by Kate Allen, Political Correspondent, ft.com,
18 March 2016
Mobile phone masts up to 25m tall are set to become a common sight across the UK after chancellor George Osborne vowed to change planning rules in an attempt to boost digital connectivity of rural areas.
The height limit for new masts will increase by 10m to 25m and masts of up to 20m will be allowed in protected areas of countryside without planning requiring approval, under proposals laid out in the Budget.
The measure was included in the “red book”, with the chancellor pledging “greater freedoms and flexibilities for the deployment of mobile infrastructure”, including “reducing planning restrictions”.
Brandon Lewis, the housing minister, said the changes were “vital for our continued economic prosperity”, in a statement released the following day.
Conservation campaigners have warned that the change risks damaging some of the country’s most precious landscapes.
But rural business groups welcomed the move, saying it would help to tackle areas of poor mobile phone reception and broadband access.
Emma Marrington, of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said that although broadband coverage “desperately” needed to be improved in rural areas, “the government should not be relaxing planning controls to catch up on lost time”.
“Allowing taller masts to be built without planning permission and without fully consulting local people on landscape impact risks bad design that harms the character of the countryside,” she said. “We should ensure that providers work with local communities to attach new masts to existing buildings rather than putting up new, taller masts across the countryside.”
But the Country Land and Business Association, which represents landowners, farmers and rural businesses, hailed the move as a step forward.
Mobile-phone users in a third of the country cannot access all four of Britain’s mobile networks, according to CLA figures.
CLA president Ross Murray said it was “vital” for local councils’ planning departments to “take their lead from these changes” and be “as constructive as possible” in approving plans for mobile phone masts.
Local communities were “crying out for” better phone reception coverage, he said.
“Rural people are tired of the big promises and weak excuses of recent years,” he said. Although mobile operators promised to extend their coverage to 90 per cent of the country more than a year ago, “signs of progress are not great”, he said.
A government spokesman said it was “working hard to connect people and businesses right across the country to the information superhighway”.
“We are simplifying the process for rolling out the mobile infrastructure that this country needs now and in the future, including to meet increasing demand.”