17 May 2016

The CLA has called on ministers to provide urgent reassurances that they will legislate to prevent mobile phone companies tearing up contracts as part of last minute fundamental changes in Government policy unveiled in the Queens Speech.

The Digital Economy Bill will see the introduction of a new Electronic Communications Code.  The code regulates the legal relationships between landowners and network operators, including rules on access to land and how rents are agreed for locating masts on land and buildings.

Reforms of the code which was recommended by the Law Commission and subject to two years' worth of discussion and consultation have been dramatically changed at the last minute as ministers make major concessions to the demands of the mobile industry. The changes see the rights to negotiate a commercial agreement for access to land removed in favour of imposed agreements.

The CLA, representing thousands of landowners, farmers and other rural businesses, has expressed anger at the latest set of concessions to mobile telecommunications giants and their grave concerns that the changes will have no bearing on the continuing poor performance in actually providing mobile coverage and a competitive market in rural areas.

CLA President Ross Murray said: “Ministers have announced a massive concession to mobile industry dressed up as a measure necessary for consumers. Reform of the Electronic Communications Code is needed, but these last minute changes are poorly thought through, against Law Commission recommendations, and remove fairness from the system. These major concessions, valued by the Government’s own economic analysis at more than a £1billion in benefit to the mobile operators, come with not one single additional commitment to actually deliver for consumers.

“We were told 18 months ago that we would get legally guaranteed coverage for 90 percent of the geographic landmass of the UK by the end of 2017. However, ever since the day that announcement was made the industry has lined up excuse after excuse and there is scant evidence they are on target to meet their objectives. The most recent figures show that mobile coverage covers only 55 percent of the country.

“Not one of the changes in this announcement will be in force in time to assist the industry in meeting the legally binding target. However the rushed and confused changes in the law risk creating confusion and mistrust among landowners that had previously been keen to assist mobile companies in locating mobile masts."

Ross Murray further highlighted concerns about the supposed benefits of removing the right of landowners to negotiate commercial rents for access to their land.

“By colluding to override the rights of thousands of property owners the only thing Government and the industry have achieved is a breakdown in trust. The risk is that in hundreds of places where mobile masts are desperately needed, the property owners who have previously been keen to work with mobile operators will now be wary about entering into discussions because they are rightly concerned about giving up rights of access to their land when their legal position has been made wholly unclear.”

“Our overriding concern is to ensure rural areas get the mobile coverage they desperately need. These poorly thought through concessions to mobile industry lobbying threaten to make this problem worse not better. We are seeking urgent meetings with ministers to try and get back to a position where all parties are working towards the main objective of ending the discrimination felt by those that live and work in the countryside.”