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Possible Broadband Boost as New UK Gov Looks to Unblock Planning UPDATE2

Monday, Jul 8th, 2024 (8:48 am) - Score 2,440
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The new UK Government is off to a rapid start this week and has already appointed Peter Kyle (MP) to be the new Secretary of State at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), which oversees many of the country’s public broadband and mobile infrastructure projects. But bigger news on planning is expected from the chancellor, Rachel Reeves, today.

Just to recap. The Labour Party’s 2024 General Election Manifesto (here) stated that the previous (Conservative) government’s “investment in 5G [was] falling behind other countries and the rollout of gigabit broadband [had] been slow“, but they also made clear that the party would be making a “renewed push to fulfil the ambition of full gigabit and national 5G coverage by 2030.

PICTURED: Peter Kyle MP, the UK’s new Secretary of State for tech and digital infrastructure.

In fairness, the private sector’s rollout of gigabit broadband (currently covering 83%+ of the UK), which has driven the lion’s share of deployments, has been fairly rapid given the huge costs and complexity involved. But you could certainly argue that the £5bn (state aid) Project Gigabit broadband scheme (i.e. aiming for 85% gigabit coverage by 2025 and “nationwide” [c.99%] by 2030) has been slow to award some major subsidised deployment contracts (e.g. Wales, Scotland etc.). Likewise, the deployment of 5G could have been better, but did suffer early on from weak coverage targets and the sudden U-turn to ban Huawei’s kit.

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Suffice to say that the new government are clearly looking to build on what already exists, rather than risk huge delays by ripping up the existing programmes. The first signs of this new approach are expected to surface today when the new Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, declares economic growth to be their “national mission” and moves to announce reform of the planning laws to help “unblock” key infrastructure projects, as well as investment.

The comments echo Labour’s manifesto, which similarly stated: “We will also update national planning policy to ensure the planning system meets the needs of a modern economy, making it easier to build laboratories, digital infrastructure, and gigafactories.

Rachel Reeves, New UK Chancellor, will say:

“We face the legacy of 14 years of chaos and economic irresponsibility. New Treasury analysis I requested over the weekend exposed the opportunities lost from this failure.

Had the UK economy grown at the average rate of OECD economies since 2010, it would have been over £140bn larger. This could have brought in an additional £58bn in tax revenues last year alone to sustain our public services. It falls to this new government to fix the foundations.

Where governments have been unwilling to take the difficult decisions to deliver growth – or have waited too long to act – I will deliver. It is now a national mission. There is no time to waste.”

At present we still know very little about what kind of changes the new government will be looking to make, although network operators have not been shy about producing their own wish lists (here), which often echo a strong desire for the full embracement of flexi-permits and cancelling plans for street works charging. Not to mention those that seek easier access to large residential buildings (MDUs).

The party has also previously spoken of working with Ofcom to try and encourage greater infrastructure sharing or co-operative build between network operators, which would have to be very carefully balanced to avoid any unintended damage to competition.

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The existing Access to Infrastructure (ATI) Regulations 2016, which applies to all operators, does already include provisions on the exchange of information about existing infrastructure, and the right to access that infrastructure on fair and reasonable commercial terms etc. But this doesn’t matter much if a commercially viable deal cannot be reached.

The previous government did attempt to update the ATI Regulations (2016) to improve infrastructure sharing, but some smaller and more vulnerable alternative networks (altnets) said they were concerned about the risk of “unintended consequences” if changes to those rules ended up undermining the investment case for new networks (here).

Likewise, operators expressed “limited interest in using non-Openreach or non-telecoms infrastructure,” due to a general preference for telecoms infrastructure, as well as the “availability of a more stringent regulated product on a near ubiquitous nationwide network.” Suffice to say, infrastructure sharing alone may not be a magic fix. In the end, the previous government opted to merely clarify the existing rules, which did little to move the dial.

The new government will also have to tread carefully, given the current and somewhat growing opposition – at the local level – to the deployment of new poles (telegraph poles) for running fibre optic lines, which is a matter that has been raised by a fair few Labour MPs too. Before the election, the previous government was already in the process of developing clearer guidance and oversight for pole deployments (here and here).

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Finally, Labour indicated in 2023 that it would aim to foster an “industry-wide social tariff for low-income families” and do more to tackle mid-contract price hikes and loyalty penalties etc. But since then Ofcom has already done quite a lot to tackle these areas, so it remains to be seen what new approaches the government might now direct Ofcom to take, if any.

