With most people wanting faster mobile phone coverage, the networks are in greater demand than ever. There are now masts on the rooftops of thousands of buildings but, with 5G starting in the UK, the networks need to upgrade their equipment with bigger antennas to cope with demand.
In an effort to make life easier, the government introduced new rules in 2017 to give the phone companies greater powers and to lower the rent they pay in return for improving network coverage.
So, 18 months on from the changes, have things improved since these rules were introduced? Most landowners would answer that with a universal “no” and here are the reasons why.
Hardly any new mast leases have been entered into in the last year as negotiations have stalled.
From a landowner’s perspective, the new rules offer very little and it is hard to stomach the idea of an operator having the right to insist on using private land to install equipment in return for virtually no rent.
Most of the phone companies have been offering rents as low as £50 per year, compared to the £5,000 or £10,000 they were paying before and there is no incentive for a landowner to cooperate.
This has resulted in negotiations becoming contentious, with many disputes needing specialist court intervention to resolve. This is a complete change to the previous regime which survived for almost 30 years with almost no reported court cases and the parties ultimately reaching agreement between themselves.
Eventually, things will presumably settle down as people adjust to the new way of doing things and accept that low rents are here to stay but this is going to take time and there are no signs of landowners softening their approach yet.
At the time when the law changed, nobody knew how drastic the rent reduction would be and the uncertainty has created a feeling of distrust amongst landowners towards the operators.
That feeling still remains but there are now some test cases coming through the Tribunal which give some guidance on the rent you can charge for a phone mast under the modern law.
In one recent case concerning a rooftop site, the Tribunal fixed the rent at £1,000 per year, being equivalent to the service charges paid by the residents of the building for maintenance. In another case concerning a standalone mast, the Tribunal indicated that the operators should be paying a rent equivalent to the amount paid by construction companies when they require the use of private land to set up a construction compound. Another example given was rent equivalent to the amount paid by organisations such as the Met Office when they require land to install weather monitoring equipment. These are suggestions only but they give a steer on the Tribunal’s way of thinking and should give some encouragement to landowners. The rent for any of these scenarios is unlikely to be high but it should be more than the nominal offers received to date and it might help to win back a sense of fairness in future negotiations although it is too early to tell.
The other big change is the degree of control the operators will permit a landowner to have over their equipment.
Previously, a landowner wanted control over the amount of equipment installed on their land and what it looked like. Having control helped to reassure landowners that the mast would not suddenly be doubled in size overnight or take up more space than expected.
The operators however often complained that control created difficulties in that landowners were demanding extra money for minor upgrades of equipment as an excuse to increase their revenue.
The new law has not changed this and it is still up to the parties to agree most of these terms between themselves, failing which a Tribunal can become involved to make a final decision.
In practice however, the operators seem to be resisting any restrictions on their equipment in the negotiations for new leases and are pushing for complete freedom to install whatever they like, subject to obtaining any planning approvals. Landowners, as you would expect, are resisting this and still want the same control as before.
In most cases, a sensible discussion should be all that is needed to find a middle ground but the new rules have pushed the parties further apart than ever expected and having any form of discussion is not as easy as it once was.
What happens next?
As new cases are pushed through the system, more will be known as time goes on. For the time being though, landowners are increasingly challenging the operators attempts to access their property and the arguments are likely to become more complex as they find new ways of saying “no” to a operators request to set up a mast on their land. As with any dispute however, the stakes are often high and should not be embarked on lightly. All affected landowners should take early sensible advice and to consider carefully the approach to take.
The content of this article is for general information only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. If you require any further information in relation to this article please contact the author in the first instance. Law covered as at June 2019.