The lady's not for u-turning, but the Telecoms Bill is another disaster waiting to happen
Grassroots sports clubs on the verge of shutting down, hospitals facing a financial black hole, churches at risk of going under. To most governments, policy that threatened to devastate community groups in this way would be seen as an abject failure.
But these are not normal times, and this is not a normal government. Despite being repeatedly cautioned that pressing ahead with the Telecommunications and Infrastructure Bill would be folly, successive DCMS ministers have remained intransigent, despite overwhelming opposition.
This failure to listen is becoming all too familiar under Truss’ stewardship. Once again, warnings go unheeded. Once again, this administration has suffered a major embarrassment. An attempt to hurry this bill through has been scuppered by a Lords rebellion that saw it kicked back to the Commons after a humbling 159 to 151 defeat.
Many of the community groups affected are already on the brink of financial ruin, and this bill could be the final nail in the coffin
Given that this is a relatively obscure piece of legislation, this result was a shock, and is another blow to the government’s credibility. Michelle Donelan has given the impression of being a DCMS minister who is not afraid of following her own path, drawing the ire of predecessor Nadine Dorries after leaving a question mark over other key pieces of legacy legislation.
Better-publicised pieces of Dorries’ legislative legacy are the tip of the iceberg, but the Telecommunications and Infrastructure Bill may just be the most flawed of the lot. This makes it all the more egregious that Donelan is so insistent on pushing it through.
Much of the outrage over the 45p tax policy in the mini-budget focussed on the perception that it would make the super-rich richer and do nothing to help anybody else. The Telecoms and Infrastructure Bill threatens to go a step further. In its existing form it will help huge corporations that already make billions make even more money, but it will do so by taking money directly from the pockets of community groups. Worse still, many of the community groups affected are already on the brink of financial ruin, and this bill could be the final nail in the coffin.
The crux of the issue is around the violation of property rights, an inherently Conservative value. Unfortunately, the Conservative Party seems to have forgotten that.
Telecoms companies pay individual landowners an annual rental fee to host masts on their land, and to help with the speed up of 5G rollout across the United Kingdom. The property owners who host these masts are often those who badly need extra funding, and are therefore happy to deal with the inconvenience of hosting a mast in exchange for money that is crucial to their survival. Whether that’s grassroots sports clubs, churches, hospitals, or farms, they are all groups that are suffering financially through the cost of living crisis and were hit hard by the pandemic.
This arrangement worked well until 2017, when the government made changes to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC). These gave exorbitant powers to Telecoms companies: they could set the rent they paid to landowners for hosting masts on their land and they could access the masts at any time, no matter how inconvenient to the landowner. It even gave them the powers to potentially ask to be paid back rent, if they deemed they had overpaid.
The outcome of this has been predictable, but stark nonetheless. Rent reductions have been as high as 98 per cent in some individual cases. Community groups are being left with financial black holes worth thousands of pounds, and no way to fill them as we move into winter and costs explode. A report by CEBR estimated that the Code has put £209m a year into the pockets of telecoms companies at the expense of affected landowners. Despite repeated protestations to the government to reverse the damage this is causing, pleas for help have fallen on deaf ears time and again. The bad blood is also slowing the rollout of 5G, with new sites reluctant to accept masts and affected landowners unwilling to cooperate with greedy telecoms companies.
The government has been deaf to the protestations of community groups, but after the Lords defeat it may finally have to take notice. The Telecoms and Infrastructure Bill would have handed even more power to telecoms giants at the expense of site owners. The cost to affected groups would have been an additional £50m per year, meaning more than £250m going towards beefing up corporate profits and coming directly out of landowner’s pockets.
The question now is whether the government has learned its lesson. We need to see meaningful amendments to this bill, not just cosmetic changes. There is an opportunity to rebalance this market so that we get the rollout of 5G back on track while protecting community groups as the cost of living crisis worsens.
The concessions Donelan and Truss make will give us a good indication of whether this administration is beginning to understand the importance of listening. In this case, a u-turn might be preferable to another embarrassing defeat.
Anna Turley, former Labour MP for Redcar and chair of the Protect & Connect campaign.
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