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Shared Rural Network gives telecoms companies the power to plonk towers on private land

Beware the Shared Rural Network, says Alasdair Mitchell; it could be a Trojan horse for telecoms companies and a blight on our countryside

Communication mast

Beautiful parts of the country are at real risk of being spoiled

I almost cheered when I read Rose Sutcliffe’s observations about rural connectivity and the Shared Rural Network project in Shooting Times.   The latter is a scheme using matched funding from the Government to cover 95% of the UK’s landmass with multi-network mobile phone signal, regardless of actual demand. It is an unholy mix of commerce and a clumsy political pledge.

There have been recent changes to the regulations that underpin the Shared Rural Network. Telecoms companies have been given the power to plonk minor Blackpool towers on private land without planning permission and without the owner’s consent. They can do this even in national parks, where the residents themselves are subject to ferocious planning controls.

Under the revised regulations, telecoms companies can erect 25m lattice steel masts in protected landscapes under the system known as permitted development. In non-designated countryside, the same applies to towers up to 30m. If the landowner objects, the companies could get legal authority to order to force access and build their monstrous masts anyway.

They don’t even have to pay fair rent or compensation. Access to a mobile signal is deemed to be in the public interest and the new regulations impose rent based on the footprint of the mast on the land in its current use. So, for a grass field, the payment will be the equivalent of the annual rent for a tiny bit of grazing. The visual impact doesn’t come into it. It’s like compulsory purchase minus the money. And as well as setting their own rent, the leaseholders can invite others to use the mast, leading to vastly increased traffic as multiple operators service their own individual bits of equipment.

Hideous structure

I have seen an agent’s letter sent to an elderly couple living on a smallholding in a national park. The agent identifies a site just 65m from their beautiful, secluded home as potentially suitable for a mast. The entire setting of their home would be ruined by a hideous structure four times the height of their lovely old house.

They may have been targeted partly because they have fibre-optic broadband. The telecoms companies like to tap into fibre to because it makes their network cheaper to operate. Yet the very existence of fibre-optic means the local residents don’t need a signal — though in this case, there happens to be reception for at least one network anyway. The roll-out is being driven by subsidies, not market demand.

The next stage is likely to be 5G — which means even more towers, because this wavelength has shorter range. The farmer who originally granted the way leave for the fibre-optic cable to cross his land thought he was helping his local community. Now he worries he may have opened the door to a Trojan horse.

Having seen the mast site in question, I find it hard to believe that it is a genuine prospect, given the local topography. But what is certain is that the couple’s home is now blighted; until the matter is resolved, they would have to declare the agent’s letter to any potential purchaser. Developers are required to show that they have considered several sites for every one they actually choose. How many rural homes will be blighted by the Shared Rural Network?