there is a dialogue between the Government and Brussels about redefining the context for cities that are deemed not to be eligible for funding support for, in this case, broadband connectivity.  We can update offline but I am not closely sighted on where that dialogue is as I speak.

Andrew Dismore AM:  How do other cities abroad cope with this problem?  Presumably, the same rules are EU-wide.  How can other cities deal with this and we cannot?

Harvey McGrath (Deputy Chair, London Enterprise Panel):  I do not know.

Jennette Arnold OBE AM (Chair):  OK.  We are straying here.  Have you finished?

Andrew Dismore AM:  Yes.