The UK government confirmed its intention to change the law to extend and to ease the utilisation of existing permitted development rights that apply to electronic communications infrastructure, such as mobile phone masts and radio equipment cabinets, “when parliamentary time allows”.
Details of the forthcoming reforms were set out by government in its response to feedback received to a consultation it held last year.
The government has confirmed that while the legislative amendments will make it easier for telecoms operators to bolster their mobile networks without having to seek prior approval to do so, the operators will still require an agreement under the Electronic Communications Code to establish new sites for their equipment on private land.
Telecoms operators will also face new conditions on their permitted development rights “to minimise the impact of all new development, in all areas (but particularly on [protected land]), as far as possible,” the government said.
The government has confirmed plans to minimise the visual impact of telecoms equipment in some areas, including that it will limit the extent to which taller and broader telecoms equipment can be installed under these widened permitted development rights on protected land without prior approval, such as conservation areas and areas of outstanding natural beauty. There are no proposed changes to the existing permitted development rights on land on or within sites of special scientific interest.
A new code of practice for wireless network development in England has also been developed to provide guidance to telecoms operators on their network deployment. The government said the new code of practice “has a stronger focus on the siting and design of wireless infrastructure and the process for engaging with local authorities and communities” and that mobile operators “have committed to develop their networks and install wireless infrastructure according to the guidance set out” in the updated code.
Ian Morgan of Pinsent Masons, who specialises in preventing and resolving telecoms-related property disputes, said: “This announcement represents a further clear signal from government that operators and infrastructure providers alike need to be able to upgrade and share existing phone masts as well as invest in new ones at pace and scale. Removing unnecessary barriers to the roll out of the electronic communications apparatus of today and tomorrow is essential, if connectivity in Britain is to be supercharged and if we are to remain competitive on the global stage.”
“These latest changes represent a welcome step, with robust safeguards remaining in place which seek to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck between the interests of site providing landowners and operators,” he said. “Careful consideration will need to be given to the assessment and possible need for mitigation of adverse visual impact, including whether and to what extent records should be kept of the process adopted in assessing visual impact and the suitability of mitigation measures, if any, that may be needed, in order to create an audit-trail of the decision-making process and any outcomes.”
In its consultation response paper, the government said: “We believe that our changes to the planning system will reduce the time, cost and uncertainty involved in upgrading mobile network infrastructure. Improved mobile connectivity, especially 5G, will ultimately bring benefits to all communities and businesses throughout the country and support our levelling up agenda.
“In turn, high quality digital connectivity will support the development of new industries and increase resilience in our digital infrastructure. They will also incentivise the maximum utilisation of mast sites and enable greater sharing of infrastructure. This includes addressing existing barriers that can make it easier for Code operators to deploy additional sites instead of upgrading existing ones.”
Hamish MacLeod, chief executive of Mobile UK, a body that represents the UK’s biggest four mobile network operators – EE, Three, Virgin Media O2 and Vodafone – said: “The industry welcomes the reforms to planning regulations proposed by the government. They will enable operators to deploy mobile networks more efficiently to meet ambitious targets for rural and urban coverage, including next-generation 5G.”