Help stop the mobile mast rip off

Times Red Box

26 Jul 2022

In a fragile economy, there are winners and there are losers. Vodafone is winning, this week reporting revenue growth to €11.3bn for the first fiscal quarter of 2023 and a particularly strong performance in the UK, where service revenue jumped 6.5 per cent.

These results will be cause for celebration for Vodafone, but they are also a harsh reminder of how private property owners across the UK are losing, by being ruthlessly exploited by corporate telecoms giants.

As part of the rollout of 5G across the UK, many private landowners host phone masts on their property in exchange for an annual rental fee from the relevant telecommunications provider. This initially proved mutually beneficial, accelerating the roll out of much needed faster broadband to millions of people, whilst providing a key source of revenue for landowners. But progress has stalled to an alarming degree in recent years, with the government allowing mobile operators to ride roughshod over individual property rights.

This slow-down is a direct result of changes made to the 2017 Electronic Communications Code, which gave telecoms companies wide-ranging powers. These include the power to set the rate of annual rent they would pay to landowners hosting telecoms infrastructure on their land, and access to that land whenever they want, irrespective of the wishes of the owner of the property.

The risks were clear from the outset but were dismissed out of hand by legislators. Despite government assurances that nobody would face a reduction of more than 40 per cent, many private property owners affected have faced rental reductions of as much as 95 per cent.

Since 2017, private property owners in the UK have been losing out on £209m a year to telecoms giants, according to a report by economics consultancy, Cebr.

This money wasn’t going directly to the bank accounts of landowners, many of those affected are community centres, churches, sports clubs and farmers. The extra revenue is crucial to their very existence, paying for upkeep and repairs. Now, many are at risk of disappearing altogether.

The stories of those affected are shocking: a Welsh farmer relentlessly pressurised to accept a rent cut from £5,500 to just £3.50 a year; a Rugby club in Billericay that sits at the heart of the community but could cease to exist with its rent dropping from £8,500 to just £750 a year. Most egregious of all is an NHS hospital in Boris Johnson’s Hillingdon constituency that faces a £1.7m a year reduction in rent, and that was slapped with a £330k bill for legal costs and back rent at the height of the pandemic in 2020.

Landowners affected by these changes have little recourse to redress the imbalance. Their protests have fallen on deaf DCMS ears, who are instead busy cosying up to telecoms giants, rather than offering protection to community groups that are at financial breaking point.

Worse still is that these changes have in fact slowed the rollout of 5G. The 2017 changes have led to nine million less people having 5G coverage today than alternative plans would have achieved. There is also no evidence that the savings telecoms companies are making are being reinvested into the 5G rollout.

It seems perverse that the Tory party should hold private property rights in such contempt, but perhaps that is indicative of the muddled ideology of Boris Johnson’s government. The sole beneficiaries for the last five years have been the international companies who lobbied for these code changes to line their own pockets. Now, a new bill is in the offing which will hand even more power to telecoms companies.

A new government must urgently address this issue. There is an opportunity to restore the rights of landowners that should not be wasted. It should not be easier for mobile operators to access government ministers than for the British public to access 5G.

A functioning UK 5G network ends our reliance on importing less secure technology from abroad. This can be a collective effort, allowing communities to participate and benefit too, but not unless we recalibrate how we compensate them for using their land.

We all want faster broadband, but we cannot allow corporate giants to fill their own global wallets by emptying those of local community groups who are already on the brink.

Anna Turley is chairwoman of the Protect & Connect campaign