|David J. Rowlands AC|
|Hefin David AC|
|Joyce Watson AC|
|Mark Isherwood AC|
|Russell George AC||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Vikki Howells AC|
|Callum Couper||Rheolwr Porthladd Caerdydd a'r Barri, Porthladdoedd Cysylltiedig Prydain, De Cymru|
|Port Manager Cardiff & Barry, Associated British Ports South Wales|
|Caren Fullerton||Prif Swyddog Digidol, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Chief Digital Officer, Welsh Government|
|Ed Hunt||Cyfarwyddwr y Rhaglen Superfast Cymru, Openreach|
|Programme Director Superfast Cymru, Openreach|
|Julie James AC||Arweinydd y Ty a’r Prif Chwip|
|Leader of the House and Chief Whip|
|Kim Mears||Rheolwr Gyfarwyddwr Cyflwyno Seilwaith, Openreach|
|Managing Director Infrastructure Delivery, Openreach|
|Richard Ballantyne||Prif Weithredwr, Cymdeithas Porthladdoedd Prydain|
|Chief Executive, British Ports Association|
|Richard Sewell||Dirpwy Cyfarwyddwr, Is-adran Isadeiledd TGCh, Llywodraeth Cymru|
|Deputy Director, ICT Infrastructure Division, Welsh Government|
|Tim Reardon||Cyfarwyddwr Polisi, Siambr Llongau'r DU|
|Policy Director, UK Chamber of Shipping|
|Catherine Hunt||Ail Glerc|
|Jennifer Cottle||Cynghorydd Cyfreithiol|
|Robert Lloyd-Williams||Dirprwy Glerc|
|1. Cyflwyniad, ymddiheuriadau, dirprwyon a datgan buddiannau||1. Introductions, apologies, substitutions and declarations of interest|
|2. Cynnig o dan Reol Sefydlog 17.42 i benderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer eitem 3||2. Motion under Standing Order 17.42 to resolve to exclude the public from item 3|
|4. Arweinydd y Tŷ a’r Prif Chwip—Diweddariad digidol (gan gynnwys Cyflymu Cymru)||4. Leader of the House and Chief Whip—Digitalisation update (including Superfast Cymru)|
|5. Datganoli pwerau ynghylch porthladdoedd o dan Ddeddf Cymru 2017—Pwerau newydd: Posibiliadau Newydd||5. Devolution of ports powers under the Wales Act 2017—New Powers: New Possibilities|
|6. Sesiwn Cyflymu Cymru gyda Openreach—Seilwaith digidol Cymru||6. Superfast Cymru session with Openreach—Digital infrastructure in Wales|
|7. Papurau i'w nodi||7. Papers to note|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:30.
The meeting began at 09:30.
Croeso, bawb—good morning. I'd like to welcome Members and members of the public to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee. We will propose to go into private session in a moment, but at 10 o'clock we will be asking questions to the Leader of the House and Chief Whip, Julie James AM, in regard to Superfast Cymru. That'll be at 10 o'clock. There are two apologies today—one from Lee Waters and the other from Adam Price. Other Members will be joining us shortly.
bod y pwyllgor yn penderfynu gwahardd y cyhoedd o'r cyfarfod ar gyfer eitem 3 yn unol â Rheol Sefydlog 17.42(vi).
that the committee resolves to exclude the public from item 3 in accordance with Standing Order 17.42(vi).
Cynigiwyd y cynnig.
I move to item 2. Are Members happy, under Standing Order 17.42, that we go into a private session?
Derbyniwyd y cynnig.
Daeth rhan gyhoeddus y cyfarfod i ben am 09:31.
The public part of the meeting ended at 09:31.
Ailymgynullodd y pwyllgor yn gyhoeddus am 09:59.
The committee reconvened in public at 09:59.
I'd like to welcome members of the public watching back to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee. I now move to item 4. Before us we have Julie James AM, the Leader of the House and Chief Whip. I'd be grateful, Minister, if you could introduce your colleagues.
Certainly. I've got with me Caren Fullerton, who's my chief digital officer, and Richard Sewell, who's in charge of the broadband roll-out programme.
We're very grateful for you being with us this morning. Has BT done a good job?
Yes, they have. Now, we're not yet in a position to say whether they've absolutely made the contract target of 690,000 premises because it takes us several weeks—somewhere between eight and 16 weeks—to verify all of the data. We have a very strict verification process so they get paid for premises passed. They are not paid for building infrastructure until the premises are connected and passed, so, we go through that process. We think that they've made the contract target. Their figures certainly show that they've made the contract target, but, until we've done the verification, we won't absolutely—
They think they've passed and now you've got to check those figures. And when do you expect to have completed that work?
This time around, it's slightly different to the usual quarterly verification, because we have to look at the whole programme as a defrayment exercise that looks at moving from a payment mechanism per premises passed to an actual what is the expenditure defrayed in each case. So, you have to, effectively, go through all of the packs from the past five years and put it all together, so—.
Right, okay. I said BT. I should have said Openreach, of course, as well.
Right, okay. Thanks for clarifying that, Minister. You said you think BT have done a good job. Are there any areas where you think they haven't done a good job?
Again, it depends how you look at the programme. So, the primary purpose of the programme is to connect as many people in Wales as possible. We've put a target on that and we very much hope that they've reached the target. It does look as if they have, and that's why I'm being slightly cautious about saying it categorically. But there are areas of the contract, which, in retrospect, it's clear we should have thought about more deeply.
The contract is done on the basis of postcodes across Wales, and the number of premises identified in a postcode that were likely to need to be connected. The communication has been around the postcode area. What's happened, as the Chair will well know, is that, when people in that postcode are not connected, then, obviously, they're disgruntled, and the communication with those people has been less than splendid, I think it's fair to say. At the beginning of the contract, that wasn't such a problem, because very large numbers of people were being connected and they hadn't been connected before and it wasn't such an issue that you weren't immediately connected in that programme, and so we had very few complaints about it. But, obviously, as the programme came towards termination and people could see that they were falling towards the end of the programme and then, in some cases, off the end of the programme, they got very disgruntled, very understandably, and you'll know that I've apologised on a number of occasions for the fact that they've had a rolling series of dates that have then not quite come to fruition.
The communication for that has not been splendid. However, I do think that the committee should understand why that's the case. BT invest their own money in the build out for the infrastructure; we don't pay them. So, they invest up front in the build for the infrastructure. And they overbuild because we only pay them for the premises they connect. So, they have to overbuild quite substantially in order to get to the number of premises. What they do is they tell everybody they're building towards that they're in scope, and it's only when they hit a problem, and then that drops out of scope, that they change the comms, and that's where the issue has been. So, they've been optimistic in telling people who are in the initial build programme that they're going to get it, and then when they hit whatever problem they hit—an engineering problem, a wayleave problem, whatever—and they fall out of scope, that's what happens.
Explain this, because when I write to you as a constituency AM and you write back to me and say, 'Well, Mrs Jones has got to get her—. She'll be in scope and she's due to have availability by June of a certain year', and that doesn't happen, why is that? Why is that information that BT is giving you to respond to me so wrong?
Because they've started the build. So, if you think of 10 houses—1 to 10 in an arc—they start the build to all 10 and then, for houses seven to 10, they hit a problem—a wayleave or some such, or a duct is blocked or they have some issue, so seven to 10 fall out of scope. But at the point in time that we are exchanging that correspondence, they're all in scope. Sometimes all 10 are connected, and that's fantastic; sometimes none of the 10 are connected, because, actually, they hit problems with every single one. And that's the difficulty: at what point do you tell people that there's an insurmountable problem? So, for example, we have several thousand properties stuck behind wayleaves. Some of the wayleaves are resolved overnight, and some of them take months and months and months to resolve.
Would it be better to explain that when you're responding to Assembly Members or direct to customers?
Absolutely, but, at the point in time that we're telling people that they're in scope, they don't know what those problems are. The conversation we've had is what the to-and-fro correspondence ought to be at the point that you hit problems.
You also don't want to be telling people that there's a problem when, actually, it's resolvable. So, it's a difficulty. Because we don't target individual premises in the way that people expect us to, it's very difficult to be—
So, in regard to communication, what would you do differently in the new scheme in terms of communications?
The new scheme will be completely differently structured; it will not be based on postcode areas, so we will not have whole swathes of people who start off in scope and then we wait to see where the build is. It's going to be a lot more targeted on specifics. But we will still have difficulties around not over-promising, so if I say to Mrs Jones in 32 Acacia Gardens that we're on the way to her and then at some point during the build we hit one of these problems, because we can't possibly know that in advance, we will have to discuss what level of information is exchanged.
Of course, yesterday we had an exchange in the Chamber in regard to people who had been told, perhaps a series of times, that they would be in scope and, of course, 31 December comes and then you write to them and, effectively, say, 'You're no longer in scope—sorry, the project's ended.' And I, of course, asked you could you give any guarantee if you could ensure that those people are prioritised, and you said, no, you can give no guarantee. But my question would be, well, they were given, to a point, a guarantee just before 31 December, because they were told, 'Yes, you're going to get it.' In December, they'd been told, 'You're going to get this before the end of the month', so it changed dramatically from that date—if you could just explain that.
Okay. So, we never promised that, and I don't want to have a semantic argument because I totally understand people's frustration, but the letters don't promise; they say, 'You're in scope'. They say it's scheduled; they don't promise. We very carefully don't promise, but I do completely—. I'm not trying to get out of it because of that semantic point, because I do totally understand people's frustration that they read the letter as saying that they're going to get it.
If someone thinks they're scheduled to get it by a certain date, they think they're going to get it by a certain date, whether it's scheduled or promised.
Absolutely. But, you know, it's not—. We do try to explain in those letters—I know that you've had a lot of them—we do try to explain that it's not a promise and that we can't always be certain that the engineering works will get to them and so on. I'm not going to pre-announce my announcements for next week on what we're going to do with the second stage of this, but we will be looking carefully, of course, at the people who were in scope last time to see what we can do for them. But, just to reiterate, I can't possibly promise that we can solve all of the wayleave problems, for example. So, if you're stuck behind a wayleave and that's what holding you up then, unless we can solve that wayleave problem—
Well, when we announce the new programme, you'll see that we've got several structures in place that will be taking account of different people's needs. So, the various categories are people who are nearly there in the build, so BT's infrastructure is almost to them—over 90 per cent build out to their premises. We've got people where the build out is halfway, and we've got people where there's no build out.
But those people who were being told just last month that they'll be scheduled—
Okay. So, they'll be—. Because, in December, the beginning of December, they were told, 'You're going to be scheduled by the end of this month', so, when the new scheme starts, when would they expect to be scheduled then?
So, if they're in the category of people where the build is nearly to them then they'll be being looked at very early on in the new build.
Will they be—? I mean, they'll want a date. That's what they'll be asking me; that's what they'll be asking us.
No, they were told they were in scope for the previous project, which they were. What we're doing is we're working very hard with BT to understand how many premises would have stayed in scope if the contract hadn't finished on 31 December. So, if they'd had another two months or something, whether they—you know, there isn't a problem other than the time. So, the difference is between properties where there isn't a problem other than the fact that the contract finished, those properties where there is a problem because there's a wayleave or an engineering problem, those premises where, actually, they're nowhere near the build—there are quite a few categories.
Okay. I think I've got two Members who want to come in on this point. Joyce.
Just on this point, it's fairly clear and obvious that any new build at the start of the programme won't be included, and we're going to have this huge housebuilding project. Is there now maybe a realisation that there's a need to do something about planning when we're looking at infrastructure? You couldn't build a house for example, without putting some drains in. Nobody would buy it and the planning wouldn't allow it. Is it not the case that we need to look at amending current planning legislation, or agreement, certainly, with those who are building houses, to incorporate broadband as an essential utility?
Yes, absolutely. I wish we could have done that a long time ago. There are things that councils can do already around the section 106 agreements when they connect new builds up. So, they can negotiate with the builders to put various infrastructure into the roads as they adopt them. But that's something they can do; they don't have to do it. I've had long discussions with various housing Ministers about changing some of the regulations around the build of the house itself, because, actually, the build of the house, with modern insulation standards, can itself be a problem, because they effectively become a Faraday cage, so no signal gets through the build. So, you have to build it with the ducts in place in order to be able to get a signal inside. People need to take account of that, but also, with the new universal service obligation being rolled out by the UK Government, a conversation about how that is to be achieved and what that might do to building and planning regulations absolutely is taking place—right now, in fact.
