Clutter in protected landscapes

I gave evidence on Tuesday to the House of Commons committee dealing with the Growth and Infrastructure Bill.

I suppose everyone has had the experience after an exam, interview or argument of thinking, ‘I wish I had expressed that better’.  That is certainly how I felt after the evidence session, and not only because I dried up at one point and had to ask for the question to be repeated (my goldfish impression didn’t seem to be doing the trick).

My natural politeness got the better of me and I now wish I had been feistier in answering questions about clause 7 of the Bill.  This proposes that the need to provide broadband to rural areas should trump the need to protect the natural beauty of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).  It also introduces a new hierarchy of protection: National Parks and AONBs will have less protection than Sights of Special Scientific Interest.

The objection to the proposal is not only that it is philistine (though it obviously is) but that it is also unnecessary.  In my witness session, Dr Nigel Stone, chief executive of the Exmoor National Park Authority stated that in the last five years 97% of applications for overhead wires and boxes in National Parks were approved.  ‘The evidence,’ he said, ‘does not support the need for the legislation.’

In response to this, Therese Coffey, the MP for Suffolk Central, said that BT had taken some 2500 cabinets out of its programme as a result of the planning regime.  Now, if planning really was holding back the spread of broadband to rural areas, there would clearly be a case to answer.  But in fact almost all these cases come from urban conservation areas (many with narrow pavements and good cause to object).

Within rural protected landscapes, there are very few broadband applications, which is a matter of regret.  The simple fact is that rural broadband is not sufficiently profitable for the providers, and not a sufficient priority compared with, say, the £738 million BT has paid to broadcast the Premier League.

I don’t suppose the Government will want to tell BT to invest in rural broadband rather than propping up John Terry’s wages, but it should not be blaming the planning system for difficulties in rolling out rural broadband.  The issue is money, not planning.

That is what I meant to say on Tuesday.

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