Wood for the pylons


Andrew Adonis on the devastating outcome that could follow government proposals for the roll out of rural broadband

The roll out of rural broadband is a national priority. The figures are stark: whereas 84% of urban premises have superfast broadband, the figure drops to just 19% in rural areas. This must be rectified, as soon as possible. The question is whether the existing planning process is the problem.

There is no evidence of the need for the five year telecoms infrastructure free for all in our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty contained in the government’s Growth and Infrastructure Bill. Without exception, National Park Authorities (NPAs) have been working closely with telecoms companies to deliver broadband in a way which is appropriate and sensitive to our green and pleasant land. Exmoor National Park is piloting satellite technologies and wireless broadband; the Lake District National Park sits on a Cumbria-wide steering group committed to delivering superfast broadband to 95% of the county; Northumberland has worked with the Local Enterprise Partnership to gain support from Defra for Rural Growth Hubs within the National Park; the New Forest is supporting parish councils in joint bids to Defra’s Rural Communities Broadband Fund; the Peak District has submitted bids to LEADER. The list goes on.

In the last five years, 97% of prior notifications for telecommunications infrastructure in National Parks were approved and only 3 of the 140 full planning applications were rejected. Two thirds of NPAs have not rejected a single application in the last five years. So it is far from clear on what evidence base, the government is acting. The English National Park Authorities Association (ENPAA) has asked ministers for evidence of NPAs being an obstacle to roll out of rural broadband. In their words, “None has been forthcoming”. Reference is made to delays experienced by BT but their location has not been provided and ENPAA “do not believe that any of these cases are located in National Parks.” The government’s consultation – published yesterday – tacitly acknowledges as much, with plenty of evidence of a disparity in the availability of superfast broadband in rural areas but nothing to show that planning rules are the obstacle.

The Chief Executive of Exmoor NPA, Dr Nigel Stone, has also pointed out that working with NPAs can save significant sums of money by, for example, coordinating trenching work. The only benefit to the unamended clause in the Bill is to the telecoms companies who will not have to go through the well established prior notification process, which given that all National Parks are covered by a single planning authority will not be particularly onerous. Instead, neither the concerns of local people nor the beautiful British landscape will have to be given any consideration.

Planning Minister Nick Boles recently said, “England is famous for the beauty of its landscapes. From the Yorkshire Dales to the South Hams, from the Weald of Kent to the Cumbrian Lakes, England glories in countryside of which generations of man and nature are joint authors... The beauty of England is its finest asset and, for each of us, our most precious inheritance... I truly believe that nothing would do more to improve the health and happiness of the British people than if more of them got to spend more of their lives surrounded by beauty. Beauty lifts, calms, excites, inspires.” 

I completely agree with Mr Boles on all of this. The duty that the Bill would suspend for the next five years is one of the few legislative mechanisms for preserving and protecting that natural beauty in our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. If the key clause is left unamended, those spending time in future in the beauty of the British countryside may not be able to see the wood for the pylons.

Lord Andrew Adonis is Labour’s infrastructure and growth spokesman in the Lords 

Published 30th January 2013


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