I just wanted to add as well that we're also seeing the telecoms industry picking up on the importance of this. Virgin Media, for example, are rolling out fibre to the premises as their standard technology now on new-build developments. BT are doing the same. BT have been talking to home builders now—talking to the people putting out the properties, because it's cheaper to get this infrastructure in from the beginning, rather than retrofitting it. So, there's a sense of coming together between the two sets of industries. Where we see the biggest gap, potentially, is in the smaller home builders—so 30 properties or fewer—where, actually, they might not surface to be seen by the telecommunications industry. So, it's trying to get that on the radar. The Minister for Housing and Regeneration is aware of this issue and we'll be taking that forward with the home builders. So, we're trying to plug that gap, really.
And what's interesting is that in some places in Wales you can see house prices starting to be affected by the speed of the broadband, and consumers getting a bit more savvy about asking those questions before they purchase. That obviously drives change from the house builders as well; so if the small house builder is getting less for their houses because they haven't connected them, then clearly that differentiates their behaviour.
So, we're very much on the case of trying to make sure that new builds are connected and that we don't have to retrofit, as Rich said. A bigger problem is people who live in recent new builds, completed just before the programme, but they should be picked up in our open-market review this time.
Can I just ask a question, just to take a step back to the work that is 85 per cent complete by 31 December, and just from your perspective of having a dialogue with BT: do they talk about the commercial efficacy of not completing 85 per cent—?
Part of the discussion, obviously, with BT is: why is it not commercially viable for them to complete that network? Why do they need public funds to do so? I believe you're having a session with them shortly, but obviously for us, we're trying to negotiate the best cost to the public purse. It's very hard to see why, if something's 98 per cent built, it's not in that company's best interests to complete that build.
So, do you find yourself as a Minister putting pressure on on a case-by-case basis? Is that how it works?
We're having a long conversation with them about what the best way of doing that for numbers is. But part of that conversation is about—they've invested heavily. We haven't paid for this infrastructure that's been put in the ground. They have invested heavily in it, so they have commercial decisions.
Well, they have commercial decisions to make about extending their network.
Thank you. I've got a very small number of examples explaining the frustration. I've got one here in Llanfynydd, Flintshire. In October, Openreach say: 'ongoing work to extend the network. This is estimated to be completed by the end of December'. In December: 'your property's highly unlikely to gain access to superfast broadband under this phase'. One in Whitford, Holywell—we have originally, in early December, 'Good news—the area is in Superfast Cymru's project plans to bring fibre to the premises to the area. We're looking to have this completed before the end of December'. Then, a few weeks later in January, unfortunately they don't have any good news for them. The first phase of the Superfast Cymru programme has ended and their property won't be connected.
And on it goes. There's case after case after case. Some have been shared with you. Some of these received your letter, because BT told you they had been connected when they hadn't been, and now it has been confirmed that they won't be. And this issue has massively multiplied the frustration and anger for those people who feel that they've been led on. If they'd been told from the beginning, 'You're in an area that's highly unlikely to be connected—if there's any good news we'll let you know'—but managing expectations—. But, right up to the end of last month being told good news, and then, now, sneaking out one after another—these e-mails aren't being copied on or intervened on or being responded to—it raises some very, very serious and worrying questions. In your engagement with Openreach, are you emphasising the seriousness of the concerns and the implications of this, not only for the reputation of the project, but also for the reputation of their organisation?
Absolutely. As I say, I share the frustration of the people in that. It is worth emphasising, though, that there are thousands and thousands of people who are connected in those areas, and, obviously, we're not inundated by people writing and saying how delighted they are that they were connected, because that's in the nature of the beast. So, the letters that we write out, for example—we write thousands of those letters and we get tens back saying that they aren't connected. Actually, that's a good verification for us; it's useful for us to know that we think they're connected and they're not. We use that as part of our verification process.
I'm not in any way underestimating the frustration of people who're in that position. I share their frustration, and we have people across Wales who are in that position. But, as I said, what's happened is, because of the structure of the contract and the way that they overbuild, you're told that your premises is in scope, because BT are overbuilding to that, and then, for whatever reason—engineering reason, wayleave reason, other reasons; there are a myriad of reasons—they then can't get to your property. But, of course, what they're trying to do is overbuild so that they get to the target number in that area. So, they've got to overbuild.
Would it be helpful to have a bit of additional context as well? We have a grant agreement that stretches over a period of time, and there's a hard stop involved in that, so there may be a desire to do more, but then you've only got the state aid cover for that particular action. And there are rules around how we, as the public sector, intervene in this space.
So, it becomes a three-way conversation as well, with the UK Government's broadband delivery unit and with Openreach—for Openreach to understand what they've got left, what they've built and what they haven't finally connected, and then also, a conversation with Broadband Delivery UK to understand whether or not state aid cover can be provided if we were interested or if we were able to work together to try and complete those premises. So, from an administrative process, in the background, there's a bit of time required to have those conversations and that's what we have been doing in advance of this hard stop coming, so that it's not a sort of cliff edge and then suddenly we wake up. There is a bit of activity going on, recognising that this issue would emerge.
You mentioned you've had tens of cases—I'm only one Member among 60 and I've had a good chunk of tens, just as one Member. I'm surprised that the numbers are so small, given the number of AMs who've got up across the Chamber having had cases raised with them. I've had a volume, and I suspect others might—
Yes, but we've built it out to 690,000 premises. We have got people complaining—absolutely. And I share their frustration, but they're hundreds, not thousands.
Would you accept that the concern here is that these aren't just people whose expectations were managed on the basis that there were complications and that it might be unlikely that they would get a connection, and have instead received an e-mail saying it's good news and then being told a few weeks later that it's not?
I do share their frustration—absolutely. We've had long conversations with BT about the communications of this and their—
We've had long conversations about it, and the communications did change towards the end of the project, because we were so frustrated by the overly optimistic forecasting, shall we say?
So, what's your view of their forecasting?
Well, we won't be doing it like that anymore, because we share the frustration of people who're in that. So, we won't structure the contract in that way next time.
And the nature of the beast as well, is some of the forecasts—. They've been pessimistic where they've actually delivered far in advance, but we don't get the letters from those people, because they wouldn't—. So, the nature of the beast is that we're going to hear from those who are really frustrated.
I also get quite a lot of letters from people who complain that they're not connected when they are, so, actually, I write out quite often to people, saying, 'No, you are connected, you can—'
Well, that's a good letter back, isn't it? But would you agree that BT's forecasting has been extremely frustrating?
We've had a lot of robust conversations with BT about the comms for this. I've been touring around Wales to various constituencies, and often get a room full of people who are frustrated; we don't tend to get rooms full of people who've been connected and are now happy. And BT come along to those meetings very often and have heard, first-hand, the frustrations of people, so we've had that robust conversation with them on a number of occasions.
Okay. Can I just ask you very quickly about take-up as well? What is the current take-up of Superfast Cymru services?
It's 40 per cent.
Forty-something. Okay. So, in November 2017, the Welsh Government then said it was 39 per cent. So, it's gone up to 40—
It's 40.1 per cent.
For the curve of take-up of new technology, that's very good. What you've got to judge that against is what the gain share provision says. So, BT estimated that around 21 per cent of people would take up the new technology at the beginning of this contract.
By 2023. And we're running at twice that. So, actually, the curve for new technology take-up—we're well ahead of it.
Well, the point is that it's really frustrating for people who haven't got it who desperately want it that lots of people who have got it and could have it don't buy it. New technology curves are really interesting—if you look at the take-up of the telephone or the television, for example—and how long it takes to get to well over half of the population. So, I understand the question, and obviously I would like it to be very much higher because we get a gain share. So, the more people who buy it, the more money I've got to spend on the second phase.
I'll take this opportunity, Chair, to say that anyone who knows somebody who can buy it and isn't, please persuade them to do so because we get a gain share for that.
But the take-up is not as good as you wanted it to be, because you want it to be—
Yes. In 2015, your target was 50 per cent. So, whose responsibility is it for take-up? Is it yours, is it BT's, or both?
Well, for BT it's just a commercial matter. We have an exploitation team that goes around and talks to people about the benefits of taking up broadband, and we try very hard to advertise that.
Well, they drive it on a commercial basis. BT have two hats on, haven't they? They've built the infrastructure—so the equivalent of the roads. We're trying to get people to put their cars on it, if you want to use that analogy. So, we don't want people to just go to BT as an internet service provider. We want them to just buy broadband off whoever.
We have a business exploitation team that spends a lot of time out there in Wales trying to persuade people. We run a big advertising campaign. As each county gets to where we think it's a good point to start advertising it, then we do that. We share the frustrations of the people who haven't got it. We don't want to pour salt in the wound, if you like, and start advertising 'Why don't you buy broadband?' in an area where we know, actually, the coverage isn't that great, but when we've got good coverage in an area, we start to push, you know, 'Please buy broadband. You can get it.' Obviously, we then get a number of people who write in, saying, 'Well, I can't buy it.'
Do you think you're doing a good enough job in terms of driving up?
We're pleased with the way the take-up is going, but we could always do better. And, as I say, there's a gain share involved for us, so the more people who buy it, the better off we are.
Well, it's important, because there's a lot of public money being spent on the infrastructure, so people need to take it up.
I'll move on to a new area—sorry, did you want to come in?
I just want to add that, from around April, we're going to be making a new announcement of a new campaign. There is a piece of work called 'We made it fast, you make it super', and it's going to have a big arrow and it visits various towns and locations. We're going to put a big push behind that—a radio campaign et cetera. So, that will be announced somewhere around April. So, there will be a big push behind it.
If we move on now to the successor scheme to Superfast Cymru, the procurement exercise was due to be launched in September 2017. Can you give us an update on that, as to when it's actually going to be—?
Well, I'm going to make an oral statement to the Assembly next week, so I'm not going to pre-announce it, I'm afraid. So, in some ways, it's unfortunate that I'm here in the committee today and the announcement will be next week.
No. [Laughter.] We will be announcing something next week. I'm quite happy to discuss some of the shape of that, as I said in an earlier answer. It will be in lots. It will be tailored to the needs of particular areas of Wales that have differential coverage at the moment, and we will be looking at specifics for people, now that we've done a piece of work, to know where the infrastructure build is too. We will be looking at specifics. But I'm not, I'm afraid, prepared to pre-announce it now. I'm scheduled to make an oral statement next week.
That was my next part—. When you do advertise for it, will it be in separate lots, or in one large contract?
So, it will not be one contract for Wales this time because we have very specific problems in very specific bits of Wales that we will be looking to cover off.
Okay. If I can move on: action taken towards implementing the Welsh Government's mobile action plan. This was launched in October 2017.
Yes. We are in regular correspondence and communication with the mobile industry. We have a number of frustrations around that. We are waiting on planning colleagues to produce their piece of planning work, which I believe is due in the next couple of months, so we're waiting to see what planning colleagues have to say—I'm not the Minister for planning—about permitted development rights and the ability to build masts. They're in the middle of their piece of work to decide what to do and whether to change some of the planning guidance around that.
The mobile industry would have you believe that it's a silver bullet to simply be allowed to build bigger and more masts. I take a slightly different view. I don't think we want to cover the beautiful Welsh countryside with a mast every 50 ft because the mobile industry doesn't want to share infrastructure. So, we take a slightly different view. We would like them to co-operate a lot more and to share masts and infrastructure so that we have the minimum number of masts for the greatest amount of coverage.
We are also very keen that they utilise the Home Office mast system, which has been built—the emergency system, which the Home Office very much like to share with others, not least because they'd like an income from it, and we would like to see more than one operator cover the geographical coverage for Wales. I think it's O2 that has an obligation to get to 97 per cent coverage. Is that right, Rich?
By the end of December, yes.
By the end of December gone.
And the feedback that you're getting from the companies about sharing masts—?
They're not keen. They have a commercial imperative that they want to build out their own networks. We have a frustration about that. Mobile is not devolved to Wales; would that it were because I wish I could do some stuff around it. So, we are only in conversation with them. I discussed this with my counterparts in the UK Government as well because they do have the power to do some of this stuff, and we've had long conversations with Ofcom, which did eventually result in the 97 per cent geographical coverage for one of the operators.
