Henry Robinson: Call from rural Britain mon mobile phone connectivity

MOBILE phones are ubiquitous today. There are more than 80 million mobile phone contracts in the UK, carried by just fewer than 60 million people.

A mobile is not just a phone, of course; in fact, a recent story in the Daily Telegraph showed that making a call is the fifth most likely thing a phone will be used for after surfing the internet, using social media, listening to music or playing games.

It is a brave new world, unimaginable 30 years ago.

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Except, as we know, not everyone gets to participate in the connection revolution. For those who live and work in the countryside relying on being able to use a mobile phone for calls or the internet is far less certain.

Successive governments have made promises about “connection tomorrow”.

No wonder, then, that the excuses are beginning to wear a bit thin for so many people living and working in the countryside, whether it be North Yorkshire or elsewhere in the UK.

It was, therefore, with scepticism that we received the latest set of ambitious targets from Government and the mobile industry.

The commitment is to £5bn of investment and a target of guaranteed voice and mobile coverage for 90 per cent of the UK by the end of 2017.

This is a new target, better designed to meet the needs of rural areas and replacing previous urban-biased targets that related to coverage in “the areas where people live”.

There is, of course, a sting in the tail. It is increasingly evident that the deal the Government struck with the mobile operators included an agreement to change the law on access to land for placing and servicing mobile infrastructure. The so-called Electronic Communications Code was presented to Parliament last month as part of the Infrastructure Bill.

The proposed change, rushed in at the last minute, was full of holes and, most worryingly of all, sought to give Ministers the power to dictate the rent landowners can charge for access to their land. I am pleased to say we were able to fight this one off.

However, the withdrawal of the code is far from the end of the matter. There is a strong and growing lobby fuelled by the mobile operators making the argument that mobile infrastructure should be treated the same as utilities, such as electricity pylons and water pipes.

So the argument goes it is “ransom rents” that prevent them putting in the infrastructure the countryside needs to serve our rural communities.

It is a powerful argument, with strong emotive support from MPs; it is also a highly convenient position for the operators to take. The Government’s own study, commissioned in 2013, shows that rental charges make up a small percentage of the cost of erecting and maintaining infrastructure.

Any move to impose state regulation, disrupt a functioning market and impose preferential rents for multi-national telecommunications companies cannot be justified by simplistic emotive arguments.

There is a point of principle that we cannot ignore. Members have the right to seek a market value rent for access to, and use of, their land, but there is also a clear interest for Government and the mobile phone providers not to impose their will on landowners.

If the law encourages operators to impose terms rather than negotiate, the consequence will be a significant increase in unnecessary conflict and legal disputes.

Our efforts in blocking the first draft of the revised code mean there will now be a consultation on the subject and we will continue forcefully to make our case.

There is still a way to go before we secure a resolution to this important issue, but we are committed to staying the course. We want to see rural communities and rural businesses getting the connections they need.

We will play a full and constructive part in making that happen. We will not, however, do that by allowing Government to ride roughshod over a member’s right to seek a reasonable market value for rent and access to their land.

Henry Robinson is president of the Country Land & Business Association.