Out-Law News 2 min. read

UK plans for 'world-class telecoms infrastructure' not ambitious enough, says expert

The UK government needs to consider more ambitious changes to the laws governing new telecoms infrastructure if its plans for near-universal countrywide 4G and 'ultrafast' broadband coverage are to be successful, an expert has said.

Dev Desai of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, was commenting as the government began a consultation exercise on further changes to planning laws to encourage faster deployment of mobile infrastructure. The government has proposed extending permitted development rights to taller mobile masts, enabling mobile operators to construct these in certain circumstances without having to apply for permission from the local planning authority.

"The government's recognition of the current importance of telecommunications to the economy is encouraging but its vision of the future seems somewhat narrow," said Desai, a property litigation expert. "As a consequence, the actions it proposes to take in its productivity plan may fall short of the demands that will be placed on the UK's telecoms infrastructure."

"We are at the cusp of a digital revolution which will quickly interconnect the objects and activities of business life leading to technologically 'smart' offices, homes and cities: the development of driverless cars, which could put taxis and Uber out of business, is just one superficial example of this. If the UK aspires to be 'at the forefront of the digital economy', it needs to prepare the foundations for it now," he said.

Registered electronic communications network providers in England that are subject to the Electronic Communications Code have certain legal rights to erect mobile phone masts and other apparatus without express planning permission. These rights are known as permitted development rights, and act in effect as deemed planning permission subject to certain exclusions and conditions.

The government is now seeking views on whether the existing permitted development right should be extended to cover taller masts, and whether new permitted development rights should be created for other types of infrastructure required to deliver UK connectivity targets that are routinely approved. As part of this process, it will look at how to "future proof" any new permitted development rights. It could also consider "time-limiting" planning approvals for mobile infrastructure in order to encourage the development of new technology.

Last week, the UK government published a 'productivity plan' policy paper setting out a wide range of policies it intended to implement in order to encourage long-term investment and promote a dynamic economy. The paper included a commitment to taking "decisive action" to "make it easier for the market to roll out the fixed and mobile infrastructure that the UK needs". As well as the potential extension of permitted development rights, these actions will include reforming the Electronic Communications Code, and considering whether to make 2013 planning relaxations supporting fixed high speed broadband infrastructure rollout permanent.

The Electronic Communications Code governs the relationship between network operators and landowners. Earlier this year, the previous coalition government was forced to withdraw plans to introduce a new code through the Infrastructure Bill that was passing through parliament at the time, following concerns that the reforms were being rushed through. It consulted on fresh proposals for a new code, including new rules governing the installation and maintenance of electronic communications infrastructure, in March.

In its consultation paper, the government said that "significant expansion" of the UK's current mobile network infrastructure was needed to meet rapid growth in demand.

"To meet forecast demand from consumers requires ongoing investment from the mobile network operators to continually improve and grow the digital infrastructure network," it said in its paper. "The planning system has an important role in supporting service providers and communities to ensure that the infrastructure for supporting mobile connectivity is delivered in the right locations and in a cost effective manner."

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