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Massive cuts to phone mast rental payments are hurting communities and delaying the UK’s shift to 5G

Massive cuts to phone mast rental payments are hurting communities and delaying the UK’s shift to 5G

Anna Turley

4 min read

The need to get 5G broadband rolled out across the country is urgent, as every one of us working on creaky Zoom calls can testify.

Yet because of a legal loophole that few have even heard of, the chances of us all getting good digital connectivity any time soon are as remote as ever. 

This all started back in 2017 when, after some very powerful lobbying by the telecommunications giants, the government changed the Electronic Communications Code. A fairly obscure piece of legislation, it governs the rent that mobile operators pay to land and property-owners to host mobile infrastructure. 

But as obscure as it is, the impact of changing it has been profound. In just a few years, rents paid to churches, sports clubs, charities, farmers and community groups across the country have been cut by as much as 90 per cent and in some cases even more. Those affected are losing thousands of pounds a year of vital income at a really difficult time.

A Welsh farmer who was told he would receive £5,500 had this offer slashed to an incredible £3.50 a year. A church in West Yorkshire which used the £14,000 annual rent from its two masts to keep the church heated and its community kitchen going, was told to accept just £1,000. Leeds City Council has been forced to accept rent of £28,500, down from £187,027 for 14 sites.

Long-established property rights are being undermined without producing any commensurate public good

Little wonder the number of tribunal disputes between landowners and mobile phone firms has rocketed. In the 30 years before the code was changed just five cases came before the courts; in the past four years there were a whopping 336.  

And yet despite everything that’s been allowed to happen, not least a complete breakdown in trust in a market that previously functioned well, what we’re not seeing is a significant rollout of new masts – the very thing these reforms were supposed to bring about. 

Instead, long-established property rights are being undermined without producing any commensurate public good. The independent consultancy CEBR estimates it will cost the UK economy £7.4bn over the next 10 years.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Ministers had assured Parliament the new code would bring down rents by no more than 40 per cent. They said they would “hold the operators’ feet to the fire” to make sure they would behave responsibly with their new powers. 

Instead, the government is at risk of breaching the implicit social contract between people who accepted phone masts on their property for the greater good and some fair compensation, and the companies who promised increased 5G infrastructure for their communities. 

So where is this money going, and for what? Telecommunication companies have already received substantial public subsidies to help them meet the cost of building infrastructure in poorly served parts of the country, including £500m for rural broadband. Handing them yet another subsidy in the form of reduced rents without securing a guarantee the money saved will be invested in 5G is astonishing.

Now the lobbying power of the mobile phone operators means that ministers are about to give them yet more power. New proposals to change the code and the potential forthcoming Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill will allow telecoms companies to backdate rent reductions retrospectively to when contract negotiations began. How will the very many ordinary people, councils, hospitals and charities affected afford to fight that? And who would host a new mast now? 

It is not too late for the government to change course and explore options for valuing land fairly and stop trying to fix a market that wasn’t broken. If they don’t, the current dysfunction guarantees it will never work, the cost to the economy will be vast, and fast 5G will remain out of reach for millions of us.

Anna Turley is Chair of the Protect and Connect Campaign and former Labour MP for Redcar

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