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Our church will lose ‘essential funding’ under new mast law

Sunday Express

4 Jun 2022

CHURCHES, sports clubs, farms and community groups that host phone masts on their property are in danger of being left in “financial peril” as telecoms giants demand massive reductions in rent, campaigners have warned.

The Protect and Connect campaign has warned that the rents being paid have been slashed by up to 95 per cent in some cases, stripping organisations of a major source of funding.

It is feared proposed changes to the law, to be debated this week in the House of Lords, will make it even harder for property owners to stand up to big companies.

There is concern that congregations whose finances were devastated by the pandemic will find it even more difficult to maintain historic places of worship if they cannot stop the radical reductions in existing rent payments.

Susie Bell-proctor, a parishioner at St Mary The Blessed Virgin in Gomersal, West Yorkshire, was appalled by the demands for a rent reduction.

She says that it would cut the church’s regular annual income from its mast from £14,000 to just £1,008.
She said: “This funding is simply essential to ensuring the church can continue our community work. The pandemic decimated our ability to fundraise by traditional means, worsening the situation further.
“We face a 93 per cent reduction in our rent which gives you an idea of just how disproportionate the effects of these changes will be. We are a community church – we can’t afford to compete with these huge companies in court.

“We feel completely and utterly trapped.

“We feel we’ve been completely disregarded.

“The big telecoms companies continue to profit while we, the small community organisations who desperately need this funding, are left behind without a voice or the means to support ourselves.”

The 2017 Electronic Communications Code (ECC) enabled telecoms companies to reduce rents.

The influential Institute of Economic Affairs is warning of a “phone mast rip-off”. It says the new rules before Parliament could make it even easier for companies to compel landowners to host masts without ensuring they are fairly compensated. There is further concern landowners have become reluctant to allow new masts on their property and this could slow the rollout of high-speed 5G mobile technology.

Sir Desmond Swayne, Conservative MP for New Forest West, said: “The Electronic Communications Code interfered with a market that was working effectively.

“The Government sought to reduce the market price and predictably created a shortage.

“To address the shortage the Government has now delivered a system that simply bullies landowners into making their sites available at the reduced price.”

The IEA’S James Forder described the Government’s approach as “baffling”, saying that it risks “depriving landowners of a fair return on their land, and slowing down 5G rollout at the same time”.

Anna Turley, who chairs the Protect and Connect Campaign, said: “The Government is trampling over property rights, and placing farmers, small land and property owners and community organisations in financial peril.

“They may now be forced to refund or repay operators thousands of pounds.”

However, a spokesman for Speed Up Britain, a cross-industry group pushing for better mobile connectivity in every part of the UK, said: “Digital connectivity is crucial to modern society, just like water and electricity.

“Mobile operators invest each year to extend and boost mobile coverage to more people and businesses across the UK, including rural and hard to reach areas.the Electronic Communications Code is vital to achieving these ambitions.

“Promoting the right balance between the interests of landowners and operators, the Code will enable these critical networks to be built sustainably and cost-effectively, keeping access affordable in the face of cost of living concerns.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “Our priority is rolling out better mobile coverage as quickly as possible. The pricing for the right to install telecoms kit is now more closely aligned to the regime for other utilities like water, electricity and gas, and we think that is the correct position.

“We want to see fair terms agreed quickly between landowners and mobile operators, and we are creating new laws to put extra responsibilities on telecoms firms and landowners to encourage fairer, faster and more collaborative negotiations.”