In any case, we don’t expect to get a lot of detail on the new planning reforms today, but we will update this article if the announcement includes something more than the usual political sound bites. Any detail that does get released will probably come in a very generalised form, which may be open to different interpretations.

UPDATE 12:31pm

The new Chancellor has just given her speech, and naturally I was listening to it, so you don’t have to. The main focus of the speech was clearly on new build homes, energy and wind farms, but there were some general points and changes that have broader relevance – these are best summarised as bullet points.

Key Points on Planning

➤ The Gov will reform the national planning policy framework, consulting on a new growth-focused approach to the planning system “before the end of the end of the month“.

➤ Decisions on large developments are now to be “taken nationally, not locally“.

➤ The Gov will support local authorities with 300 additional planning officers across the country.

➤ On “direct intervention” – The new deputy PM has said that, when she intervenes in the economic planning system, the benefit of development will be a central consideration “that she will not hesitate to review an application with a potential gain for the regional and national economies warranted“. For example, decisions have already been taken to recover two planning appeals for data centres in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.

➤ Deputy PM is writing to local mayors and to the office for investment to “ensure that any investment opportunity with important planning considerations that comes across their desks is brought to her attention and also to mine.”

➤ Deputy PM also writing to local planning authorities “making clear what will now be expected of them, including universal coverage of local plans and reviews of green belt boundaries” (mostly related to new housing).

➤ The Chancellor will “set out new policy intentions for critical infrastructure in the coming months.”

Finally, Mrs Reeves said she knows “there will be opposition to this … I am not naive to it“, but she then said little to placate those with concerns about the risk of damage to currently protected areas.

UPDATE 2:35pm

The CEO of LightSpeed Broadband, Brett Shepherd, has today called on the new government to do two key things:

1. Collaborate to meet the One Touch Switch deadline

“Progress in delivering full fibre broadband to the whole of the UK has been steady. The Internet Service Providers’ Association’s ‘Delivering Digital Britain’ roadmap recognises the needs of the wider industry – and LightSpeed echoes the desire for further growth under the new Government. As the broadband industry prepares papers to allow Ofcom to shape its forthcoming Telecoms Access Review, we’ve collaborated with INCA on its submission.

“Fibre broadband is now a necessity, not a luxury. Without a reliable connection, individuals – particularly vulnerable groups in society like the elderly – risk finding themselves unable to access essential services like healthcare; children are unable to access educational content; families can’t keep in touch with relatives. As we enter the latter half of the 2020s, it’s entirely appropriate that consumers should be able to rely on a telecoms infrastructure that is fit for purpose and future proof.

“So, it’s vital for the sake of the nation’s broadband users that the upcoming One Touch Switch launch happens no later than the planned date of 12 September 2024. Consumers deserve the freedom to switch to new broadband at any time without facing barriers from their current provider.

“This scheme is significant and collaboration – between providers, the One Touch Switch company, Ofcom and the new Labour Government – is key to avoid another delay. One Touch Switching could be the most beneficial customer initiative the industry has seen in years – especially at a time when purse strings are, naturally, tighter than ever before – removing the difficulties typically faced when switching providers.”

2. Show investors how they’ll get returns to attract Private Equity back into fibre

“Previous governments have spent a significant amount of time and energy trying to attract Private Capital to fund large parts of the full fibre rollout. It’s been a largely successful mission, evidenced by the significant number of altnets. They’ve also heavily subsidised the rollout of fibre in underserved areas – again, reasonably well.

“But now, new Private Capital has mostly dried up because sales penetration on altnet footprints is significantly lower than the altnet community and its investors expected.

“If the incoming Government wants to attract Private Equity back into fibre – or indeed any other large-scale infrastructure project – it must show how investors will get their returns. Admittedly, many altnets had very bullish sales targets—and some still do! However, neither Ofcom nor the Government at large has considered how to help altnets take on incumbency fairly from a sales perspective – and we’ve discovered that incumbency counts for a lot. Many will suggest that this is the basic nature of competition but that is only true where there is a fair regulatory environment. If the Government wishes to ensure a properly competitive telecoms landscape into the long term, which after all is a good thing for consumers, then it needs to try to ensure that challenger brands have the space to succeed. At present too much favours incumbency.