If I can just add, just to defend the mobile industry a little bit—[Laughter.] It's not my usual—
I think one of the challenges they do face as an industry is that they use different frequencies, and so the mast location for one particular operator might not suit the mast location for another operator because they need shorter distances or longer distances between their hops. So, I'm not taking anything away from what the Minister said, but it's not all straightforward.
No. We couldn't build a single infrastructure system for Wales, but we don't need seven either.
And we could also benefit from, I think, being able to roam across their networks. That would probably transform it, though the regulator is not necessarily very keen on that.
The regulator's not keen on that. One of my frustrations is that if you have a European sim card, your card will just connect to whatever. So, if you're in France, for example, your British sim card will connect to whatever network is available in that area. But if you've got a British sim card it will only stay connected to your network.
Isn't the regulator and the mobile operators—. Their view is that that would disincentivise those companies from building further infrastructure.
But you don't agree with that view? No. David, did you have further questions? Sorry, before you move on, I think Mark had—. Was it on mobile?
Do you mind if I take Mark's question and then come back to yours? Mark.
First of all, you will be aware that the Ofcom 'Connected Nations 2017' report for Wales contained a table at A2 on page 40: 'Coverage by all four operators of data, voice and 4G services across the UK and Nations', which had Wales lagging behind in most areas. We know that the commercial decisions the operators take are often driven by topography and population issues, and therefore some degree of intervention will be necessary. We understand from Ofcom that the water companies, particularly Dŵr Cymru and Severn Trent, have indicated the possibility of putting mobile masts on their existing infrastructure within Wales, and I understand that at least Dŵr Cymru has spoken to the Welsh Government regarding that. I wonder whether you could give us an update or information on that.
Yes, we've been looking at using public infrastructure for that kind of role, particularly for 5G actually. In the discussions around the 5G testbeds, there is a long discussion going on about how we might utilise public infrastructure in order to do that, and I include the water companies, the utilities, in that to some extent, certainly Dŵr Cymru. That's an ongoing conversation, but we are waiting on our planning colleagues' piece of research as well because we want to see where that takes us, and then we'll be doing an updated mobile action plan as soon as we've got that. But that's obviously one of the possibilities. There is a large number of other possibilities, as well, that we'll be looking at. One of the difficulties is that the difference between mobile and broadband is becoming blurred, because large numbers of people use their mobile signal for data, to get online, and it's frustrating that we can do one and not the other, because they're actually becoming quite interlinked. So, that's an ongoing conversation. We're looking to get some 5G test beds in Wales to test out what the best way of using public infrastructure is to do that.
What's your updated mobile action plan? When is that likely to be published?
I'm waiting on planning colleagues' piece of advice to us first, to see what that says, so that we can then talk with the mobile industry about what that means for them and what we can do to facilitate that. I am waiting on the planning advice.
And about your mobile action plan, you talked about it a bit, but can you just tell me what specifically has been achieved—not conversations—what has been achieved since you launched it in October last year?
I don't have the power to achieve something in quite the way that you say. What we're doing is getting them together and making them talk to each other about the best way of achieving this. And also, we did do very well in getting Ofcom to get one of them to give us geographical coverage because, obviously, for the commercial operators, they want to go where most of the people are, and that is always the line along south Wales and the line along north Wales. For our tourism industry and so on, it's important that people can get signal all the way through. As the nature of the way we do things changes, people want to go up Pen y Fan or whatever, using their GIS signal. They don't want to be carrying a map. So, it's important.
Because as I understand it, your updated mobile action plan, that's going to come after your colleague Lesley Griffiths has brought forward some framework—
Yes. We need to understand what planning colleagues' parameters will be for planning in Wales before we can take that aspect of it forward.
I understand there will be a public consultation. If there are any proposed changes to planning, there will be a public consultation on that, and I understand that it should be reasonably soon.
Well, they have to come back with the research. We have to see whether the research suggests changes to the planning system. If it does, then they will have to consult on the changes to the planning system, because that's how it works. There will then be a consultation about the changes, if changes are proposed.
Yes. If we can come back to Access Broadband Cymru, could you tell us the current status of Access Broadband Cymru and the ultrafast connectivity vouchers? Are there any biddable grant schemes planned?
We've continued with the voucher schemes. We continue to push them. We have a team of people—. For ultrafast, in particular, we have a business exploitation team that we are very keen to get out to businesses to get them to understand what their requirements are. One of the frustrations I have is the number of businesses who wait for superfast to arrive, and then it arrives and they realise almost instantly that it was never going to be the right service and they actually need ultrafast. So, we have a business exploitation team—a group of very good people—who can go out and talk to businesses about what their actual requirements are, and then get them connected to the right ethernet service so that they can cover it. So, I can give you some examples. We have examples of people who are running fairly large hotels or caravan parks who think that they're waiting for superfast, but you've only got to think about that—. So, if you get a superfast download service of around 80 Mbps, 60 Mbps—something of that sort—but you've got 100 caravans and they all have four people in them and each of those four people has two devices they want to connect, you can see pretty quickly that that's not going to be adequate. So, we need the businesses to understand that they should be looking to connect to the ultrafast system sooner rather than later. For ABC, that's for people who are outside the network, and obviously there's going to be a continued need for that, because we know that some premises in Wales are going to be very difficult indeed to connect on a fibre network because they are very remote. So, they will always need alternative ways of connecting. So, we're very much running the two schemes at the same time.
To come to a few more specifics with regard to broadband, the public sector broadband aggregation network—how is that going?
So, we have a public sector broadband network that runs right across Wales. It connects our GP services, our schools, our—well, all our public buildings. One of the things that we're looking to do with that, with Caren's team, is to see what we can do to take full advantage of that in delivering public services.
So, one of my real hobby horses on that is to get to the point where we can have a log-on for every public servant in Wales in any public building in Wales, and they can be connected back to their home system and they can work. So, for example, if I were sitting in my GP office waiting for some sort of routine appointment, I would be able to log on, using the GP's system, to my Welsh Government data and happily work away. We ought to be able to do that in every public sector building, and we'll be using the public sector broadband aggregation pipe in order to investigate whether we can run services of that sort.
We've done a very good job in getting PSBA out to all of our public services. I can talk to you for a great length of time, Chair, about the connection of schools, which we're working on—we've done very well with connecting all of our schools as well. We've got some crossover there. Where we haven't been able to get the PSBA network to schools, we're working to get superfast to them and then some other connections as well to make sure that all of our schools can be connected to Hwb, for example.
To add to that, it brings in Learning in Digital Wales.
Just one last thing, Chair, if I can. It may be a very naive question, but we talk about 69,000 premises already being connected, and then you say—
—ninety thousand, and then we talk about 4 per cent being left over. Obviously, 90,000 and 60,000—
About 90,000 premises are currently not connected in Wales. That's our estimate. So, that's about 4 per cent of the premises in Wales, ish.
That includes the commercial roll-outs in the cities as well. So, the 4 per cent are the people who are not connected, either through the commercial roll-out or through the superfast programme. It's 4 per cent-ish.
Yes, moving on, to what extent, if any, does the Welsh Government's chief digital officer have responsibility for major digital projects within the Welsh Government and the public sector, including the Welsh NHS—of course, topical today after the problems with the Welsh NHS computer system yesterday?
The short answer to that is that she doesn't have a responsibility for the NHS, but I do. So, I've been working very hard with the Cabinet Secretary for health, Vaughan Gething, to make sure that health services are connected through the policy framework. NHS Wales has its own digital arrangements, but we have good liaison arrangements between us and them. So, for example, I run a data and digital group right across the Welsh Government, and the deputy director for the NHS Wales Informatics Service comes along to that. I run a monthly update meeting for digital across Government, and the head of the service, Frances, comes along to that. So, we have policy connections.
Vaughan Gething and I are working very closely together to make sure that we have cross-Government liaison arrangements. I'm actually about to take over chairing some of the national informatics management board. I'm sorry I'm smiling—health service people love acronyms as well, but they don't understand always the funniness of some of them. So, it's called the NIMB board, which for people outside the health service means something different, but it's the national informatics management board.
So, I will be becoming involved in that shortly, with a view to connecting the NHS systems back in through us, and we're having good conversations about how that might happen. But, in strict managerial terms, Caren, who I'm sure will speak for herself in a minute, doesn't have managerial responsibility for the NHS, but we do have influence.
Perhaps you could include this in your response: what about other major digital projects?
The Welsh Government has a whole portfolio of digital projects. Some of them relate to systems that support internal workings, if you like, of the Welsh Government, and others support the external services that we provide. I have a responsibility for all of those, I would say. So, the nature of how that manifests itself in day-to-day working will vary from project to project. So, where we have a very mature digital set-up, as we have for rural payments, for example, my involvement is more one of talking to them, advising them on new things and helping them out as and when they need it. But, for new projects—for example, the Welsh Revenue Authority and some of the projects that we're delivering for Care Inspectorate Wales at the moment—we've had a much more hands-on involvement. For the Welsh Revenue Authority, people who work in my team have actually built the infrastructure that supports that; so, not the digital service bit, but the laptops and the servers—the infrastructure that they'll be using when they go live later this year.
So, it's on a case-by-case basis, essentially, but I have an overview of all of them. I report to the leader of the house on progress across all of those kinds of services, and my team are there to help people as much as anything else. So, we've helped people find the right resources to work on particular projects, and we've also helped to develop new infrastructure to support the services. It's really important to make the point, I think, that digital is not really just about information technology. In fact, the IT comes almost at the end of the process. Where you're building a new system, or you're developing something within an existing part of the organisation, it's really important that the managers of those systems are actually part of the leadership. So, Care Inspectorate Wales—the digital services that are being built at the moment are part of a much bigger organisational change that Gillian Baranski, the chief inspector, is delivering, relating to the way in which people work, their job descriptions, what people in different offices work on and how they engage with customers. So, the digital service is really important, but it's just a part of that. So, in that example, my team have sat on the project board and helped them a lot, but the leadership of that digital programme is really with Gillian Baranski. I think that's the difference between the old way of talking about things as ICT projects and today's way of talking about digital. It's much more about people's processes and the way in which they operate than it is about the IT that they use to support that working.
What responsibility, if any, do you therefore have for digital systems, or are you more of a technical resource to advise, support and deliver?
It's a mixture. My key focus for the next year is actually preparing for the end of our outsourced IT contract for Welsh Government. We'll be bringing some of the services in-house, setting a few other contracts in place. But, my team are actually building, so that's a very hands-on piece of work. They've actually built the infrastructure and we've moved our systems to the cloud. We've successfully moved quite a number of our corporate systems there, we're still working on some of the others, and we will be working over the year to actually increase the resources working in-house in Welsh Government to support that.
In some of these other projects, as you say, it's a sort of a hands-ready approach, if I can describe it like that. They're very much led—many of these other projects—by the business areas. But, we are there, at a moment's notice, to help advise them on anything technical that they need to help them—how to get the resources they need within the projects to deliver successfully, and generally a listening ear to all of those projects. It would be undeliverable for all of those projects to be sitting within one portfolio that I led—the stakeholder groups are so different, the technologies are so different—so this is a way that has worked well for us so far, I would say, in terms of successful delivery.
I think the whole term will change over the next few years. Technology's only technology when people aren't used to it. As soon as they become used to it, it just becomes a thing that you use. So, you don't think of your pen as technology, but at one point it would have been. It just becomes a thing that you use in order to produce a service. So, it's very important for us to make sure that the policy leads for those services are in charge of the policy.
Caren mentioned Care Inspectorate Wales, for example. They are digitalising some of their systems, but what they're actually doing is a process transformation of the way they deliver the whole of that system. Some of that has some digital technology attached to it. If you look at the Welsh Revenue Authority, for example, we've had to set up from scratch an entire revenue authority. Obviously, there are people in the Welsh Treasury who report to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance about how that will work, but it will be underpinned by a system that allows solicitors and so on to file tax returns online. But the way that that's structured is a policy issue—the sort of widgets that go with it: a part for us; and the transformational process that goes from one to the other is partly for us and partly for the policy leads.
Yes. How, if at all, does the Welsh Government audit its staff's digital skills and does it have a programme of targets to support staff to grow these skills?
