The unstoppable march of the masts

Most of us want it both ways.  We are keen, often desperate, to get improved mobile coverage. At the same time, we don’t want our precious landscapes scarred by ugly and alien structures. Reconciling the two will always be tricky. However, a little-known piece of legislation called the Electronic Communications Code (EC code) tips the balance too far away from local people and too strongly towards big business.

Government cannot be criticised for wanting to improve phone signals in all parts of Britain and particularly in rural areas. Mobile phones are increasingly seen as an essential part of life to which everyone is entitled to have access. It is also true that our planning system has long been beset by ‘nimbyism’ (not in my back yard) and special pleading which can delay much needed developments. In addition, the construction of the 5G network has been interrupted by attacks from oddball conspiracy theorists who blame it for everything from killing trees to Covid-19 and who have set fire to phone masts and threatened construction staff.

In the interests of a timely development of national infrastructure, however, the rights of local communities and small landowners risk being trampled on.  The EC code allows organisations approved to develop networks to “construct […] infrastructure (such as ducts, cabinets and poles) on public highways without the need to obtain a street works licence” and “without the need to apply for planning permission”. In other words, the code makes it easier for the mast-erectors and harder for local communities to influence such developments in their area.

Even more surprisingly the code makes it difficult for landowners to refuse permission for a development on their own property.  It provides that “in the event that agreement cannot be reached with the owner or occupier of private land, the code allows an operator to apply to the Court to impose an agreement”.  It is, of course, open to an individual or organisation so affected to contest the application.  There probably aren’t many who would feel able to take on the might of giants like EE Ltd or British Telecommunications plc.

This obscure clause was brought into the open locally when Vodafone decided to put a large lattice structure on the boundary of a sports field owned and used by Wells Cathedral School.  ‘Decided’ being the operative word They didn’t have to seek agreement from the school.  They simply decided that it was the best place to boost the signal for an area of Wells. As the Headmaster wrote to the local planning authority “the School has not been consulted, nor therefore has it had the opportunity to formally consult with its parents, pupils and staff”.

The mast would be sited in the top left hand corner

The school subsequently took legal advice to see if there were any grounds on which it could challenge the decision. It has had to advise parents “Regrettably, that advice is that any legal challenge would have a high chance of failure, and that the School could be saddled with a huge legal bill.” In plain terms it was bullied into submission.

Although the school felt powerless to resist the effective annexation of its property, the nature and location of the installation meant that planning permission was required. It was therefore considered by Mendip District Council and rejected, not only because of the impact on the school but also on the amenity value of adjacent ancient woodland in the care of the National Trust.  All to no avail.  Vodafone appealed and a planning inspector – a functionary who in other contexts would be labelled an unelected bureaucrat – decided that there was a plausible case that the mast would boost mobile reception and should therefore proceed.

There is another and equally sinister impact of changes to the EC code quietly introduced in 2017.  Until that date phone companies negotiated the rent paid to landowners for installations on their property. The sums involved made it an attractive proposition for many farmers, but also community groups such as churches and sports clubs.  Since 2017, however, phone companies only have to pay the value the land would receive for its likely alternative use – in most rural areas that means for agriculture.  This has led to the phone giants seeking to impose huge reductions in the sums previously agreed.

The pressure group ‘Protect and Connect’ headed by former Labour MP Anna Turley, has been established to highlight the issue and press for change.  Its website quotes several examples of imposed rent reductions of around 90 per cent – a care home, for example, where an agreed payment £9,500 was reduced to £250 and a rugby club whose income has been driven down from £6,000 to £750 per year. It is not clear how many cases there are but since phone companies no longer have to negotiate access there is little incentive for them to negotiate mutually beneficial terms.  The threat of legal action from an organisation backed by huge resources is a very intimidating prospect.

In the west country ‘Protect and Connect’ quote the case of an Okehampton sheep farmer, James Hooper, who was told by EE that “that they were slashing the rent it pays for a phone mast on his farm from £2,900 a year to just £200 a year”.  Since his farm is barely profitable, he had relied on the income from the mast to keep afloat. Like Wells Cathedral School, he cannot afford to contest this arbitrary imposition in the courts and just has to accept it.

In a further twist it appears that “the Landlord and Tenant Act of 1954 applies to most of the UK’s 33,000 masts, meaning that mobile phone operators are accorded the status of sitting tenants and the Hoopers can neither evict EE nor remove the mast, despite the loss in rent.” Highlighting the scale of the problem Anna Turley told us

‘Rental cuts of up to 90% have had a devastating impact on thousands of smallholders, farmers, local councils, churches, and sports clubs at a time when people and businesses across the UK are facing significant financial hardship”.

The capacity of local communities to resist inappropriate development  is currently threatened by ill-thought out proposals to ‘simplify’ the planning system. These amendments to the EC code similarly put the profits of big business before the rights and aspirations of local people and ride roughshod over individuals and smaller organisations. Ironically this government campaigned under the slogan ‘Take back control’. They don’t seem very keen to give back control to us. I wonder why?