Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Con)
My Lords, as we expected, we have had a lively and somewhat polarised debate on this group, which goes to the heart of quite a lot of what the Bill seeks to do. A number of amendments in it relate to the valuation regime, and they all seek to do slightly different things. I will certainly try to address all of them, although not in numerical order.
However, it might be helpful if I first set out some details about the current position. In England and Wales, agreements can be renewed in two different statutory ways: one is contained in part 5 of the code and the other is in the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954. The position in Northern Ireland is similar: agreements can be renewed using either part 5 or the Business Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 1996.
The main difference between the procedures at present is that they have different frameworks against which the financial terms of a renewal agreement are calculated. In the code, the consideration paid to a landowner is calculated on a no-network basis, as was helpfully explained by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton. But this framework does not currently apply to agreements renewed under the 1954 Act or the 1996 order, where rents are calculated on a different basis. The Government do not believe that maintaining this difference is right.
Clauses 61 and 62 will ensure that the approach taken to rent calculation for renewals under the 1954 Act or the 1996 order is consistent with the approach in the code. This means that the same approach will be applied throughout the United Kingdom, reducing disparities in deployment costs in different jurisdictions which could otherwise contribute to a digital divide.
Before turning to the specific amendments, I will pick up a few points raised by noble Lords. The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, mentioned the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers—CAAV—with which DCMS has engaged closely, both in developing the 2017 reforms and in our subsequent discussions regarding their implementation. We welcome the CAAV’s input on these and the wider initiatives aimed at embedding better working practices in the negotiation and completion of code agreements. I am grateful to the noble Earl for sending on further points from the CAAV; these were rather lengthy and detailed, and I do not think that it would be helpful, or do them justice, to discuss them in detail today, but I would be happy to write to him on those matters and copy other noble Lords in.
I welcome the noble Earl’s comments on the code valuation framework and ordinary market valuation principles, and I bow to his expertise in this field. I confirm that DCMS engaged closely with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in developing the 2017 reforms to the code. In 2019, it produced a specific guidance note for surveyors working in this field, and I understand that this makes clear the relationship between the code valuation framework and the red book global standards of valuation.
The noble Earl referred to independent infrastructure providers, which have a key role to play in the delivery of robust and resilient networks. They invest substantially in the deployment of new apparatus, which can then be shared by multiple operators, expanding coverage and extending choice for consumers. Their role was lauded during the passage of the 2017 reforms, both in another place and in your Lordships’ House, where the noble Lord, Lord Foster of Bath, referred to them having
“some of the most productive telecommunications facilities in the country”.— [Official Report, 31/1/17; col. 1181.]
So I was a little surprised to hear concerns expressed today about the possible disadvantages of this important part of the sector, but I would certainly be happy to discuss those concerns further if noble Lords would like to.
On whether independent infrastructure providers are passing on savings, we are not aware of situations where such providers who have secured new arrangements following the 2017 reforms have failed to pass on any decrease in costs to operators using their installations. It must be remembered that many independent infrastructure sites will still be subject to pre-2017 agreements and, as such, there may not yet be any consequential savings to pass on.
It has been suggested, including by my noble friend Lord Vaizey in his intervention on the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, that the code creates the potential for intermediaries to acquire sites cheaply, using the code valuation framework, and then to charge operators excessive sums to use them. It is important to note that, if such an intermediary has not installed apparatus on the land but is the occupier of the land for the purpose of the code, it would be open to a code operator to seek code rights to do so from that party. However, if the intermediary invests in infrastructure on the land, we think it right that they can agree commercial terms for the use of it with the operators. Naturally, if competitive terms are not offered, operators will go elsewhere.
My noble friend Lord Northbrook and the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, referred to the report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research. I am conscious that we have much to cover, so I do not intend to discuss this in detail, but I will say that, generally, DCMS is aware of it and its findings. We note that it was commissioned by the Protect and Connect campaign, and our understanding is that it focused primarily on the valuation regime, rather than providing a broader view of how the code is working in practice, which is what DCMS aims to do in its engagement with interested parties and through the consultation that has informed the development of the Bill.
Turning to the amendments, I will first address those tabled by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, the noble Lords, Lord Clement-Jones and Lord Thurlow, and my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Pickering, which relate to paragraph 24 of the code. These go to the crux of the argument regarding the valuation framework. Before the 2017 reforms, the amount of rent payable reflected the value of the site to the operator. Site providers were therefore potentially able to charge an operator thousands of pounds a year to house apparatus on small pieces of land that were otherwise of low or nominal value.
The 2017 reforms were intended to rebalance the relationship: operators would pay a fair rent that reflected the true value of the land, and site providers would remain able to receive additional sums to cover any loss or damage incurred as a result of the operator exercising code rights, or that may be incurred in future, including professional fees. To address a point made by my noble friend Lady McIntosh, those payments should take into account any alternative uses that the land may have and any losses that may be incurred, among other things.