“For example, copper switch off is proceeding at BT’s own pace. It’s unlikely to accelerate quickly as there’s no short-term incentive for BT for switch off where altnets may have beaten it to a specific area. Moreover, BT controls the infrastructure that most altnets use to roll out their network – and therefore exercises at least partial control over their future costs.

“I think we’d all sympathise with the challenges surrounding the copper switch off, which is why we agree that it should be a phased approach, starting in those towns and areas where consumers have real choice between the incumbents and altnets.”

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Mark-Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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22 Responses
  1. Avatar photo Chris says:

    Planning reforms seem to be at the root of a lot of things that need improving – fixed broadband, mobile coverage, new housing, more renewable energy, new power lines etc etc.
    It’s just so slow and expensive to build anything in the UK – I’d personally love to see this change

  2. Avatar photo Webber says:

    Unlocking planning will see the green belt concreted over, is that a good thing just to give some better broadband?

    1. Avatar photo Anonymous says:

      i’m sure there’s a way to balance it equally, and even 10% of greenbelt usage for housing would provide 7.5 million more homes, barely putting a dent into the green belt as it is. Also “green belt” nowadays seems to be acknowledged with moss on the ground, we’ve become that nimby we can’t even use a space that has say 15cm worth of moss on the ground for projects

    2. Avatar photo XGS says:

      Unlocking planning can be done in a way that rids us of absurdities like these without being a free for all.

      https://www.telegraph.co.uk/money/net-zero/25bn-super-hub-data-centre-blocked-spoiling-m25-views/
      https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/articles/cgrre2kdd71o
      https://www.kentonline.co.uk/gravesend/news/lower-thames-crossing-planning-costs-reach-300m-301419/

      Planning shouldn’t be ‘locked’ at all. It’s there to ensure construction is controlled and sensible, not to lock it out. Green belt preventing house building on a desolate site minutes from a tube station is absurd. Planning preventing appropriate increases in density in urban areas is absurd. The awful state of planning and infrastructure forcing HS2 into being basically pointless by taking away the parts that actually matter so that their MPs could keep voters happy in the south, overpaying hugely for that section with our money, is absurd.

      A reasonable balance that’ll both preserve what should be preserved and allow the country to grow is vital. The Town and Country Planning Act isn’t it. The way we build infrastructure isn’t it. We need to unlock growth and unlock the country’s potential and a locked planning system isn’t the way to do that. Neither is building anything anywhere, but we could do a lot, lot better. Beautiful terraces, mid-rise apartments, townhouses. All planned, all would provide housing and are visually appealling, all declined as out of character. The houses they would sit adjacent to were unlikely in character when they were built either. Seal the country in aspic, seal growth.

  3. Avatar photo Big Dave says:

    Better oversight to get everyone up to a gigabit before overbuilding urban 3 or 4 times would be a start.

    1. Avatar photo Ben says:

      IMO we shouldn’t be blocking private enterprises from investing in full fibre infrastructure, even if it’s not in the places we’d like. But obviously government-funding build shouldn’t be overbuild.

    2. Avatar photo Joyce Whittle says:

      Definitely agree with addressing areas without gigabit capable connectivity instead of flooding urban areas with 2,3,4 or even five infrastructures , especially where much of this original infrastructure should have been shared

    3. Avatar photo Steve says:

      Stop these poles from wrecking our estates HU89LW HULL
      Ms3 and connexin and kcom are absolutely making our area in to a 1950s bomb site .
      Stop them and make them use existing infrastructure not new ..take the poles down and decent these clowns to use existing now

    4. Avatar photo Ben says:

      @Steve here’s the fun thing — those providers need to set aside enough money to take down their poles (see https://www.ofcom.org.uk/phones-and-broadband/telecoms-infrastructure/funds-for-liabilities/) — so if nobody wants service then the company will go pop and it’ll be legally obliged to pay for the removal of the poles.

      If, on the other hand, your neighbours want to escape the monopoly of KCOM then they’ll order service and the poles will remain.

  4. Avatar photo Diver Fred says:

    One thing they need to do is to stop multiple AltNets from providing infrastructure to the same roads – usually one after another. Competition is all very well but why should one housing estate have a choice of four or more providers and the next one 1 or 2.

    1. Avatar photo XGS says:

      If it cost half as much to reach that one housing estate as the next one the providers only need half as much penetration to receive the same returns.

