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We’re leaving lockdown behind. This is our chance to Speed Up Britain

Rt Hon Patricia Hewitt, the Chair of Speed Up Britain, on the campaign’s response to the DCMS consultation on the Electronic Communications Code

With the pandemic receding steadily and post-Covid Britain coming more clearly into view, the big question we all face is how to kick-start the recovery and deliver on the Government’s ambition to create a levelled-up, built-back-better Britain.

The Government has made it clear that a big part of the answer is rolling out better mobile connectivity across the country.

It’s committed to covering 95% of the UK’s landmass with 4G through the Shared Rural Network by the end of 2025, with the £1bn investment in mobile split by industry and Government. This should be transformative for rural communities across the country.

The Government’s 5G plans could also be a game-changer for these harder-to-reach places, as well as for towns and cities across the UK. This technology has the potential to revolutionise the economy, and will touch every industry and community. The implications for individuals, for families and for business are huge.

We know the potential economic prize is massive. Research carried out by the Centre for Policy Studies tells us that if 5G coverage reaches a quarter more of the population than the Government’s current target of 51%, it will produce GDP gains of £41.7 billion by 2027.

But we have a problem.

The law introduced in 2017 to help make all of this happen – to make it easier for operators and landowners to strike deals that would enable the rollout of new technology – isn’t working.

This law, the Electronic Communications Code (the Code), governs the relationship between operators and the landowners who host network equipment on their property.

It grants operators certain rights, including the ability to upgrade, build new sites, and make savings via rent reductions to reinvest in the connectivity we so desperately need.

On rent, the idea was partly to redress an imbalance between telecoms infrastructure and other utilities. Rents for telecoms sites were often in the tens of thousands of pounds each year, while the average for an electricity mast is about £150. Ultimately, the higher the rents, the higher the costs passed along to consumers.

However, some landlords remain unwilling to make deals with operators because they feel the rent reductions being asked for are too steep.

Speed Up Britain recognises the impact these rent reductions can have on the smallest landowners. That’s why our members have committed to case-by-case negotiations to try and agree fair deals within the framework of the Code.

And despite what some are saying, the numbers on this should be reassuring. The average rental value for sites across the UK has come down by an average 63%, far less than the 90%+ numbers some in opposition to new rollout are suggesting.

The average rental value for sites across the country is also still in the thousands of pounds.

But landowners still aren’t coming to the table in high enough numbers to deliver the connectivity we need. Despite having more than 30,000 telecoms sites in the UK, since the Code was introduced three years ago, fewer than 500 deals have been completed.

Unfortunately, grey areas and loopholes in the law are making it pay to delay. For example, failure to agree a new Code deal currently enables the old rent to continue indefinitely.

Thankfully, we may now have some light at the end of the tunnel.

The Government has recently closed a consultation on potential revisions to the Code. In our submission, Speed Up Britain asked the Government to remove the financial incentives that make it pay to slow down progress; we’ve asked for the Code to be the only piece of legislation governing the agreements between landowners and operators; and we’ve asked the Government to ensure that operators can share and upgrade sites when they need to.

These quick fixes will make the Code fit for purpose. Doing so should solve our issues with 4G and 5G rollout, and transform the digital futures of communities across the UK.