Yes. That's a matter, actually, for the Permanent Secretary and not for me, but we do have those things. One of the reasons we volunteered for this session today is because of the difficulty between the crossover for the Public Accounts Committee, where the Permanent Secretary was reporting on some matters, and the policy leads, and it's actually a really difficult line to cross. So, I wouldn't normally be answering anything to do with Welsh Government staff because that's a matter for the Permanent Secretary, but I am aware—because I have conversations with her and with Caren—that we have a good programme in place to ensure that we have good digital skills, and we have rolled out very successfully new technology across the Welsh Government piece. I just want to sing Caren's praises for a minute here because actually most people haven't noticed, and having technology change while you don't notice is one of the best things that can happen in any organisation. You're unsung heroes because people don't even notice the change, but it's been managed very effectively and without any hiccups.
In your submission to the committee, you said,
'Forces such as automation, artificial intelligence and other forms of digitalisation are already transforming industries and...breaking down the traditional boundaries between different sectors of the economy.'
What are the top three priorities for the Welsh Government in preparing for that?
We have to make sure that our public services are fit for purpose. We have to make sure that they match what people's expectations and needs are into the twenty-first century. So, we have to make sure that they are online if at all possible, that they are resilient and that we use the data to the best effect. Data is a huge issue for us, but I think we're doing very well.
You know that we had a debate in the Senedd about open data. What was interesting about that is people not really understanding what that actually is. I'm not talking here about websites that communicate things; we're talking about the metadata. So, we're talking about putting huge amounts of data out into the public domain, and then allowing the private sector to do what it likes with that data to develop whole new processes, new apps and new business systems, using the data. So, you only have to think about transport data to see how you could transform that. So, we put a lot of data out into the public sector about the use of our roads, where our bus passes are used, what volume of traffic there is and so on, and you get a whole pile of things happening as a result of that, which I wouldn't be able to think of, but that we stimulate a whole economic environment in Wales, using our data.
Then, on the other side, for public service use, when we're planning things in Wales, we have an enormous amount of data that we can use properly to plan those resources, and that's becoming more available to us. I can talk for about an hour and a half about our relationship with the Office for National Statistics and Government data systems. We have an excellent working relationship with them and we're involved in some really exciting projects for them.
So, with this complex and messy data that is available, and the coming of automation and artificial intelligence, we had a short debate last week in the Chamber and one of the requests from backbenchers during the debate was for the establishment of a horizon-scanning unit in the First Minister's office to cut across Government. It received a cool reception from the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport. What's your view?
We take the view that that's our job really—between us. Caren has a group of people who do that sort of horizon-scanning, if that's what you mean, but that requires a cross-Government approach, so that goes back into our curriculum reforms, for example—
To co-ordinate and drive and to ensure that the practice is occurring, as you say, across Government. We'll give you an example: in committee, what we find difficult is when you ask a Cabinet Secretary a question and they say, 'Well, I can answer this part of the question, but the other part is the responsibility of another Cabinet Secretary.' So, if there were a unit responsible for co-ordinating those things, perhaps we'd have a more structured approach to horizon-scanning. You disagree with that, though.
So, I think that that exists; I think that is us. The data and digital group that I run is across the Government. So, I am not telling you that I can't talk to you about the NHS digital services, for example, because Vaughan Gething and I work very closely together and they come to our groups and keep us updated. I'm starting to get involved in some of the management processes for that. That's deliberate: it's in order to bring the thing together across Government. The data and digital group, that's its job. People sit around that table once a month and they bring all of the new developments that they're aware of in their sectors to that table, Caren's team digest that and we send it back out again. So, we think it happens already.
I think the concern with it sitting as part of a ministerial portfolio, as opposed to the First Minister's office, is that the First Minister has a right of command there as first among equals; whereas a Cabinet Secretary is asking another Cabinet Secretary to do something, which doesn't necessarily lead to a chain of command.
I don't think we need a chain of command. People have absolutely bought into sharing all of that. The data and digital group—. I don't have any way of compelling people to come to that, but what we're finding is that more and more parts of the Government want to be there because, actually, they realise what that group is doing. It's been really interesting for us. We've been doing it for four or five years now.
I don't think it's five. It feels like that. [Laughter.]
It only feels like that—a few years now. It was over the last Assembly, so it was a couple of years in the last Assembly anyway, and it's grown. So, we started off with quite a small group of people that we had asked to come to that, and it's grown out as people realise what that group is doing and what it's able to bring to policy areas. So, I think it's been very successful. Sometimes, collaboration is a better way to do things and we've discovered very much that people want to come to that group, they want to tap into its expertise and they want to get some of the resource that's available to it. If you command people to come, you can get them in the room, but you can't necessarily get them to do anything. And also, Hefin, if you think that I can't get other people to do things, then you haven't known me for very long. [Laughter.]
You can try. The UK Government is talking about an artificial intelligence Bill. Has the Welsh Government had any input into that?
It's very much in its infancy. We have a good connection to the Government Digital Service. Caren belongs to a large number of groups. I'll let her talk for a minute about the groups that she attends across Britain. We have good liaison with the UK Government and with the other Governments as well. Caren, do you want to talk about it a little bit?
Where are we with an artificial intelligence Bill? I assume that wouldn't be in any way devolved; it would be a UK-wide—.
No, I don't think so, but one of the conversations I have been involved in is a discussion on what a new data ethics framework for Government is, for example, and I found it really interesting at the GDS meeting. I think it's fair to say that my role, which has a really cross-subject interest, gave me more insight into some of the issues of data ethics. People who go to the GDS meetings come from the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health and Social Care, so they have a narrower focus on data, I would say. Talking about some of the issues around data sharing and using various AI techniques or other techniques to do that sharing automatically, I would say they have less insight than me and my colleague from Scotland, who both have much more of an overview across different areas. So, it's a really interesting area.
As the leader of the house mentioned, we have such strong links with ONS as well, and I'm aware of a lot of their work on data ethics, which, again, is around not so much perhaps artificial intelligence, but big data. You know, what are the ethical issues of comparing massive data sets? Can you reveal personal information by doing that work in isolation? And they're very, very good at working out how to do that properly.
I've read that the Prime Minister wants to get at the World Economic Forum a centre for data ethics and innovation established, and you would agree that that macro-level centre would be helpful and supportive.
Very much so. But that's much more about the ethics of artificial intelligence than it is about the automation of routine processes in industry.
Absolutely, yes. Caren Fullerton mentioned data ethics, so it was wedded to that.
The Davos summit, I understand, is more about the ethics, and so on, as well, and the—
Carrying on with the same theme, you are on record citing data sharing as one of the limitations and a barrier to effective public sector transformation. Is that being tackled and is it improving?
So, yes, it is being tackled. I very recently had a really good visit to the multi-agency safeguarding hub, which is over in Cardiff Central police station; I mentioned it in Plenary earlier on this week. And what we've got there are some really good examples of human ingenuity rather than digital systems because, for example, we have the police computer with all of its data plugged in and running on a desk, and we have a social worker and an education set of data plugged in and running on a screen beside it. Those systems don't speak to each other. There's a huge technological difficulty with that, but, of course, the ingenious human sitting in front of them can read data off both screens. So, all that was actually required was rather more plugs than you'd normally find, and a few more cables, and hey presto, we've got access to both systems. Now, eventually, I'm sure we'll find some digital technological way of doing that, but there's a lot to be said for just good old human ingenuity and work arounds.
I'd highly recommend, if the committee has time, a visit over there. It's very impressive about how they're bringing a whole series of public data issues together to work on domestic violence and missing children, and so on, which are huge problems in our society. And they speak in glowing terms of the efficiency and efficacy of having put the teams together, having shared the data, freeing up police time to do the actual investigations and not running round all over the place, and so on. I highly recommend it. But it's a really good example of it's not always about the widgets; sometimes, it's just about thinking about service delivery and what the best way of doing that is, and, you know, a few cables and plugs in a room.
So, I think that's a really good example of that. And what they've done is they've worked out the legal protocols for that, because you've got the registered social workers, you've got the police people, they're all in the room and they've worked out a protocol for being able to use that information together, and that's a very important point.
We're actually also in the middle of some conversations here in Wales about what we want to do with shared data, and I think a public conversation at some point, because what's always fascinating is what people think is already happening when it isn't. So, the conversation about GP records and data sharing, and so on. Most people think that that's already being shared across the NHS; of course, it isn't. So, it's very interesting what people think is and isn't already happening, and how frustrated they are by that, and how long the legal systems take to catch up with that. So, there's a conversation to be had about what people think is and isn't okay to do with their data. So, when you register with your GP and you tell them all about your problems, and so on, is that automatically shared with the hospital or not? That sort of stuff.
So, it's an important conversation to have, and Government needs to lead some of that to try and explain where we are. But also there's a change in the way society is. The broadband revolution is changing the way that people feel about data. Youngsters who are growing up in the full glare of social media, they feel very differently about data to those of us who—very fortunately, there aren't hundreds of photographs of our stupidity during our teenage years, for which I personally am very grateful.
But if we're talking about improvement, I think one of the areas everybody would agree where data sharing would vastly improve the service would be between social services and health. We've all seen the challenges within A&E currently. If those two sets of data were working efficiently and effectively, it might inform significant change and reduce frustration within those departments. So, are those sorts of conversations and possibilities taking place?
Yes. We've got the new Digital Economy Act 2017 as well, so we're actually out to consultation at the moment about who should be the—I can't remember; it's the 'responsible authority' or something, isn't it?
Yes, we're consulting on two things: what are the bodies in Wales where we have a devolved power to work with them, and what are the bodies in Wales that we should include within the scope of future data sharing agreements. Then we're also asking a more open question about—. At the moment there's quite a limited range of functions that have been identified for sharing, but we are asking, 'What else would you like to see us consider sharing?' So, that consultation closes, I think, on 5 February, and we're interested to see what we get back. It would give us a new legal tool. I'd observe, though, that a lot of the barriers to data sharing are more about culture and people thinking, 'Oh, it's data protection; I can't share it', or nowadays it's, 'GDPR; I can't share it'. Breaking down some of those barriers is another thing that we've done a lot of work to focus on in the past, but we'll need to carry on focusing on that.
I just want to add that we've got some very innovative things going on in Wales, so we're quite cutting edge on this. I'm sure that the committee is aware of the SAIL database, for example, down in Swansea, where we allow trusted researchers access to NHS information. You have to pass a very stringent test to be able to use it, but it's a very clever system, because it anonymises personal data so that researchers can look at health problems using that data, but it also has a system where, if they discover that an individual who's in that database has a curable condition, they can reconnect them to their data to let them know. So, it covers a lot of the ethical issues around it. It's extremely clever and we're really glad we've got it in Wales. So, we support academics and so on with Welsh Government data in that way, and we're quite cutting edge about it, so I think we've got quite a good tale to tell about some of these things. We're far ahead of some of the other parts of the UK and Europe in some of this stuff.
Hefin David. No? That's fine. If I could just ask you two brief questions, Minister, before you leave us. Can I just ask why there wasn't a seamless link between the Superfast Cymru project and the successor scheme?
Because we wanted to see where they—. We also didn't know where they would get to, and obviously we need to make sure that the pot of people that you constantly refer to, who have fallen off the edge, if you like, are included. We couldn't make assumptions, basically, about where we are. And it won't be that unseamless. You're tempting me once again to pre-announce myself, but I'm not going to be tempted. But you'll see—
Right. And this afternoon, at 12 o'clock, we've got Openreach coming before the committee—
We've got a list of questions for them, but can I ask you: what do you think we should be asking them?
Okay. That's more difficult. Our contract, as I say, is with BT. Openreach are the contractor that's been used to deliver it. But there is a real issue about this business about why, if they've already built a lot of infrastructure out to somewhere, it's not in their commercial interest to complete it. So I would certainly be asking that.
Yes. There was one question on that, actually—the stranded resources. Perhaps you'd better explain what that means.
That's what it means. It means infrastructure that's been built going towards premises but it hasn't arrived at the premises, so it's just in the middle of nowhere.
Part of our conversation with them has been to understand where they are, but it's also been to understand what their attitude to that is, and why their organisation doesn't feel that they should complete it.
It might be worth adding that you can look at this from two different perspectives, can't you? You can look at it from the perspective of somebody looking out of their window, expressing frustration that they can see a coil, a bit of structure on there and think, 'So near, so far.' You can also look at it from the perspective that the public purse has funded all of these homes to be connected, but there's additional investment gone into the landscape from Openreach's pocket, which is there, which has effectively reduced the investment required to complete them. So, from one perspective, they're on the way to being connected, whereas they wouldn't necessarily have been if Openreach hadn't overinvested to reach our targets, I suppose.