As we have said throughout, and even following the helpful conversations that I have had with a number of noble Lords so far on the Bill, we continue to believe that this balance is right to ensure the cost-effective and efficient delivery of robust digital services. As was noted today, these are becoming ever more necessary in our daily lives, as was thrown into sharp relief during the pandemic.
In his admirably pithy contribution, the noble Lord, Lord Fox, asked whether we believe that incentives still exist for site providers and landowners to enter into agreements. We think that they do. We have been told that the amounts offered by some operators are now so drastically reduced that landowners are less willing to let their land be used, but we maintain that the 2017 valuation provisions created the right balance between the public need for digital communications and landowner rights. We were aware that the valuation framework would result in reductions to rental payments but, in our view, prices being paid for rights to install communications apparatus before 2017 were too high. With digital communications becoming increasingly important, that needed to be addressed.
The code still makes separate provision for landowners to recover compensation for loss or damages. We think that, taken together, the provisions on consideration and compensation mean that landowners should receive a fair payment for allowing their land to be used, despite the fact that overall amounts will normally be lower than they were before the 2017 reforms—but we believe that the incentive remains.
Amendment 23 seeks to amend the valuation framework, moving away from the no-network approach that was introduced in 2017. The amendment appears to us to be a retrograde step, taking the market away from the clear approach established by the 2017 reforms and moving back towards the status quo ante. This could reintroduce some of the problems that were addressed by those reforms, including a return of payments that were unfairly too high, and leave us with a dual approach to valuation on the renewal of agreements, potentially causing confusion for operators, site providers and courts. The Government, therefore, cannot accept this amendment.
Amendments 26 and 27 both relate to agreements renewed under Part 5 of the code. Amendment 26 seeks to phase in rent reductions in these cases through a two-year grace period during which site providers would continue to receive consideration at the previous level. Amendment 27 looks to introduce a tiered phase-in period that would last for three years. The code valuation framework was introduced in 2017 and there has been much publicity on how this has affected payments to landowners for hosting telecommunications apparatus on their land. I believe it has been relatively clear to interested parties for a substantial period that the market has changed significantly, and that, in most cases, reductions in rental payments are to be expected. For this reason, the Government do not think that it is necessary for additional time periods to be given, when the effect will be to increase operational costs and to slow down the rollout of 4G and 5G coverage that the population rightly wants and expects.
Amendment 25 would require the Secretary of State to issue guidance on how paragraph 24 of the code should be interpreted and the maximum permitted reduction in consideration. Statutory guidance can certainly play an important part in ensuring legislative measures achieve their intended aims, but this must be considered on a case-by-case basis. We have concluded that guidance in this area would not be appropriate; code agreements cover a hugely diverse range of circumstances, and the code sets out a clear framework approved by Parliament, which establishes valuation principles which can be applied across different scenarios. We think it is right that, when disputes arise, further interpretation of these principles should rest with the courts. Indeed, the courts have been doing this since the reforms were introduced in 2017 and a body of case law is now well established. We believe that introducing statutory guidance on valuation at this stage would undermine the progress that has been made in that respect, introducing uncertainty and confusion, not least because the status of the proposed guidance from the Secretary of State, and the degree of influence it would have on the courts, is unclear.
Instead, we consider it much better for a court to be able fully to consider all the circumstances of a particular given case and all the relevant evidence before it, and then to act in accordance with the statutory framework set by Parliament. For the same reason, we do not think a statutory cap on rent reductions is appropriate; this would fetter the parties and, ultimately, the courts from proper consideration of all the relevant circumstances. It is also important perhaps to consider non-legislative action that can be taken to promote better relationships: as well as the steps taken in this legislation, there are non-legislative steps the Government are taking to ensure that the code works well in practice. For example, the department’s Barrier Busting Task Force is holding monthly workshops with a broad range of groups with an interest in the code. Those workshops are attended by network operators, landowner representative groups and local authority representatives, as well as professionals and surveyors. The workshops aim to encourage greater collaboration in relation to code negotiations and agreements through identifying and implementing better ways of working. They touch on key issues which parties have raised with us; for example, stakeholders are currently working to agree on standard template wording for common clauses within code agreements.
Amendments 20 and 22 seek to disapply much of the valuation framework to agreements renewed under the 1954 Act and the 1996 order. The Government cannot accept those amendments, as they serve only to entrench the inconsistencies in the different renewal frameworks, which I mentioned at the outset. Were Amendments 20 and 22 to be accepted, some landowners would receive higher rental payments for longer. However, this would allow network costs to remain unacceptably high, penalising swathes of consumers and businesses who may face price increases for digital services, or may have to wait longer for the high-quality, reliable connections they need.