Stourbridge MP and government Digital Minister Margot James has signalled her delight at broadband giant Virgin Media’s crushing of a cash-strapped local authority’s bid to charge for letting it excavate grass verges and pavements to lay fibre optic cables.
Durham County Council initially held out against the corporation’s demand for unrestricted access to dig up streets after residents protested about damage to gardens, roads and pavements caused by Virgin contractors.
But Virgin Media used sweeping new powers from recent legislative changes by Ms James’ government department to sue the council for ‘obstruction’ of its Project Lightning broadband programme.
Threatened with an expensive court case, the council was forced into a climb-down and must now give Virgin Media unlimited access for a token one-off £1 payment.
Ms James, Minister for Digital and Creative Industries wrote in her early morning Tweet: ‘Delighted by the judgement in favour of @virginmedia against Durham Council who wanted to levy impossible charges for laying fibre’.
In fact there was no judgement or any proceedings; the council settled out of court before the case was heard, abandoning their defence on legal advice and accepting the derisory £1 payment gesture by Virgin Media.
No details of the county council’s proposed price-per-metre excavation access charge were made public but Virgin Media labelled them ‘hefty’.
Stuart Timmiss, head of planning and assets at Durham County Council – which is currently dealing with a further £36 million in spending cuts after a sixth year of central funding grant reductions by the Government – expressed disappointment that Virgin Media had taken the action while negotiations continued.
He said: “Many meetings have been held over recent months, mostly to deal with the poor performance by Virgin Media in our communities.
“Earlier this year, we took the unusual step of serving the company with an improvement notice due to a significant number of complaints received from residents on the streets in which they were operating.
“This included poor reinstatement that is yet to be resolved, drives being blocked over long periods of time as well as damage to property.”
Mr Timmiss conceded that Virgin Media had acted to resolve some situations, including terminating contracts with contractors on site. He said: “These issues are not uncommon and we are not the only local authority who has been forced to take such action.”
Virgin Media released a bullish statement when it announced its intention to sue, with the company’s chief executive Tom Mockridge issuing a warning to other councils: “Haggling over land access when we build in a new area slows down broadband rollout and deters investment.
“It is also an impediment to Government and Ofcom’s ambition for increased fibre rollout and network competition to BT. It’s time rhetoric was put into action to truly break down the barriers to building broadband.”
The telecoms corporations’ power to over-rule local objections was strengthened massively in December 2017 after intensive lobbying won them the right to enter public and private land without ‘obstruction’ or delay by authorities, landowners or residents.
The amended Electronic Communications Code in the Digital Economy Act 2017 now gives broadband corporations extraordinary powers to enter and re-enter properties and share its access rights with other companies.
Virgin Media’s action against Durham County Council has implications for local authorities throughout the country, including Dudley Borough Council and its residents.
Under the new code published in March 2018 by Ofcom, trees can be cut back or axed completely, access routes can be changed or blocked and contractors can install electronic communications apparatus ‘on, under or over land’.
The code’s uncompromising stance means that landowners and householders who object can be taken to court for an enforcement order to be imposed and local authorities can be sued for compensation.
Virgin Media’s aggressive fibre optic broadband roll-out has met with anger from residents across the country who have complained about disruption.
In Scotland, the Daily Record reported that householders found heavy equipment parked on their gardens by contractors while work was carried out behind barriers. One resident claimed that virtually his entire street had spurned Virgin Media’s subsequent offer of broadband connection packages in protest at the imposition of the installation.
In Stoke on Trent, Virgin Media has been criticised for leaving pavements in a ‘diabolical state’, according to the Stoke Sentinel. A county councillor said: “Virgin Media had dug up the pavement and, after they’d finished, they’d just put some tarmac down, but it hadn’t been sealed properly. They also left behind the rubble on the pavement, leaving it quite dangerous.”
On Virgin Media’s own website community forum, householders complain of damage to homes, parked cars and gardens, while others express anger at poor reinstatement works that include block paving torn up and then replaced with ‘patchwork’ tarmac.
In February, Ms James’s first major action as the new Digital minister was to claim a major advance in superfast broadband services throughout the UK but it was overshadowed by an independent report that ranks the UK’s network as far more expensive and much slower than those of many other European nations. (See link below)
Durham County Council already has its own pioneering £25m Digital Durham connectivity scheme to roll out fibre based broadband right across the county ‘ensuring all households have access to superfast broadband’. The council explained: “Providers such as Virgin Media only provide broadband services to certain areas within the county which they deem to be commercially viable.”
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