It's commercial reasons. It's entirely down to the number of people on the end of the structures and what is their return, how long is that payback—over 10, 15, or 25 years, in some cases. It's going to be a long payback for this stuff. So, everything we've done so far has been about reducing that investment gap. The work that they've done from their own pockets to build these structures that people can see out of their windows might still leave a commercial gap that can't be filled.
That'll be a question that we will ask them. Are there any other brief questions from Members before we finish? Lovely. Leader of the house, can I thank you for your time with us this morning and can I thank your officials for their time as well? We're very grateful. We'll take a 15-minute break and be back at just after 11:15.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:02 ac 11:17.
The meeting adjourned between 11:02 and 11:17.
I move to item 5 with regard to our piece of work on the devolution of ports powers under the Wales Act 2017. We have a number of witnesses before the committee this morning, and I'd be very grateful if you could just introduce yourselves for the record. From my left, perhaps.
Thank you, Chair. I'm Callum Couper, I'm port manager for Associated British Ports in Cardiff and Barry and I'm also chair of the Welsh Ports Group.
Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, one of two associations for ports. Between us, we jointly run the Welsh Ports Group.
Good morning. I'm Tim Reardon from the UK Chamber of Shipping. The Chamber of Shipping is the trade association that represents UK-based ship owners and operators of ships, so we're here very much to give a customer's perspective on how ports work. My role at the Chamber of Shipping is I'm one of the policy directors and my specific responsibilities include port policy and other statutory controls that go on within ports.
Shall I kick off, Chairman? I'm not sure how familiar the committee is with ports policy. I'm sure you all read the policy documents before you go to bed each night—
I don't want to speak on behalf of all the committee, but I'm not particularly au fait with it.
It's fair to say there isn't one single ports policy document around the UK that tells us exactly what exists, but it's probably best described as being market-led and independent of Government across all four countries in the UK. We have a number of policy and guidance documents that underpin certain aspects of that—maritime safety, port governance and planning—but for the most part, it's strategically and financially independent of Government.
We do have three types of port, which I won't dwell on too much, but just as a quick summary, those are: private ports such as ABP, trust ports such as Milford Haven, Saundersfoot and Caernarfon, which are still private sector but have an element of public accountability, and then the last category is local-authority-owned ports, which, in Wales, are a number of smaller leisure and fisheries harbours, particularly owned by, as I said, local authorities. I don't know if the chairman of our group wants to summarise how you see ports policy being—.
I think the direction of travel certainly points to a greater level of engagement with the Welsh Ports Group and its engagement with Welsh Government. I think that conduit being strengthened as new powers are introduced will test the efficacy of the policy, as Richard said, which is not defined in a singular way. It's always been able to operate within a way that both the regulators and legislator, and policy makers and ports themselves, find appropriate to the environment that ports are working in. So, the short answer is 'yes', but we look forward to more clarity in certain areas, perhaps, and certainly plenty of dialogue.
Just a final point, Chair, if that's okay.
It's not a legal description here, but it's probably fair to say that the Government has effectively delegated the authority and the responsibility to ports because it recognises that you need expertise in terms of marine safety, operational management and commercial activity. So, it's given the ports those responsibilities, but they're not subsidised by central Government and they're left to get on with it. But, in return, the ports industry runs an effective and safe ports industry that supports a lot of economic activities around coastal regions.
Thank you. Just from a customer's perspective, yes, UK ports policy does work well at the moment. It is, as Richard said, essentially a market-led policy. It allows ports to operate as businesses, and, as good businesses, they will be there to meet the demands of their customers, and they're the people who we represent. By and large, that does work well.
UK ports policy has been, more or less, in its current form for a very long time. It's stable, it's well understood. If there were a single element that I were to pinpoint as being the most important, it's probably the open ports duty that was established in the Harbours, Docks and Piers Clauses Act of 1847. It essentially says that a port cannot pick and choose its customers. If it advertises a tariff of charges and a ship comes and pays that tariff of charges, the port must provide for it. The regulatory framework is cast at the moment in a way that enables ports to operate as businesses and meet the demands of the customers who want to use them.
I'm happy to come in at this stage. The UK Government command paper that preceded the 2017 Wales Act said:
'The devolution of ports policy would enable the Welsh Government to consider the development of Welsh ports as part of its wider strategies for economic growth and ensure port development was fully integrated into plans to improve Wales's transport infrastructure'.
In that context, what do you think should be the key priorities for the Welsh Government and the National Assembly working with you and using their new powers in relation to ports and harbours?
Shall I kick off, Chair? I wouldn't say, before or presently, as we lead up to devolution, that it's a broken arrangement at the moment, but through devolving ports policy responsibilities along with other policies, such as transport and environmental marine licensing, you give the Welsh Government the opportunity to link everything together and perhaps include ports in strategies that it already has responsibility for, such as investment in transport networks and others, and streamlining the planning and consenting regime. This is a distinct possibility now because the Welsh Assembly Government is responsible for all areas of consenting, or most.
And also assisting in creating an environment for the ports to be able to identify areas for investment and facilitation of business within Wales. UK wide, 95 per cent of UK trade passes over a quay by pipeline or on wheels or actually lifted on and off a ship—that's visible trade. And ports thus facilitate trade, and they're very powerful as gateways for importing and exporting and supporting indigenous business and attracting new investment. So, the greater ease and speed of delivery for that objective can only help an economy.
I know that some of you have been involved in evidence to the external affairs committee over the inquiry we did into ports in the context of European Union exit. To what extent should Welsh Government and the Assembly be considering future ports policy in that wider context? I note that the north Wales growth bid, which was submitted to the Government just before Christmas, included proposals for funding for further development of Holyhead port, for example. We know that Irish Ferries have ordered a big new vessel to travel between Holyhead and Dublin, which is encouraging. We know that the Irish Maritime Development Office stated that, through their modelling, there would still be a time and economic advantage of using the UK land bridge, whatever the outcome, but there are implications then potentially for infrastructure and management of people and goods through the ports. So, to what extent should this prioritisation under new devolved powers incorporate those issues?
The issue, as Callum said, is that the key role of a port is as a gateway. Ships are not bringing traffic into the port because they simply want to go to the port. They're bringing it into the port because it wants to use the port to get into the country and then move inland from there. So, there's a real opportunity with taking the devolved power and administering it alongside existing powers for inland transport to integrate that planning and strategic framework so that you're delivering a gateway that is properly connected with the landside infrastructure as well so that, when the truck comes off the ferry, it can not only get through an excellent ferry terminal but has a more than adequate road and onward connections from the dock gate inland. So, there's a real opportunity there.
Brexit is a whole issue in itself, and there are very evident and very obvious challenges around maintaining the current free flow of vehicles through terminals where there are no statutory controls—customs, port health, that sort of thing—and trying to work out a way to ensure that that flow is maintained when and if customs and port health controls are imposed upon it. We are currently engaged in other contexts in exactly that discussion to ensure that that flow of freight, the flow of vehicles, can be maintained.
The dynamic within which we are working is that the effective capacity of any port is a function both of the physical size of the port and the speed with which the traffic passes through it. Clearly, if the traffic passes through at half the speed, the capacity of the terminal is halved, if it's already full. So, in order to maintain its effective capacity, you need to maintain the speed of flow of traffic through it, and that's something we're working on.
The opportunity to work with Welsh Government in the context of the overall statutory planning framework for port development, port expansion, port infrastructure and landside connections is something that has the potential to be really useful in that context.
Thank you, Chair. Wales has been waiting for quite a few years for a marine plan, and it seems as though we're just about to have it. It's obviously in its consultation stages at the moment, but it has the potential to be a very significant piece of legislation. So, I was just wondering what your views are on the marine plan and in what ways you think it might impact on port development in Wales.
The marine plan could be quite an important document for the sector, and obviously it covers the whole marine environment. It will have to balance things like sustainable development with marine protection and other interests around the coast. So, what we're looking from that—and we've been in discussion with the officials in the Welsh Government who are drafting this—is that it sets the right framework that doesn't turn off or turn away port development and activity. It is a balance, I do understand, and I don't want to appear as though we're hugely not in favour of environmental protection, but it's about making the marine environment and the planning frameworks work for both sustainable protection and development.
Could you give us some more specific examples about how that balance might be achieved, in your view?
We'll probably come on to this later, but if you specify in the plan that you have a pro-development-type policy in respect of reputable ports and harbours, not just any one—. Many of these entities have been in existence for many years in important locations, which are not going to move, are they? Just by definition they're going to be there. Going back to my earlier statements about them being effectively delegated the authority to do that, if they are statutory bodies, there should be an element of trust there and understanding that they will do things properly, and enabling them to do things like marine licence applications and getting swifter consents, and not being subject to such things as planning blight and delays to consenting processes, and other matters, of course. But I do understand; absolutely, there is a balance here. We're realistic but hopeful.
I understand and I note the creation of port zones suggestion here, which really underpins what you've just said. I have to tell you I live in Haverfordwest, so I know Milford Haven pretty well, but I also have to tell you that I'm a member of various conservation organisations, so I'll declare that on the record. In terms of this balance—and I heard what you said about respecting the environment—we see already, don't we, that, in 50 per cent of the Welsh seas and 75 per cent of the coastline, the biodiversity is already in decline? So, it's not a good story and, at the same time, very high on the agenda is environmental protection within the sea. So, it's within that framework and mindset, nationally and internationally, we have to look at what we're doing. So, how, do you think—? You know, you've made a broad statement, 'We don't want to get in the way.' But, at the same time, counter to that, in the port zone, 'We don't want anything getting in our way.' How do you intend to satisfy, if you like, the public that what you're asking for isn't going to simply come down on one side rather than the other? And that's business and pollution versus environmental protection and clean waters.
Thank you. I mean, obviously, there have been a few examples that we won't want to dwell on, like pollution and others, but broadly speaking—tear me apart if you like—the ports industry is a very safe and responsible industry. It had a good record on the environment, and generally we're not looking to rip up environmental protections, but we want them to basically be tailored and designed in such a way that doesn't limit what ports are trying to do. And many of the activities and functions that ports have been undertaking have developed through history, such as dredging disposal arrangements. So, a lot of the things are not new. Certain port development projects—yes, they are capital projects—will be new, but, for the most part, it's the continuation of existing activities and protection for those activities. I mentioned dredging disposal, but some relatively minor and straightforward things: the laying of pontoons and other modifications. It's about allowing those things to happen, and you have to balance everything out with the economic impact that ports have. They're often in deprived coastal regions. They provide clusters of industrial and economic activity, and also a basis for things like the tourism industry in smaller communities. And port zones as a concept is not just about, 'Let's ignore the environment and let us get on with it.' It's a wider vision, if you like, where we bring in a pro-business and development-type policy, which could cover enterprise policies—not just on the environment, it could be—. You could look at business rates, you could look at other things, that will stimulate growth, particularly on the land side but also in the marine environment. I don't know if you—
I think, Chair, if I could just add to those comments, many of the activities are not new, and they're also subject to existing permitting. We have to go through quite a lot of hoops and carry out monitoring and sampling and satisfy the regulator that we're not doing things that are harmful to the environment. The ports, as Richard said, they can't be moved around—they are where the concentration of sea traffic is now. They also provide environmental benefits in terms of the closer that economic activity is to a port, the fewer the road miles and more environmentally difficult modes of transport. Sea transport, carrying things in large quantities, is a means of reducing carbon gases. The fact that the ports are already there—to enhance their role, as a facilitator of trade, is almost free of new environmental risk. There's a framework already there, and I think it's how we recognise that and the wider benefit to society and for sustainable growth, particularly in the context of perhaps moving into new trading partnerships—the ports of Wales could have a greater role in that, because they're on the west coast, and the emphasis might change in terms of trade lanes.
I thank you for that, those explanations, simply because the way that things are being explained to the public, and the way that the port zone reads, could give the impression that what you're really asking for is a negation of your obligations to the biodiversity that currently exists, a freeing up of the restrictions from the EU and an opportunity—because they may not be, and probably won't be, automatically transferred to us—to do things that might work even more so than those figures that I gave about the diversity of the environment. So, you're saying that that is not your intention and that is not what you're asking.
