This week saw an important milestone in one of the six main things I said I would try to achieve for the Yeovil constituency. The Government funding for the second phase of Somerset's broadband rollout to 95-96% coverage can now proceed, clearing the hurdle of something called "State Aid". This is a regime through which the EU can stop national governments subsidising private or state players where it is deemed anti-competitive. I thank the Minister, Ed Vaizey, who at our local Somerset MPs' urging has helped push this clearance along in Brussels.
In the coming Parliamentary year a Broadband Bill will also come forward, designed to enable the final coverage to be available for everyone to access broadband. This reflects the Government intention to transform our rural areas so that they can be well connected and enable remote working and businesses in the countryside to flourish. There are lots of examples of great new uses for agricultural buildings but the missing ingredient is the connectivity to enable emerging businesses to grow.
It is as yet unclear what exact terms and technologies will operate with regard to the last part, and of course I understand people will be anxious to know whether they are going to be in that bit or within the 96% coverage programme. It may be some time still before this becomes clear, however I am pleased to see both the progress on the 96%, allowing the tender process for the rollout to be completed, and the commitment to the full coverage for those who want it. I will closely watch the detail of the Bill as well as the tender process to try to make sure we get as much information and as good a deal as possible for our area.
Another Bill included in the Queen's Speech the week before last (Her Majesty at 90 was reassuringly sprightly as well as sparkly, I am happy to report) was a Buses Bill. I have been liaising with bus groups and tourist operators as well as the Minister Andrew Jones this week, to understand how important bus services are and try to feed into the Bill process. It is currently intended for local authority groupings who have elected Mayors, and colleagues and I are sceptical as to whether an elected Mayor would ever be a good idea for Somerset, however there may be opportunities to have another look at buses in our area through this and the devolution process.
I am very much aware how important rural bus services are to our area, for businesses, young people and older people, and I am aware how silly it seems that the healthcare and education bus systems don't integrate with other scheduled services. Of course budgets are under pressure and many buses seem to run empty, so efficiency has to be there. It may though be time to try to think laterally and more radically about the value that communal transport adds and the way it can be organised.
It is essential that local businesses and residents should participate in that process. Do write to me with your thoughts and ideas, at the House of Commons or on firstname.lastname@example.org