The recent melee via Zoom, courtesy of Handforth Parish Council, masterfully curated by Jackie Weaver, brought the quirks and idiosyncrasies of local bureaucracy to the attention of the wider world.  Whilst bringing some light-hearted relief and humour to an audience held captive under lockdown restrictions, it increased interest in regional democratic services, and asked the now infamous question “who has the authority?”

The humble local planning authority committee meeting was once a rite of passage for acquisition surveyors in the telecoms industry.  Amid scenes which wouldn’t look out of place in Pawnee, Indiana (c/o Parks and Recreation), residents of the wider community were given opportunities to quiz the designated representatives of telecommunications operators over their intentions to erect towers, pole or structures (use of the word “mast” was explicitly forbidden), accommodating antennas and dishes to provide coverage to the wider community.  Proposed new sites measuring over fifteen metres in height would require full planning applications to be made, inevitably leading to an invitation to Committee to justify the application.

Last week, it was announced by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that there would be a review of permitted development rights for telecommunications base stations in England.  Predictably, this was communicated in the calm and nuanced manner expected by the British media.  For example, the front page of last Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph bore the sub-headline “100ft phone masts may be built in countryside as rules are eased”.

As mentioned in my previous post, decisions to rollout new base stations are done on a supply and demand model as usage of network services in a given area drives demand for new apparatus.  As rural areas have less usage than urban areas, there has been less incentive for telecoms operators to invest in these areas.  By sheer coincidence, last month the government announced that it had agreed a £1 billion deal with the four Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) for a shared network of new and existing phone masts in areas with limited coverage as part of the Shared Rural Network initiative.  By further good fortune, the operators O2, Three and Vodafone have announced a new joint venture to build and share 222 new mobile masts to boost rural coverage and EE announced it will upgrade more than 500 4G sites in 2021 as part of the SRN to extend rural coverage.

Under current planning laws, new sites enjoy permitted development rights to install structures up to 20m tall in unprotected areas, which may only be refused by planning officers on the grounds of siting and appearance.  Anything above this requires full planning permission, often called to Committee and decided by democratically elected representatives of the local community.  The planning reforms proposed by the DCMS would see this limit increased to 30m.  Although it may be argued that structures above 30m will still be accountable to Committees, given the topography of the rural landscape, it is very rare that such structures will be needed.  Suppliers of tower structures used by MNO’s normally have their tallest option available at this limit.  Anything taller than thirty metres requires a bespoke solution at considerable cost to the operator which often outweighs the benefit to the MNO of providing coverage to the area in question.

Often viewed through the rose-tinted lens of being a quaint custom, planning committees serve an important purpose in everyday life as decisions made can have fundamental consequences for the local area.  The stated intentions of this move are to increase and improve digital connectivity across the country, but should this be at the cost of stripping elected officials of their ability to challenge applications in sensitive areas and ask questions of the MNO’s about the impacts imposed on the wider community?

During initial consultation on these plans in 2019, Former culture secretary Nicky Morgan stated that there had to be “a balance struck” between landscape and connectivity.  Given the measures proposed this week, it may be more pertinent to examine the delicate balance between local democracy and the increasing power of MNO’s to dictate national policy and ask the ill-fated question – “who has the authority?”.