The party manifestos are out – here’s what they mean for UK telco infrastructure

Since the general election was called each of the parties have been frantically pulling together their manifestos and setting out their stall to woo businesses and individuals alike.

The last few weeks have seen the launch of manifestos from the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, and Labour, each with their own strategy for powering growth.

Across the manifestos there’s unanimous agreement in digital’s major role in supporting this growth, but it can only be successful if we see continued and even improvements to the UK’s telecoms infrastructure. So, what does each manifesto have in store for continuing to connect the UK?

Regulation, Regulation, Regulation

I was recently struck by interesting comments made by Allison Kirkby, chief executive at BT, in which she shared that Scandinavia was ‘way ahead’ of the UK in telecoms infrastructure.

Having previously been chief executive of the Swedish telecoms company Telia, she was keen to point out that Scandinavia’s lead in telecoms infrastructure “…is very much driven by the regulatory environment, the planning environment and the general adoption of digital skills and digital services… a lot of what is not working in the UK is the planning legislation.”

Cleary changes need to be made, but the next government will need to walk the tightrope between managing regulation that keeps businesses, individuals and the environment safe, and loosening planning restrictions to ensure the timely rollout of consistent telecoms infrastructure (which the UK will be so reliant on to power even economic growth). So, let’s see what approach each party is taking.

The Conservatives: Clear Plan, Bold Action, Secure Future

When it comes to infrastructure, the Conservatives call it loud and clear: “We can only achieve our infrastructure ambitions if we continue to simplify the planning system to make it easier to build, faster.”

They intend to do this by:

  • Introducing reforms to outdated EU red tape to better protect nature while enabling the building of new schemes. The party says these changes will speed up local and national infrastructure planning systems.
  • End frivolous legal challenges that frustrate infrastructure delivery by amending the law so judicial reviews that don’t have merit do not waste court time.
  • Ensure any requirements to offset the impact of new infrastructure and homes on an area are proportionate, without compromising environmental outcomes.

Specifically in telecoms, their ambition is:

  • For all populated areas to be covered by ‘standalone’ 5G mobile connectivity and to keep the UK at the forefront of adopting and developing 6G.
  • To invest in new technology to achieve ambitious broadband targets for hard-to-reach areas.

Keen to clear up a patchy track record of pushing ahead key national infrastructure projects, the party is keen to break down the barriers it’s grappled with firsthand.

Labour: Change 

The cornerstone of Labour’s manifesto is around kickstarting economic growth, and it is arguably the clearest and boldest in highlighting and addressing the issue of planning and regulation. “The current planning regime acts as a major brake on economic growth. Labour will make the changes we need to forge ahead with new roads, railways, reservoirs, and other nationally significant infrastructure.” The manifesto, and its attitude to infrastructure, is focussed on dedicated regulatory offices and infrastructure authorities to get things moving.

It continues: “We will set out new national policy statements, make major projects faster and cheaper by slashing red tape, and build support for developments by ensuring communities directly benefit.

Specifically, they intend to do this by:

  • Developing a ten-year infrastructure strategy, aligned with their industrial strategy and regional development priorities.
  • Creating a new Regulatory Innovation Office, bringing together existing functions across government, to help regulators update regulation, speed up approval timelines, and co-ordinate issues that span existing boundaries.
  • Creating a new National Infrastructure and Service Transformation Authority, bringing together existing bodies, to set strategic infrastructure priorities and oversee the design, scope, and delivery of projects.

Specifically in telecoms, their ambition is:

  • Make a renewed push to fulfil the ambition of full gigabit and national 5G coverage by 2030.

In a nice summary, the manifesto concludes: “Labour will ensure economic regulation supports growth and investment, promotes competition, works for consumers, and enables innovation.”

The Liberal Democrats: For a Fair Deal

For the Lib Dems, the climate crisis and conserving the natural environment are a consistent red thread throughout their manifesto, and they intend to power growth whilst being kind to the planet. “We will make Britain a world leader in the new infrastructure, businesses and technologies needed to tackle climate change.”

They intend to do this by:

  • Investing in green infrastructure, innovation and skills to boost economic growth and create good jobs and prosperity in every nation and region of the UK, while tackling the climate crisis.
  • Requiring the National Infrastructure Commission to take fully into account the environmental implications of all national infrastructure decisions.
  • Making planning work for our natural environment and ensuring that developers pay their fair share

Specifically in telecoms, their ambition is:

  • Ensuring that gigabit broadband is available to every home and business, including in rural and remote communities, and support local bespoke solutions so that no property is left out.
  • Ending the bulk collection of communications data and internet connection records.
  • Empowering consumers and ensuring that everyone can enjoy the benefits of new technology, by setting a UK-wide target for digital literacy

The manifesto is clear in calling out that “In rural areas… poor broadband connectivity [is] undermining the viability of our communities”, so it’s promising to see their commitment to making sure “no property is left out”. That said, the absence of a review of planning laws and fervent commitment to protecting the natural environment may make it a struggle to get there.

Talking the talk, but who will walk the walk?

Clearly there’s an acknowledgement across all parties that change is the order of the day, but there’s a spectrum of how radically each party is willing to push.

For the Tories, like a lot of their policies in the manifesto, there’s a sense of trying to mend and deliver on outstanding promises. For Labour, buoyed by a general sentiment for a refresh, they are much clearer in having bigger picture policies and task forces to drive infrastructure projects. And whilst the Lib Dems’ commitment to protecting the planet is certainly admirable, it does compromise their realistic level of ambition.

Having a better telecoms infrastructure means a better universal access to digital services, and ultimately an opportunity to uplevel the entirety of the UK. All the main parties have addressed this to a greater or lesser extent, so it will be interesting to see what sort of salience this has with voters in the coming weeks in the run up to July 4th.

See you at the polling station.