Michael Gove: If we’re building HS2, Brexit needs to pay for broadband for all

Michael Gove is the Environment Secretary.
Michael Gove is the Environment Secretary.
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OF course there are many public goods that we can all identify and debate how to support. But public money is not inexhaustible so we must argue for investment not just with passion but also precision.

This brings me to a public good which I know is of critical interest and vital benefit to everyone engaged in farming, and also to many others across the country.

I’m talking about broadband. And, while on the subject, 4G mobile coverage.

It is ridiculous that you can get better mobile phone coverage in Kenya than here. It is unjustifiable that in the country that first guaranteed universal mail provision, invented the telephone and television and pioneered the worldwide web, that broadband provision is so patchy and poor.

Farming cannot become as productive as it should be, rural economies cannot grow as they should, and new housing cannot be provided in rural areas as so many hope to see and we cannot have an economy that works for everyone unless everyone has access to decent broadband and mobile coverage.

Daily life, especially active economic life, is becoming increasingly difficult for those without access to fast, reliable and affordable broadband. It is the necessary infrastructure of all our lives.

And yet rural communities in Britain are denied good access to this contemporary utility today just as the farmers of the Hill Country in Texas were denied electricity until the New Deal transferred power to the people.

If we could provide a universal service obligation for mail in the past – so that everyone in the country knew their post would be collected and delivered on the same basis as every other citizen – and if we can provide a universal guarantee now that every citizen will be given the same access to the healthcare they need when they need it, then why should we persist in discriminating over access to decent broadband?

Progress has been made, we have already raised the availability of super-fast broadband from 65 per cent of premises in 2010 to 95 per cent by the end of 2017, but more needs to be done.

We have committed to making high speed broadband available to all by 2020 and mobile coverage to 95 per cent of the UK by 2022. And as you will have seen, this weekend we announced a new initiative to use church spires to boost broadband and mobile connectivity in rural areas.

This kind of creative thinking shows how our nation’s beautiful heritage can work hand in hand with 21st century innovation. But we still need to go further. And, indeed, face down some of the vested interests. Some say that if individuals choose to live in rural areas, that choice should not be “subsidised” by others in urban areas.

To which I say, but where do the urban dwellers get their food from, who keeps the countryside beautiful for them, who protects the landscape, keeps our nation’s green lungs breathing, who maintains the health, beauty and balance of nature for future generations? The people in rural areas who are currently being deprived an important service so many take for granted and need it now.

We’re planning to spend north of £60bn on HS2, 30 times as much as it would cost to provide universal superfast broadband for everyone in the country. Surely investment in broadband is just as vital, and an urgent part of improving our critical national infrastructure?

Of course inside the EU, rules on state aid have prevented us from investing in broadband in a way that is best for the UK. Outside the EU, just one fifth of our annual net contribution to Europe could transform our national infrastructure.

The Prime Minister has made clear that the days of the UK making vast annual contributions to the EU will be over. And when we leave the EU we can put that money towards domestic priorities, like making our digital infrastructure work by improving rural broadband and connectivity overall.

Universal broadband and 4G coverage for all – paid for money we no longer have to give to the EU – that is what we mean by taking back control.

And that’s not the limit of my ambition for rural Britain and our farming sector.

I’ve argued before that we should not seek to compete on the basis of a race to the bottom but by occupying the high ground of strong environmental, welfare and quality standards.

We shouldn’t be afraid to say that we produce the world’s best food – our beef and lamb, cheese and milk, cod and salmon, soft fruit and salad vegetables – are the gold standard in fresh produce. One of the reasons why our exports are growing so fast.

And that’s precisely why we should not and will not lower environmental or animal welfare standards as part of any new trade deals. Indeed, together, we should aim higher. The trend of our times, and it will only accelerate, is to invest in food that is healthier both for ourselves and our planet.

Rather than feeding ourselves the chemically-adulterated, over-sugared, trans-fat rich processed foods that contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and massive additional pressure on the NHS, there is, rightly, a growing demand that we help more and more people adopt a healthier diet.

Adopting a healthier diet can only be good for British farmers, because it means eating more sustainably produced British produce. More fresh British fruit and veg, fresh British milk and farmhouse cheese, grass-fed beef and lamb, sustainably caught fish and shellfish, British peas and beans, pulses and seeds.

The more we can support local food economies where farmers and growers provide fresh produce to local retailers, the more we can ensure supermarkets and others pay fair prices for fresh British produce, the more children in school learn to buy wisely, cook properly and eat healthily and the more Government procurement values fresh, healthy, British food, the better for all our health.

That is why I believe the money we spend, as a country, supporting healthy food production is an investment not an expenditure, a way of reducing significant future costs, not an enduring burden on the exchequer.

Michael Gove is the Environment Secretary. This is an edited version of his keynote address to the NFU annual conference.