How mobile giants are hurting Yorkshire farmers and landowners with massive cuts to phone mast payments: Anna Turley

YOU’D be forgiven for not having heard of the Electronic Communications Code. It wasn’t the subject of much angry debate in 2017 when it came into law.

there's controversy over how much landowners are paid to have mobile phone masts on their land.

After all, who could argue with its aim of faster and better broadband? We all know how important this is across Yorkshire, particularly in our rural 
areas. 

But what nobody foresaw – because this wasn’t supposed to happen – was the impact this legislative loophole is having on churches, sports clubs, farmers, councils and small businesses, here and across the country.

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The treatment being doled out to them by the mobile phone giants is both extraordinary and counterproductive.

Anna Turley is chair of the Protect & Connect Campaign. She’s the former MP for Redcar.

In Yorkshire alone the story of this code can be told through the eyes of two people, one with – and one soon to have – a phone mast on their land.

Let’s start with potato farmer Nick Durdy who’s had a mast on his farm for the past 10 years.

Like many other farmers he was offered a fair sum – £5,000 a year in his case – for the inconvenience to him and the value to the operators of that much needed connectivity. So far so good. 

But over the past three years, since the introduction of the new code, he has joined a growing army of increasingly frustrated and angry landlords who say they have been bullied and threatened with court if they don’t accept drastic rent cuts. In Nick’s case it was an 83 per cent cut or legal action he was told he had no chance of winning.

Rural broadband remains an issue of contention, writes Anna Turley.

They feel their property rights have been rendered meaningless as the new powers conferred by the code allow highly-profitable phone companies to impose huge rent cuts in lands tribunals.

Nick says: “I think it’s very unfair. They wouldn’t have offered £5,000 if they didn’t think it was worth it in the first place and it’s not as if they can’t afford to pay you it.”

Nick’s case is far from the worst. The new powers mean a Welsh farmer was told to accept £3.50 a year in rent – a reduction of 99 per cent.

Quite something when the Government’s own impact assessment said the cuts would be no more than 40 per cent. For Hedley Verity, the owner of  the West End Outdoor Centre with its stunningly beautiful views over the Washburn Valley, it’s an entirely different but just as troubling story.

He hadn’t wanted a mast. Who would when their business is about inviting people to stay at a walking and touring base close to the heart of the Yorkshire Dales National Park?

But against his wishes and despite concerns for the future of his business, he was forced to accept one. The building of the mast – which was imposed by a court ruling – is now underway.

He has real fears it will devalue the centre’s appeal and put off customers who might otherwise want to picnic in this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

And Hedley believes the compensation he’s been offered won’t be enough. “The legislation backs landowners into a corner where it looks like there’s no escape...you’d be a fool to think you can take them to court and win,” he says.

Eighty per cent of contract negotiations take longer than six months and rumble on for an average of 11 months,

Drawn-out and bitter negotiations like Nick and Hedley’s have had a devastating financial and emotional impact on so many people.

And perversely, the new changes under the code have created delays in digital rollout and have failed to stimulate the creation of new and upgraded sites as intended.

While the code was designed with the aim of speeding up the rollout of 5G, it is unfortunately having the adverse effect, setting back our ambition for a faster and more robust digital infrastructure to support our changing patterns of working and living.

Who would want a mast on their land if this is how they are treated?

What really galls is the operators’ failure to pass on these savings to consumers. If anything mobile prices have continued to rise.

But far from acknowledging this broken market, the mobile phone giants are demanding further changes to give them even greater rights to remove the last legal protections landowners have. 

Which is why we call on the Government to review the valuation methods set out in the legislation, strengthen the industry’s code of practice and scrap any proposals that would further erode site providers’ property rights.

It is the only way to fix this hugely unfair law of unintended consequences, which has done such an injustice to Nick and Hedley and thousands of others who are all for better digital connectivity, but not at any price.

Anna Turley is chair of the Protect & Connect Campaign. She is the former MP for Redcar.

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