In Parliament 23rd September 2016

There’s just been time for some digital fireworks before the party conference season, Catherine Paice reports

At the second, wide-ranging and often heated reading of the Digital Economy Bill, there was a good deal of self-congratulatory comment about the best superfast broadband delivery in Europe, the advances in digital economy, commerce and infrastructure, and the strides taken in achieving security.

Who agrees, though, with Chris Bryant (Lab, Rhondda)? “The truth of the matter,” he stated, “is that the original target was to get all the superfast broadband done by May 2015. That target has not been met, and the new target is December 2017. The secretary of state is talking about a superfast speed that would not be recognised as superfast anywhere else in Europe, and 10 megabits per second is simply not enough to deliver for this country.” And: “We should be making sure that 4G is available to everybody, not have 70% of people in rural areas not getting any 4G at all; and we should have a universal service obligation of 15 megabits per second.” At least someone is saying it in the House.

The same old nuggets about monopolies and inefficiencies were bandied about, not least because the fact remains that “the superfast roll-out depends heavily on BT’s established network,” (Sir Alan Haselhurst, Con, Saffron Walden).

A point made by Calum Kerr (SNP, Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) may strike a chord, when he said only about a third of UK mast infrastructure is shared, whereas in some countries, such as the USA, it’s about 80%.

Meanwhile, the Government has rejected a call by auditors for contaminated land grants – which fuelled so many clean-ups – to be restored. This was in response to a report by the Environmental Audit Committee that found funding for local councils to clean up contaminated land was ‘insufficient’. It recommended the creation of a dedicated funding stream for Part 2A contaminated land remediation, and suggested DEFRA undertake a detailed assessment of its decision to cut capital grant funding.

DEFRA withdrew capital grant funding for local authorities to clean up contaminated soil in 2013. The EAC published a report last June which estimated 300,000ha of UK soil is contaminated with toxic elements as a result of the country’s industrial heritage. It warned that councils would be less likely or able to tackle this without central Government funding.

Finally, new DEFRA secretary of state and leading Brexiteer Andrea Leadsom (Con, South Northamptonshire) has been giving a much-publicised heads-up about what farmers might expect from DEFRA’s nascent 25-year plan for the environment. If you haven’t yet heard of ‘natural capital’, you soon will.

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