No, it's creating an environment—a planning environment, a consenting environment—that helps ports grow and develop. The Welsh Government, we would hope, would recognise they're vitally important economic clusters, and we would think that the Welsh Government would be keen that such entities are enabled to grow. But if we ignore—. It's very difficult, and a big statement to say that, but, if you ignore Brexit for a second and we just look at—. It's very difficult, I know, but, if we ignore that for a second, if you look at the—you know, one of the things that the European Union does is provide a level playing field for ports and other entities to compete in. And Welsh ports, on a certain level—the major ports, certainly—are competing with other ports in England and on the continent. If we look at other European member states, they have tailored their environmental policies to suit their port operations. So, you find huge developments in places like Rotterdam, which is the EU's leading port, where they have, essentially, balanced things like coastal protection with the economic activity. There is no real overlap in things like marine designations, because they know that as soon as you designate port areas or other clusters of commercial activity there's going to be a kind of bust-up, really—it's going to be very difficult to balance both. They have targeted their coastal protection policies elsewhere, in the right and proper areas.
It is a very difficult one. They are using evidence to designate, but, they have, essentially—. The UK ports now—you find it at smaller ports as well—you almost feel as though you need a PhD in environmental science just to put forward a simple marine licence application.
Mark, on this point, and then I've got a quick question and I'll come to David. Mark.
Just exactly on that point, you'll recall, in the middle part of last decade, Mostyn dock was in exactly this situation because of the habitats directive—environmental groups opposing the dredging required to have the barge to brings the wings down from Airbus—and it led at one stage to the threat of criminal proceedings. Of course, it was all resolved in the end. How could we use the devolved powers to ensure early intervention avoids that sort of crisis developing?
It's probably fair to say in the case of Mostyn—we won't go into too many individual cases—but, in that case, when we talked at high level about devolution of ports policy, there were a few ports who'd had experiences of long delays in the consenting process—in this case, things like harbour revision order applications, which were previously the responsibility of the Department for Transport before they were sent up to the marine management organisation in Tyne. That particular Mostyn HRO was on the books for seven, eight years without resolution. So, at a high level, the view was, 'Well, at least if it's closer to home, with a Government that understands where we're trying to get to and will have a vested interest in resolving these quicker than perhaps a slightly more remote body such as the MMO or the Department for Transport'—I think there's an opportunity there to make sure that these things don't dwell.
Thank you. It's a good example to raise because it does demonstrate one of the very clear areas where policy, from wherever it's exercised, has a bearing on the ability of a port to meet its customer's requirement. In that instance, the port at the time hosted a ferry service. A ferry service absolutely has to run to a timetable. There's no point telling your customers that the time the ferry's in will depend on the tide and you just have to turn up on the day and see whether there's enough water there. In order to run a ferry service to a schedule, you need to publish a schedule so your customers know when it's going to be there. That necessitates the availability of a dredged channel in many instances to get the ferry service in. In the absence of having that facility reliably available, the ferry will simply go—the service will move. Ports, as I say, are gateways to a hinterland, and, in a number of instances, if a particular gateway becomes too difficult or unreliable, the service will move.
So, there is an opportunity, as I say, with bringing it within house in Welsh Government, for Welsh Government to take a collective view as to where the balance of advantage lies in having a gateway that is reliably open that will get your traffic coming through it or not. Dredging is a particularly difficult one and, from a port user's perspective, it's always a little bit difficult to understand the controversy that surrounds maintenance dredging in particular. There is a navigation channel; from a user's perspective, it needs to be kept open. If a mountain falls down on top of a road or railway line, it's cleared out of the way without challenge. If silt collects in a navigation channel, the clearance of that silt seems to be treated in a completely different way from clearing a landslip off the road or the railway. Yet, from an overall transport perspective, it's exactly the same; it's a blockage of the route in one place.
In regard to some of your answers to Joyce Watson's questions, is this about changing standards rather than—or would speeding up marine licences, for example, be more appropriate?
I think we've tried to look at both options, actually. We have had extensive discussions about speeding up consenting processes but there is a framework there that exists, with stages of public consultation and other built-in things that lead to delays—you know, lengthy application processes. So, there's definitely an argument for raising performance there—good relationship with the consenting unit and Natural Resources Wales, but there's always room for improvement on their delivery and I'm sure they would accept that, from a customer's perspective. But then it's also about perhaps tailoring those existing arrangements so they may encourage development and not lead to certain question marks over investments and others in that particular environment.
If NRW increased its efficiency to a standard that you were very happy with, would there be perhaps no, then, need to change standards, I suppose?
That would certainly help, but then there's another side to that. If we look at—there's a rather technical document, but that's the marine licensing designations Order, which lists all of the types of licensed support activities that have recently been exempted, so you don't have to apply for a licence for them. In England, those were reviewed in 2013-14, and that list is more extensive in England. We also have possibilities of longer-term dredging-disposal licences in England, which means that English ports can get licences for up to 10 years, with built-in checks so that the consenting bodies can review and make sure that they're satisfied that the applicant is meeting all their obligations and responsibilities, but, in Wales, the maximum tends to be three years. So, if you free up by exempting more activities—if you free up, not only is it better from a development point of view and from the applicant point of view, but it's also better from the consenting point of view; there are fewer resources required for them to oversee that as well.
I think we're probably boring down a little more specifically with this on these planning applications. The potential benefit to Wales of implementing free zones around Welsh seaports, and also port zones proposed by the Welsh Ports Group and Port of Milford Haven in evidence to the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee—now, I'd like you to look at this in light of what the EAAL said:
'What we want to make clear is that permitted developments rights have been so undermined that the risks of embarking on a consenting and development process are now so significant that many projects never emerge off the drawing board. Combining the two—the creation of Free Ports and the designation of Port Zones, with simplified and accelerated consenting and development regimes, could do more to attract investment and enterprise for little or no cost than almost any other industrial policy initiative.'
Touching on Joyce's concerns, they actually pre-empt that by saying:
'This does not mean reducing standards relating to the construction and operation of plant and infrastructure that is both clean and safe.'
Could you make some comments on that as to your comments on free zones?
That's very well put; I wouldn't want to disagree with my members there from Milford Haven. Just firstly, there are two subtle differences there: one is using terminology—one is 'free ports', which you mentioned, which is in relation usually to customs arrangements, trade, taxation and others, which you could build into the port zones policy, which, if you like, is the group's, and the association in industry's, essentially, vision for what it may look like. But, if we concentrate on combining everything under the zones policy, which we would have to factor in port responsibilities there, it's creating the right framework and environment for a pro-development policy, really. I don't know if the operator yourselves want to—
There is only—. Ports themselves—there is only a certain amount of land within the port available for customers making investments or the port making investment on behalf of the customer. It tends to be focused on throughput, on distribution, as opposed to processing, although we do have examples, of course, where value added takes place on the port estate. But it's important that area contiguous to the port and around the port has also good connectivity and, a port zone, it may not necessarily describe the actual statutory boundary of the port, but is looking at an area around the port, where the port can facilitate development and support development. There are some obvious and existing examples of where ports are sitting alongside steelworks or other manufacturing facilities. So, it's looking at that wider economic area that the port supports, and the closer that is to the port, around the port, the better the chance that sustainable economic development can be attracted for Wales.
Obviously, if you have these free zones—if it means, basically, that you're going to keep a lot more product in the ports themselves. Is that right? And therefore, obviously, things like warehousing and that would have to be expanded, so the planning comes in on that basis, doesn't it?
Well, potentially. It would have to be market-led but, yes, potentially.
I would just say on permitted development rights and the point you raised, that is another area, going back to the original point about where ports are given a special status, in a way. They have to be identified as having permitted development rights, enabling them to do certain relatively low-level schemes under certain thresholds—building smaller bits of infrastructure and other things—but not negating other responsibilities or marine licences, for example. It tends to be landside-related. But those are trumped by things like environmental designations and other conditions, both environmental and property-related.
So, those tools are effectively being withdrawn from ports because they're close to certain areas, and we would, as you can understand, like those tools to be given back, certainly so that they can be used, and potentially also expand it, so you could increase the threshold of schemes that are enabled to—
So, similar to enterprise zones, then? Is that what you're looking to have?
That's another element as well—enterprise zones. You could cover everything—I mentioned business rates before—but you could look at everything. You could look at skills initiatives and other sources of public funding and—.
Because that includes ease of planning as well—enterprise zones.
Okay, that's fine. I'll just ask my question first and go over to Mark. Does the Welsh Government have enough resources? Does it have the correct resources to look after its new responsibilities with regard to harbours and ports?
The short answer is that we don't know yet because it's—
When we gave evidence before the Silk commission, this was one of our—it's a rather technical point—main concerns, actually. There was interest/indifference from a lot of the ports about whether ports policy should be devolved or not. Generally, I think most people just came down on the side of, 'Yes, I think it'd be better to devolve Welsh ports policy but it's not the No. 1 ask'. But now it is, we're looking at—. Yes, resourcing is a very important factor in it. And if you compare recent examples where ports policy was devolved to Scotland, they have a very good model and a template there where they have an adequate number of—. I mean, essentially, it's officials and staff, and they do have a good team there who are able to balance the harbour revision order and the technical and the governance responsibilities bestowed under legislation against the perhaps more high-level strategy ports policy—you know, getting ports on the political map, so to speak, and making sure they're in port strategy documents and everything. So, it's important for us that that team in Wales, whatever it looks like in the Welsh Government, has enough time to focus, perhaps, on the strategics to get our sector higher up.
You're suggesting the Scottish Government has got the right level of resource, so—
There's always room for improvement if I speak to Transport Scotland, but they have a good model there. It's a small but well-resourced team with expertise, with continuity and they're plugged into other areas of transport policy—freight policy, for example, is the same; it's a combined team.
Perhaps in the context of this question as well, put it this way: what resource do they need? What is the Welsh Government required to have perhaps that they won't have now?
It's probably not just sheer numbers of people—not thousands of people, don't worry—but numbers of people and experience. So, yes, the experience is probably not directly there for things like harbour revision order consenting, but that comes with experience of undertaking that responsibility. But we wouldn't like there just to be one individual person who's just responsible for everything. I think it needs to be shared out.
Yes. So, having seen the statutory framework at work for several years, it's quite apparent that the statutory framework for port regulation isn't fundamentally complicated, but it is particular and distinct. And so its efficient administration depends on expertise and familiarity with the particular statutory requirements of the Harbours Act 1964, and the various other statutes that are around on the statute book that bear upon harbour development. So, it's really an exercise in ensuring that there is sufficient expertise on which Welsh Government can call as and when an application comes in to ensure that it's processed expeditiously, and that all the administrative elements of the process are performed properly. There are various consultation stages to ensure that anybody affected by development has an opportunity to express a view on it, and then the application works its way through.
Do you think there's any issue in the Government being able to obtain that resource, or pull that resource to Wales from, perhaps, elsewhere?
I wouldn't know without seeing them try, to be honest. There's no reason why there should be. As I say, Scotland has done it, and done it very effectively.
We are in discussions with officials. We can't pre-empt what decisions the Welsh Government may make, but we are in discussions about how they are looking to design the system, and it would appear—we're getting some positive indications—that perhaps those parts of the Welsh Government—planning elements, planning responsibilities, teams of officials—I think they will be able to support the ports policy team in delivering certain functions such as harbour revision orders.
There's one slightly negative example. This is rather technical here, but under the 1951 Sea Fish Industry Act responsibility for Welsh fisheries and harbours was devolved—essentially, these days, to the Welsh Government, the fisheries directorate—and those are quite often smaller harbours, local authorities, smaller trust ports like Saundersfoot. We haven't had many harbour revision order applications from them, but when we have, it has been quite difficult and challenging, understandably, for the Welsh Government fisheries team. We're having recent examples where a fisheries harbour is keen to push forward their own order, and there are big challenges there with the expertise and the experience. But hopefully, under the new arrangement, we can bring those functions together and delivery will be better.
Very briefly, Chair, I do welcome—I think the port sector, and shipping as well, welcomes the dialogue that we have with Welsh Government. We have seen consistency in the faces that we talk to, and I think that gives better insight in both directions: understanding the nature of the industry and the sector, and likewise we can have useful discussions that will ease recognition of where the resource demand will be, and what sort of level of expertise will be required.
Mark and Joyce want to come in, but there are just two or three minutes left. Mark briefly, and then Joyce.