      Netomnia built here for ~£200 per premises passed. Nexfibre ~£250. CityFibre a fair amount more but that’s CityFibre. All three overbuilt Openreach as we’re an all fibre estate. 1 of the new entrants is doing well, 1 is a disaster, Nexfibre have only just arrived.

      It’s their money, their decision how to spend it, much as it was the builders’ decision to build this estate with largely block paving and detached homes, fed by plenty of underground ducts, with a few semis and terraces while the next one along is bungalows and semis fed by poles with limited duct between them so pole to pole spans necessary sometimes.

    2. Avatar photo John says:

      The government chas no authority on how you spend your money, UK is not communist yet

    3. Avatar photo Bertie Bassett says:

      > Choice is bad.

  5. Avatar photo GaryH says:

    While social tariffs may be a good thing, operators locking their best deals behind 2 year contracts is still the industry go to. If ever there was a biased contract practice this is it.

  6. Avatar photo Webber says:

    This is bad news for existing home owners after just 72 hours of this new government.

    1. Avatar photo Ben says:

      Absolutely. It’s important that we have a certain level of homelessness so that house prices continue to increase.

      /s

    2. Avatar photo Anon says:

      Oh no! Let’s keep house prices high so existing home owners don’t see their house lose some value. Everyone else struggling to buy or even rent a house? F them! /s

      C’mon Webber.

    3. Avatar photo Webber says:

      @Ben – People need to look at why there is such a massive demand for additional housing stock.

    4. Avatar photo 125us says:

      Life expectancy gains and the high rate of family breakdowns. A family that once occupied one house now occupies two, and occupies them for longer. Those two changes alone mean we need nearly a third more homes to house the same number of people.

  7. Avatar photo AQd47u7kj says:

    The thing that worries me is that they will give planning permission for everything and anything and not care. No good sticking a mast where it is going to be in the way or blight the skyline.

  8. Avatar photo Ray Duffill says:

    The new government provides an opportunity to become more community-focussed and bring communities along as participants in digital transformation rather than mere recipients or customers. We need a move away from the purely profit-driven nature of AltNet building to a more holistic approach:

    A programme of demands aimed at the new Government to ensure that we do not get a continuation of the same ‘wild west’ practices from AltNets:

    # We recognise and support the drive for greater gigabit-capable connectivity, especially in those areas where connectivity is poor. Communities need to be partners in this process of improving connectivity. Mechanisms should be established to include representation from the communities affected by this process.

    # However we decry the overbuild and duplication of infrastructure (additional ducts, cabinets, poles, street furniture) where existing adequate infrastructure already exists and can be shared.

    # The proliferation of unnecessary telegraph poles and additional street furniture is an unintended consequence of permitted development. The sharing of infrastructure, where it exists, should be a mandatory requirment on the alternative network builders (AltNets) in the first instance, not a voluntary option.

    # The operating practices (highways and streetworks) of AltNets should be subject to greater scrutiny and regulation by local authorities. Campaigners and local councils have identified many cases of poor operator practice and breaches of health and safety.

    # Because of so many cases around the country of community opposition being provoked by AltNets, who are not required to consult communities, we call for the alternative broadband network building industry to become subject to planning approval.

    # AltNets complaints procedures should be opened up to residents and local authorities in the communities that they work, not just customers. Alternative dispute resolution schemes (similar to those that Internet Service Providers are subject to) should be available to progress compaints. Where residents and local authorities are not happy with the work of AltNets, then these complaints can be managed by those independent schemes on behalf of Ofcom.

    # The powers of local planning authorities to regulate and oversee the work of AltNets should be clarified immediately under the existing legislation, with a view to curtailing the permitted development rights of the AltNets.

  9. Avatar photo Nick Roberts says:

    HMG could have saved the nation a shed load of money and time wasting by not-permitting cherry-picking of install locations and over-building. But they chose to allow it . . another PPE scandal for “Friends”? Just tell me , where in the UK has duplicate gas and water mains or electricity supply infrastructure ? And yet the new lot are not proposing to ammend the installation methodology . . . all too difficult, pain in the fanny time ?

    And similarly, no promotion of street-located daisy-chained wi-fi 6 repeaters to temporarily overcome the delay in installing FTTP.

    “Dead-loss” UK at its best.

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