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A Spanner in the Works

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Contradictory Government policies are putting in jeopardy economic recovery. In particular, the Government’s localism agenda risks encouraging nimbyism, which runs counter to its other policies on the digital economy, and is harming the UK’s long-term competitiveness.

That’s a shame, because the Government certainly seems to appreciate the importance of digital connectivity: for example here’s what David Cameron said about it just last month. ‘Now the world economy depends on digital communication, a route to market… that is every bit as essential as the canals which once carried the cotton’. Nor is that just the Conservative view: when it comes to the importance of the digital agenda, you’d be hard pushed to find much disagreement in principle between the Tories and their Lib Dem Coalition partners or with Labour.

Mobile telecommunications are a vital part of this connectivity, not least because some 32% of us now access the Internet using a mobile device. And that proportion is set to grow, as smartphones become the norm rather than the exception, and as more of us use tablet computers.

Now, in order to work, mobile devices need a network of base stations (masts) sited near where people want to use their mobiles. And that’s where the problem arises. The problem isn’t the planning rules per se, but rather that some local authorities turn down planning applications for masts when they should be approving them. That isn’t to say that every application should be approved: the industry does get it wrong sometimes. But planning authorities aren’t applying the rules properly. We can say that from the statistics for appeals against refusal of planning consent for mobile masts. Some local authorities also have a policy of not allowing masts on council property. That’s certainly inconsistent with planning guidance. Equally importantly, it’s bad for local communities, which risk missing out on the benefits of mobile connectivity that other areas enjoy.

Those who seem routinely to object to any application for new mobile masts often cite local democracy as their justification for doing so. That may sound fine in principle, but in practice, ‘local democracy’ in these cases often simply means the views of a vociferous, articulate few; while those who thereby suffer most from being deprived of the benefits of a mobile connection are those least likely to engage in the democratic process: those on lower incomes are much more likely to live in a mobile-only household or to access the Internet via a mobile device.

This conflict between the national Government’s digital agenda and the attitude of a few local authorities isn’t new. But the Coalition’s localism agenda is providing more ammunition to the objectors, despite the fact that the new National Planning Policy Framework has a presumption in favour of sustainable development, and is bringing the conflict into sharper focus. At the same time, the importance of having good digital connectivity is growing, as the UK is falling further behind its international competitors, like Japan, South Korea, or Sweden.

Mobile operators do appreciate that sensitive siting and design of masts is important; and while some mobile masts aren’t exactly things of great beauty, some are hardly noticeable while others are no different from other items of street furniture that you see everywhere in modern cities. I like a nice view as much as anybody, but I do sometimes wonder if some of the folk who today object to new infrastructure had been around in the nineteenth century, they’d have opposed the building of the Ribblehead Viaduct (a Grade II listed structure and Scheduled Ancient Monument) or the Clifton Suspension Bridge (Grade I listed structure).

When they do object, and prevent operators providing the infrastructure on which mobile networks rely, that matters to their fellow local residents, who can’t access the services that they want and which are available to others; and it matters to the country as a whole. Or, as David Cameron put it, ‘If our infrastructure is second-rate then our country will be too.’ That says it all, really.


John Cooke

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Mobile Operators Association

The Mobile Operators Association (MOA) represents the four UK mobile network operators – EE (the company that runs EE, Orange & T-Mobile in the UK), O2, Three, and Vodafone – on radio frequency (RF) health and safety, and related town planning issues associated with the use of mobile phone technology.

The Economy and Society

Mobile telecommunications are vital for the UK’s economic competitiveness and in promoting social inclusion. There are now 89.9 million mobile subscriptions in the UK. In early 2015 61% of UK adults used their mobile phones for internet access. Tablet ownership is 54% of UK households, increasing from 44% in Q1 2014.