In this context, in its updated national transport finance plan, published last month, the Welsh Government said it's working with the Welsh ports group to develop guidance and a relationship management framework for Welsh Government in the sector. You referred to working with the Welsh Government, but what's happening in practice? Is it top-down, or is there mutual respect and parity as we go forward?
I think the latter, fundamentally. I think we have been able to give our opinions in areas where we believe it's important that the Government recognise that ports need the ability to quickly react to a changing environment, particularly in the period that we seem to be going into now, where fast delivery for new business and customers is going to be essential to take full advantage of that.
And just on a very basic point, as Tim does, we work around the UK dealing with officials in different administrations, and I've noticed a big change in Welsh Government communication. Accessibility is much better now, and we're in a very good place with officials and the transport team. They're passionate, they're supportive, they're pushing ports up the agenda more, and also there's a genuine—speaking to you as well, I have to say, when we come out of Westminster, and particularly into dealing with Welsh Government and Welsh Assembly Members, it's genuinely—sorry to sound like a suck here, but it's a delight, really, because people are interested. [Interruption.] There you go. [Laughter.] People are interested. Not all Government policy is devolved, obviously, but the things that are, Assembly Members and Welsh Government are genuinely interested and passionate about. You've got good numbers of coastal populations, so ports are perhaps higher up the radar—there is a support and interest there. What we sometimes find when we're in Westminster—please don't tell them—[Laughter.]
It can be difficult to push some doors, whereas, here, I think, people will listen, and the Welsh Government has been—. There's a notable improvement in the last few years.
It's also on transport. You briefly mentioned intermodal shift, and good environmental outcomes as a consequence of intermodal shift. Do you feel that, in that regard, particularly with the new plan, you are being listened to, you're part of that conversation, because there is a big part for you to play if we're bringing goods through, or passengers, in terms of that connectivity?
It's a kind of market-driven modal shift, as in getting things, potentially, off the roads, or sort of more—
I think, where the recognition—the shortcut to that is that there's good communication and visibility where there are potentials, both that the ports detect or, indeed, Welsh Government and its tentacles and structure for inward investment—that there's early engagement, that we can look at where the best environmental outcomes lie alongside modal shift, and going from road to sea or rail.
We're very grateful for your time. We appreciate you've made long journeys, and it is pleasing to hear that Government officials are in contact with you at regular intervals, and I think your indication to us is that you're very content with the level of engagement, both from the Assembly and from the Government as well, so that's pleasing to hear. Can I thank you for your time with us this afternoon? Thank you very much.
I move to item 6, with regard to our session on Superfast Cymru, and I'm pleased to have Kim Mears and Ed Hunt with us. I wonder if you could, just for the record, let us know your positions, and we'll move ahead with the first question.
Thank you. Hi. I'm Kim Mears, and I'm the managing director for infrastructure delivery for Openreach.
I'm Ed Hunt, and I've been leading the Superfast Cymru contract with Welsh Government for the last five years.
There we are, great. Thank you both for being with us this afternoon. Kim, would you like to make any short opening statements?
Yes, just to give you probably a little bit of a flavour. First of all, thank you for inviting Openreach to appear in front of the committee today. Openreach is the biggest broadband builder and wholesaler in the UK, and we've been working for a long time now with Welsh Government to deliver the Superfast Cymru project—since 2012.
For the vast majority of people in Wales, the project has been a success, but I do, I promise you, recognise the frustration for those people who are still without a connection—in particular, those who thought that they would actually be achieving superfast broadband and who did not. We are working very closely with Welsh Government around what we could do, going forward, and more on that to follow over the next few weeks.
This has been a huge engineering programme. In the last five years, Openreach has made superfast broadband speeds of 30 Mbps and above available to 1.3 million homes. And if you look at thinkbroadband today, it will tell you that over 93 per cent of homes in Wales can get superfast connectivity. If you went back to 2012, that would've been 44 per cent. So, a significant achievement over that time.
If you look today—and, again, I understand that this doesn't help if you are one of the have-nots—there is a greater percentage of connectivity through the fast connectivity in Wales today than there would be across France, Germany, Italy and Spain. But as I've said, it doesn't help if you're one of those have-nots. So, just on that point, I really do understand the frustrations and I'm sure we're going to talk some more about that as we go through today.
I'm sure we will. There we are. Can I ask first of all, what's your ambition for connectivity in Wales?
I would love everyone—. So, from a personal point of view, I would love everybody to have connectivity. I think it fundamentally changes the way that we work and our social lives and the way that we engage. The fact is, as Openreach, we made an offer, certainly to Government, around what was called 'a universal broadband commitment' and that was to deliver 10 Mbps and above for everyone across the UK, but, in respect of connectivity, yes, I believe it's hugely important.
So, what's your ambition for connectivity in Wales, in a succinct sentence?
I believe that you'll have certainly an announcement that we'll be working very closely with Welsh Government in the next few weeks, that talks about that ambition.
My ambition in respect of what's commercially viable is certainly to do more than what we are today, and to absolutely work hand in hand with Welsh Government to go further.
Okay. If I said that your ambition should be for everyone in Wales to have 30 Mbps or higher connectivity, would that be a good ambition to have?
I certainly think it's an ambition for everyone to have high connectivity.
Okay. Have you met your contractual requirements under the Superfast Cymru programme?
I truly believe we will have. So, just to put that into perspective, the way that this contract was constructed—and it was back in 2012, it was one of the first co-funded programmes—there was a pot, which is probably the easiest way of describing it, of 767,000 premises, and from that we had an ambition and a target—a contractual commitment—to deliver 690,000 homes at 30 Mbps and above. If I go back to the end of November, we've certainly shared with Welsh Government data files that show over 720,000 homes at 30 Mbps and above and that grew between the end of November and the end of December.
Now, what takes place in Wales is a test-and-verification process and that process takes place in two ways. One is around data alignment, so a validation of data, and one is about a physical check, so checks take place in the network to prove that the infrastructure has been delivered and is capable of delivering the speeds that we've claimed. That process is going through now. But, yes, I truly believe that we'll be there.
Can I ask what proportion of premises within the intervention area can access broadband at a minimum 30 megabits per second?
Within the intervention area?
It was 767,000, which was the total intervention area. The target for the contract was 690,000 homes to be 30 Mbps and above.
Ninety per cent.
I truly believe that when we've gone through the test-and-verification process, we'll be there.
Well, if you take, for example, thinkbroadband, thinkbroadband says today that across the total of Wales, you're at over 93 per cent. If you look at the intervention area, I believe that we'll be at the 90 per cent.
Okay. In terms of communications, as a constituency AM, I've had a lot of correspondence off constituents who've been told they're going to be in scope by this date, and then that doesn't happen; then they get another date and another date, and then they've been let down. So, in terms of your communications, how effective have your communications been with customers across Wales—or potential customers?
The way that the contract was constructed—and I'll talk about the lessons learned as part of answering your question—in hindsight, created an issue that we're dealing with now. And by that, it said that there was a greater pool of homes within the intervention area than what was targeted as the contractual outcome. So, I do believe it almost set us up for many of the issues that we're facing at the moment. However, I'm also really, really clear that if I look at the communications across the programme around giving certainty, we have a lot to learn.
If you look at the extremes, there's probably one way of giving ultimate certainty, in that you don't tell anyone anything until you know it's there, and that's not the right answer; to probably where we did get it wrong, which was about trying to be open and transparent, only to find that last-minute issues and barriers got in our way. But, if you're one of those homes and individuals who believed that you were going to get superfast connectivity and you ended up without, I absolutely share the frustration and truly understand what that must feel like.
We move into the area of communications now and I know that a couple of Members have got specific questions on that, so could I perhaps ask Vikki to come in now, and then Mark, if you've got some specific questions on communications?
Thank you, Chair. How has BT improved its communication of the Superfast Cymru project since the committee last heard from you in January 2017?
A number of things and changes were made. Certainly, looking at some of the data within some of the checkers—. I suppose I'll go back. There was never, ever going to be a perfect answer, other than almost saying nothing. To try and put some flavour around why—. If I look at our delivery in Wales, it's been some of the most complex rural superfast fibre delivery that I've delivered anywhere in the UK, including Scotland.
We've taken evidence on that before, so I think that's a point the committee really does understand.
But what I was trying to describe is, for example, around certainty and communication, in many cases you may be going through multiple wayleaves in respect of the final prem—home—to be connected. So, sometimes, I think that we raised expectations without actually having that ultimate confidence on that connectivity. So, I think we did improve, but did we improve it enough? No, and your postbags would certainly demonstrate that today.
I'm still dealing with a large housing estate that is awaiting connectivity, and that again has stalled, despite being promised many times in the past on an issue of wayleave. I think you would struggle to find any Assembly Member who hasn't had the same in their constituency. So, will we see improvements in this regard? I think that's the categorical question that we would like to have answered today.
Can I pick up on that, please, Vikki? Things that we have done to improve have also included stopping doing things. So, we originally did try innovative ways of communicating with people, and I'll give you one such example: we weren't giving people approximate dates for when they were going to get the fibre-to-the-premises technology. We tried it, and it didn't work. The dwell times were too unpredictable, and at the request of the Cabinet Secretary we took that particular facility away. It was only something we tried in Wales. A lot of work went into it, but we couldn't make it work. So, I think that was actually an improvement of trying to manage expectations a little bit better.
I went on the road during the summer, arranged surgeries with Assembly Members and Members of Parliament, and I must say, varying degrees of interest from Assembly Members and MPs, from where we were inundated, to others where we got no constituents coming to those sessions whatsoever.
In respect of your particular housing estate, Vikki, I know that one's been quite frustrating. Half the estate isn't even in the Superfast Cymru contract, but we've said we're going to do it. We are going to do it, and we're stuck with an issue where we've tried to find two particular locations, both of which won't work. We've got a third location. We're getting co-operation from the landowner and the landowner's solicitor, they've put special conditions on granting the wayleave, but we haven't got a signature yet. One of my colleagues wrote to you yesterday to ask if you could help chase that up for us. We would very much like to finish that cabinet.
Without going into the specifics of the case, because that's not what the committee session is for, I certainly will be doing that. Do you not think that there's scope to communicate with customers in a way that says, 'We aim to get your area connected by x date, depending on wayleave agreements', and just be more open and transparent with them about that?
I truly do believe, taking some of those lessons learned, that we have been open and transparent. The fact is, if I go back to the first question—'What's our ambition?'—in many, many cases, the sense of frustration, even if you say it's subject to wayleaves et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, if you end up being a 'no', it never takes away that sense of frustration. And I completely understand that. There is no nice way, no matter what you say, when you end up being one of those have-nots. It doesn't matter if somebody said, 'I tried to climb a mountain for you'—and we've done some of that—there's no nice way of actually saying at the end, 'You haven't got it.'
Yes, I take your point completely. I just think that there are more people in Wales who are in that limbo state, being promised something and having the goalposts moved.
I completely understand.
Why aren't we being more honest with people and telling them perhaps what you're telling us now? What I'd say is, you've raised people's expectations. Wouldn't it have been prudent to underestimate your expected date rather than overestimate it?
I think that people's expectations were raised. When you say to over 700,000 people, 'Good news, superfast broadband's coming', at that very point their expectation's raised. They believe they're part of something.
No, their expectations are raised when they get a letter from you or the Minister saying, 'You're going to be scheduled by this date', and their expectation is they'll get it by that date.
I would also add, though, Russell, that we've always caveated responses. And I've done this with your office many times. The words I use with Alex are, 'Subject to the usual caveats', because we know, through experience, there are very good reasons why, with the best will in the world, we can't get to a particular community. So, we've always been careful to caveat. I've never used the word 'promise' in any of my communications with anybody.
Well, no, just 'scheduled'. That's the terminology that the Minister uses when she responds to me. But to a member of the public, if they're scheduled to get something by February 2017, that means that they're looking forward to receiving it by the end of February 2017. I mean, it's semantics whether it's promised or whether it's scheduled, surely.
I don't think anybody's arguing around the fact that expectations were raised. I would definitely completely agree that there was more that we could have done in respect of communication and around the fact that expectations in whatever form were raised and the sense of frustration and anger when you end up being at the end and not getting it.
