“Hello from the other siiiiiiide. I must’ve called a thousaaaaannnddd tiiiiiimes…” is how telecoms operators often feel when trying to engage with site providers about a new Code agreement. For site providers, it’s much more Queen B and Gaga: “Stop callin’, stop callin’, I don’t wanna talk anymore… eh, eh, eh, stop telephonin’ me eh eh eh eh, I’m busy…”.

The chasm between the two camps, as a result of the Code, is wide.

But, an area of greater concern is how the Code has the potential to alter our own view of land ownership across the UK. If “an Englishman’s home is his castle”, then he best hope an operator doesn’t want to put a mast on it! The rights of operators to impose a telecoms agreement on to a landowner have set a precedent for broader impositions. Evidence of this is the government’s consideration, in the recent Code Consultation, of applying some rights retrospectively.

“Sharing rights” under the Code also have the potential to influence our views about burdens on land – rights of way, access, etc. Over time, these changes can have the effect of altering our view of what is permissible, and about more than just telecoms equipment. Areas of concern in the future might be the imposition of electrical charging points, equipment on land to monitor consumption, or even car ports on rooftop spaces for flying cars.

However, the government can alter the Code in other ways to achieve its connectivity targets across the UK without eroding fundamental property rights. It can do so by properly engaging site providers as true stakeholders in the Code, as opposed to the adversarial intent behind its current iteration.

To break the deadlock, the Code should be changed to:

  1. Place an obligation on operators to evidence how they came to choose a specific site and the reason given be more than just one of cost. This will have the effect of disarming the vexed question by site providers when they’ve been “picked” by an operator, to ask – why me? The suspicion that operators are somehow conspiring against a site provider doesn’t go away. This failure of disclosure tarnishes negotiations and causes unnecessary concern and distress.
  2. Set up a voluntary register of prospective site providers, where people can add their property and land to a list, to be considered for use by operators. People want better connectivity. The pandemic has proven that. Many rural communities are desperate for it. People will come forward and want to be a part of the conversation, support the rollout and do their bit. Ofcom could help here.
  3. Rents are pitiful for what can be a dramatic interference with land, so compensate providers with tax or rates relief.
  4. Make site providers proper stakeholders in the telecoms debate by compensating them with shares in telecoms companies.

Blue-sky thinking is needed for the Code if its legacy is not going to be maximum profit to operators at the expense of our land rights.

This article was originally published by Estates Gazette and the Property Litigation Association.


Lucie Barnes