National and Devolved Politics

11.06.18

Virgin Media to go to court with council over land usage

Virgin Media have launched an unprecedented legal challenge against Durham County Council over accusations it is blocking plans to bring ultrafast broadband to homes in the area.

Tension between the two parties was caused by Virgin’s announcement to expand to 16,000 properties in Durham when the council allegedly started demanding payment in exchange for access to grass verges that run alongside public pathways.

Durham County Council’s highways department control the verges that Virgin are aiming to use — Virgin says access is needed to cause minimum disruption to locals yet claims the council is implementing “hefty” fees per metre to access the land.

The internet provider has said they are willing to put the Electronic Communications Code “to the test.” The Code was amended in 2017 to make it more efficient for broadband providers to access council-owned land to install network infrastructure.

The debate will culminate in the Upper Tribunal (Lands Chamber) court where the court will decide on access rights between the two parties who have failed to come to a compromise.

Tom Mockridge, Virgin Media’s CEO, said the group are “disappointed” to be taking the action against the council with whom they initially had a good working relationship.

Mockridge added that the council has been holding the fibre rollout to ransom over land fees that will leave areas of Durham in the broadband slow lane.

“Durham has no basis for imposing any kind of a land levy in these circumstances and its attitude runs counter to that we have faced from more forward-thinking councils,” said Mockridge

“This issue goes wider than the city of Durham. Haggling over land access when we build in a new area slows down broadband rollout and deters investment. It’s time rhetoric was put into action to truly break down the barriers to building broadband,” he added.

Stuart Timmiss, head of planning and assets at Durham County Council, said: “We are extremely disappointed that Virgin Media has decided to take this course of action as we were under the impression we had a good constructive dialogue and that we were awaiting further information that we had requested from them.

 “Many meetings have been held over recent months, mostly to deal with the poor performance by Virgin Media in our communities. Earlier this year, we took the unusual step of serving the company with an improvement notice due to a significant number of complaints received from residents on the streets in which they were operating. This included poor reinstatement that is yet to be resolved, drives being blocked over long periods of time as well as damage to property. Virgin has been proactive in resolving these issues having terminated their contracts with contractors on site. However, these issues are not uncommon and we are not the only local authority who has been forced to take such action.

 “Having said that, the roll out of superfast broadband across our county is very important to us and we will continue to work with all providers in finding the best way to achieve this. Providers such as Virgin Media only provide broadband services to certain areas within the county which they deem to be commercially viable.”

 

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