When a mobile mast becomes a tree

CLA Senior Business Economics Adviser Charles Trotman delves into detail on government’s proposals to make mobile phone masts taller

This week the government announced a series of proposals to extend the use of planning permitted development rights (PDR) for the mobile telecoms sector. Based on the need to extend coverage in order to meet the objectives of the Shared Rural Network and extending 5G coverage, the idea is to increase the heights of mobile masts in some areas of rural England (higher masts in protected landscapes will still require full planning permission) so that prior approval is not required.

So existing masts could be about to get taller. There is a clear logic to this in that the taller the mast, the wider the signal spread. It would also mean that more operators will be able to share masts on the existing infrastructure, allowing the public to use their mobile phones anywhere in the country. The notion of having all four operators, on any mast, is a clear government objective as it extends coverage. The proposals would also mean that mast base stations would need to become larger in size.

All good news then. The public get wider and more consistent mobile signal and the government moves closer to its target of 95% coverage from all operators by 2025. And it’s fair to say that the thorny issue of delays in rollout due to planning restrictions could be substantially resolved.

What’s next?

But where does this leave the site providers, those landowners that already have masts on their land? Let’s take a closer look at some of the implications of the proposed change.

In the majority of cases, the existing mast will simply be extended. In others, the mast may need to be completely replaced by a new, taller one. In both cases, there will be disruption to the operation of the landowner’s business. The Electronic Communications Code, which regulates the telecoms market, makes clear that such disruption could lead to compensation where, in the event of a mast being shared, there is either an additional burden on the site provider or the mast itself is deemed to give an adverse visual impact. However, the problem with these two tests is that they are both subjective. Where one person may feel extending a 20m mast by 5m could cause a blight on the landscape, another might argue that it’s a necessary condition if we want better mobile coverage.

What this means is that site providers will need to discuss this with their tenants. And this is where the mobile mast may, actually, become a tree. The government has made it clear that taller masts will need to blend into the local environment and not have an adverse visual impact. One solution would be to camouflage masts as, say, oaks. According to the Woodland Trust, a mature oak tree grows to between 20m to 40m in height. But if operators adopt this approach, there has to be a constant and clear dialogue with the landowner. Inevitably, these changes will lead to disruption for the landowner and the CLA will make sure that mobile operators take these concerns into account.

Let me finish by saying that the proposed changes are a positive development. We all recognise the need for wider mobile phone coverage and if the industry and government can resolve the planning conundrum, we will be making progress. But these changes require balance: where there is an ongoing discussion with landowners, where the aesthetic quality of the landscape is recognized and treated fairly and sympathetically. What the public expect and wants to see is a countryside that is pleasing to the eye.