The government is proposing law changes to boost ongoing efforts to improve rural connectivity.(1) It says that the reforms will reduce build time and costs of new infrastructure while protecting rural areas by minimising any visual impact.
Under the proposals, mobile companies will be allowed to make new and existing masts up to five metres taller and two metres wider than currently permitted. This will increase the range of masts and enable operators to fit more equipment on them so that they can be more easily shared. The plan is to incentivise mobile firms to focus on improving existing masts instead of building new ones, with fewer new masts now needed for rural communities to get a better signal, and take full advantage of future 5G-connected technology.
Stricter rules will apply in protected areas, including:
- national parks;
- the Broads;
- conservation areas;
- areas of outstanding natural beauty; and
- world heritage sites.
The plans also propose to bring better mobile coverage to road users by allowing building-based masts to be placed nearer to highways.
Most new masts will still have to be approved by local authorities, which will have a say on where they are placed and their appearance. Robust conditions and limits will remain in place to ensure that communities and stakeholders are properly consulted and that the environment is protected.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government have published a joint technical consultation with details of the changes. The consultation seeks views on the following reforms to permitted development rights in England:
- existing mobile masts to be strengthened without prior approval, so that they can be upgraded for 5G and shared between mobile operators;
- new masts to be built up to five metres taller;
- greater freedoms in unprotected areas for slimline monopole masts up to 15 metres tall, which are less visually intrusive than standard masts and used for 5G roll-out;
- building-based masts to be placed nearer to highways to bring better mobile coverage to road networks (subject to prior approval) and smaller building-based masts to be permitted in unprotected areas without prior approval; and
- cabinets containing radio equipment to be deployed alongside masts without prior approval and greater flexibility for installing cabinets in existing compounds to support new 5G networks.
The DCMS will also lead on a new code of practice for mobile network operators. This will provide updated guidance on how operators and local authorities can work together to build the communications infrastructure that the country needs. It will also contain best practice for the siting of new infrastructure, particularly in protected areas, and ensuring that stakeholders are properly consulted. The consultation will run for eight weeks and closes on 14 June 2021.
(1) For further information please see the government’s press release.