No, I don't believe that they were falsely raised. Let's kind of go back for one second. You can take significant lessons from whatever project or programme you deliver, but if we look and put it into perspective around this programme: from 2012 to where we are today, in respect of ambition, from 44 per cent superfast coverage of broadband to over 93 per cent coverage. If you look in respect of the expectation of the number of homes that would receive superfast connectivity, I absolutely believe that we will be there, and not only in respect of the goodness from the programme; what we'll also be doing is actually creating gainshare through that take-up that allows us to go further. So, I am not doubting in any way that there are homes and individuals who believed that they would get superfast connectivity, but I would also say that, if I look at this as a programme, I truly believe that it has been incredibly successful in respect of the joint ambition that we had compared to where we are now.
I would, yes. In my previous employment, if I'd told somebody they'd got their mortgage before we'd concluded the underwriting and then concluded the underwriting and told them they hadn't got the mortgage, I'd have been in big trouble. I've got some examples; I quoted some to the Minister earlier. On 7 December, an e-mail from you using the words, 'There's good news', but last week in a follow-up email, 'Unfortunately, I don't have any good news' and then it goes on to break the bad news. So, you actually used the term 'good news'. Another one I mentioned this morning: the first is one side of Flintshire; the other is the other half of Flintshire. In October, they received a letter from the Minister saying, 'Good news, you've been connected. You can now access—.' Of course, they hadn't been, so they contacted you: 'There's ongoing work to extend the reach of the fibre network, estimated to be completed by the end of December'. And then we find the December e-mail: 'Your property's highly unlikely to gain access to superfast broadband under this phase.'
Just two more, if I may. There's one near St Asaph here. In June: 'You will be fed with fibre to the premises. After re-planning, we have managed to identify a solution, which will mean you will be able to benefit as part of this programme.' The constituent then chases on 25 November: 'We're disappointed that you've not replied to our last two emails. Below, you had an estimated completion date of October. Once again, this has come and gone. We are currently unable to even see any updates on Superfast Cymru. Last month, it was showing it was in scope with an expected completion date in December. That has now been removed from the website.' Having heard nothing, we chased again. In early December: 'We expect the build to be completed over the next three weeks. I will let you know if we encounter any issues.' Seven and a half weeks later, this week: 'We've chased again because nobody's heard anything. I've had to escalate this.'
First of all, I'm happy to take your individual examples and then come back to you personally against them—
But let me just—. There were 767,000 homes in the intervention area. The contract outcome: 690,000. I'm saying that we didn't get the communications right, but what we haven't got—and I think it's going to be well over 690,000—is all of those people sitting here today to say what we have done. The way the contract was constructed—and it's a lesson learned from where we are today—was always going to drive a number of people to feel let down. Now, I can't comment on those individuals, and I'm more than happy to take them and to look at them in respect of what we've said and where we are now.
The other thing from the contract to really understand as well was that it was a cliff-edge contract. So, come 31 December, it says that was the contract end day. On the other point, I think it's really important to understand and to cover, around the contract that we entered into together, was that it was three parties working together to deliver a successful programme, both in respect of state aid, with the Broadband Delivery UK-type funding, Openreach—so, BT funding at that point—and also Welsh Government. So, it was a joint ambition in respect of the outcomes that we needed to achieve.
That's fine. I'll bring Joyce in, and if you want to move on to your topic as well, if you want to.
I don't want to talk about communications. I think we've covered that. What I do want to talk about is the fact that BT has delivered fibre-to-premises connections underpinned by state aid and Welsh Government money, and some of your own, I suppose. So, in light of that investment, are there opportunities of sourcing your service, which you've provided, for other providers, other than yourselves? In other words, you're putting in the infrastructure, but others might want to provide internet connections. Are those opportunities available, and are they affordable? That is my question.
Absolutely. So, you're 100 per cent right that we're an infrastructure provider, so, a network provider—a wholesaler. What we do is we sell to hundreds of communication providers, and they would be from your very large, from your Sky to TalkTalks, your BTs, right the way through to your very small, innovative—many of the small ones as well. So, what that does is it actually generates significant competition across the whole pricing around broadband connectivity. Certainly, if you look at many of the stats, certainly in the UK, we have some of the lowest prices anywhere in the world in respect of broadband. But I'm a wholesaler; I'm not a communication provider.
I'm more interested in, I mean—. My questions: let's go to infrastructure, and let's go to new build. Are you talking to property developers in Wales, both large and small? Are you, or do you have anybody, tracking new planning applications so that you could be in there at the start to provide what I think people expect now as an essential utility service?
I absolutely agree with you, and it's something that I am really, really passionate about. So, historically, new build was a world of copper services. So, if we go back just over—around about a year ago now, we did a huge piece of work with most of the developers, the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to create a new proposition around fibre to the prem for new build. When we first started, Openreach, delivering that as a proposition, it was anything over 250 homes and above was fibre to the prem, and free. We then took that down to 100 homes and above being fibre to the premises and free, and that's now been taken down to 30 premises and above being fibre to the premises and free. We are working really, really closely with planning across Wales. I promise you, all of the—. I've also got a team who are working together to understand, not just at the point that planning gets agreed, but also in some of the early stage conversations with some of those big developers. I do not want any development to go ahead, certainly over the 30 premises and above, without Openreach giving fibre-to-the-prem connectivity available.
Right. I take that you've done a business case, and 30 and above satisfies your business case, and that's where that figure would have come from—fairly obvious. But in the area I cover—Mid and West Wales—you'd be very lucky if you find any such developments, because 30 houses in small villages and towns is considered quite a significant development in itself. So, considering that you have huge profit margins—and I'm sure we'll see an outturn very soon that will tell us that—what are you doing in terms of your social obligation, maybe, to some of these smaller developments?
So, a number of things. First of all, the work that we did with both DCLG and DCMS, and a huge amount of data said that 98 per cent of any other homes below 30 premises would be connected to existing superfast connectivity. So, even if you think through where we've gone so far with our programme together, we've taken fibre out much further than was ever available in Wales. So, 98 per cent of them would connect to existing superfast connectivity. So, if I brought a cabinet here and I've got some homes here, and I brought another five homes over there, they would just get the same connectivity from the cabinet that I've already built.
Yes. Depending on how far they are from the cabinet, absolutely.
The reason I ask this question is, I think that this is such a significant form of technology that must be accessible to everybody, that those areas that are already suffering from depopulation could be even more significantly impacted than they already are, and we will have huge difficulty in trying to repopulate by saying, 'This is a great environment. This is the technology that would allow you to start your business in this area'. That's the real reason behind my question.
I understand. One other thing I would say is that we work really closely across the developer community, but we also do something that's called co-funding. So, if, for example, there was a circumstance that you're describing, we would co-fund with that developer connectivity for any small number of homes that were being built. So, we would take—
Of course I will. Not only is it for developer, but also for communities. So, if you've got, outside of this programme—. If there is a community that wants connectivity and they're not covered today, we co-fund with communities, using vouchers, to find a way for connectivity.
I'm afraid I'm going to return to communication again, but not downstream communication; upstream communication, really. So, first of all, why roll-out plans changed significantly during the project—it wasn't communicated, really, I don't think, properly to the Welsh Government; why they didn't communicate to the Welsh Government the areas that would not be reached by Superfast Cymru, so that they would have known that; and why you've not confidentially shared with the Welsh Government and Assembly Members the difficulties in access to private land. So, if you were having difficulties, why wasn't that brought to our attention?
Do you want me to take that, Kim?
Yes. Do you want to pick up the—? Because you've got more local detail, then I'll carry on.
So, with respect to wayleaves, we tend to clear most wayleaves that come across our desk. Over the lifetime of the project, we have worked very well with officials in order to clear land access issues. In fact, I'd say that Welsh Government officials have bent over backwards in order to provide assistance, which is great.
Over 72 per cent of all wayleaves—we found a way through.
Yes, and even with the excess that we don't find a way through, we've often then replanned infrastructure. So, we've perhaps then gone to a slightly different technology. So, that answers your wayleave question.
Part two of your question is with respect to why we couldn't say who was in scope earlier on and who was and who wasn't in scope earlier on. There were 767,000 premises and a target of 690,000—very rural areas, very challenging engineering. A risky contract for us as well. We were planning right the way through until the middle of 2017. The honest answer is that we didn't know. It was an iterative process, and we were constantly churning new solutions through our planning engine, if you can call it that, with a lot of people. We honestly didn't know. Something that has taken place in England—. This contract was negotiated before the main UK Government framework contract, and their approach was: who's in scope and who's out of scope from day 1, by postcode. And this is something I gave evidence on to the committee last year, that if there was a future contract, that sort of similar approach actually may work slightly better because you can at least tell some people whether they're not in scope from day 1 so they can get alternative solutions. But then, even if they are in scope, that doesn't mean to say that you're not going to have issues eventually getting to them.
And then, David, you had part three of your question, which I can't recollect. If you'd be good enough to—
Well, that was on the land—. Simply why the roll-out plans changed significantly during the project.
I truly believe that we did. We certainly leant in to many, many Assembly Members for their personal support in resolving some of the wayleave issues.
Right. Do you think that when you signed the contract, you hadn't taken into account the pitfalls you might come across? Did you analyse those sorts of things before you signed this contract?
It was an ambitious contract—the biggest single contract that is out there in the UK. I think we knew the pitfalls. I'll give you an example: Aberdaron on the Llŷn peninsula. When we started this project off, we had no idea how we were going to get there, but we did over time. The engineering that's taken place in order to deliver this is quite breathtaking when you go out to some of the rural areas and you see the infrastructure out there. So, I think we did understand the pitfalls, and we've succeeded, despite those pitfalls.
And I know it's really difficult if you're one of those—you know, if you own a home and you believed that you were going to be in and you were going to get it. But the engineering challenges have just been huge. Were we aware that we were going to have huge engineering challenges? Yes, but we're talking about circa 400 or 500 people who have taken where we were before, from 44 per cent, to where we are now. It has been an absolutely enormous engineering challenge. If you go out there and you talk to those 400 or 500 people, who live in Wales, they're really proud around what they've done.
Can I move on to stranded assets? Perhaps members of the public listening in might not understand what that means. To me, it's bits of assets or infrastructure that are in rolls, perhaps, of cable, on poles that are not yet in the ground. When you going to get that infrastructure in the ground?
So, where we are in respect of, first of all, the contract—and let me come back to it, because it is important—it was a cliff-edge contract on 31 December. It doesn't matter whether you look up and you see a coil of cable; there will be much more network that you won't be able to see that's not actually delivering that final connectivity. I think we just need to put that perspective around them. What we are looking at at the moment is, against the 720-odd thousand that are going through testing and verification, how many other homes are part-built. That work is under way at the moment, and we're certainly talking to Welsh Government around what that looks like. I haven't got a final answer for you today. We are literally weeks away from, if you like, the end of December, from where we've been, but we are doing that piece of work at the moment to see exactly how far we've taken it in respect of the network to the homes and how much is still out there.
So, you say you're doing a piece of work with the Welsh Government at the moment, but do you have to wait for that work to be completed? All I'm saying is—. I understand a member of the public might see something and think, 'Oh, well, that just needs that cable to be plugged in' but there's more behind the scenes. I understand what you're saying. But there will be instances where a small bit of work can be done to achieve a result for a particular customer. Are you saying you're waiting until you see further analysis done by Welsh Government before you actually connect that infrastructure?
What I'm saying at the moment is that I'm doing the—. The difficulty is, it's around our terminology, around stranded assets and coils of cable. What I'm saying is, I'm doing the detailed piece of work to see exactly what's out there, how far it has gone, because you could literally have the coil of cable there, but almost the spine that serves it not behind it. So, it could be that there's a 10 km spine that needs to go from A to B that allows you to connect that coil of cable.
Well, let's talk percentages. If you've got work that's 85 per cent complete at the drop-dead date on 31 December, to what extent does it make commercial sense to finish that work to the final 15 per cent? Just get it done—doesn't it make commercial sense to do that?
I'm not sure around your 85 per cent.
Ed has been using percentages when he's been talking to me, so I'm used to—
Sorry, it's just about the 85 per cent—
If 85 per cent of the work is complete, and you've got 15 per cent of the work needing to finish, doesn't it make commercial sense just to get on with it and finish it?
Are you giving an example—? Let's say there was a structure that was 85 per cent completed—
Right. Okay. That's where the 85 comes from.
So you're nearly done, but not complete at the point at which the funding stopped.