LEGISLATION intended at boosting Britain’s mobile phone network is causing concern to farmers who fear being hit in the pocket due to reduced rents for mast sites.

One case highlighted in a dispute that is raging in the UK’s telecoms industry has seen a proposed £5,500 yearly rental fee for a mast on a Welsh hill farm reduced to just £3.50 a year.

Farmland is among areas, including public and community buildings, often used for siting mobile phone masts – vital for establishing the superfast 5G network across the country.

But a code introduced at the end of 2017 intended to provide a framework for telecom infrastructure firms and landowners is being blamed for reducing the amount landlords can charge for hosting masts on their land.

The Electronic Communications Code (ECC) it is intended to ease negotiations between landowners and telecoms firms but its claimed it is being used to drive down the price paid for renting land by as much as 90 per cent in some cases.

A campaign group Protect and Connect, backed by AP Wireless which is described as the UK’s largest owner of mobile phone mast sites, has been lobbying MPs to try and prevent further changes to the code.

Both the Farmers’ Union of Wales (FUW) and NFU Cymru have previously raised concerns over the code and sought to alert their members to the possibility of reduced rental incomes.

The Protect and Connect campaign says as well as farms community sports clubs, whose grounds or buildings may host masts, and groups such as churches have also been faced with greatly reduced rental income.

Gwynedd farmer Ed Bailey, who also works as a surveyor, is backing the campaign after a lengthy dispute with the firm Cornerstone which provides masts for mobile networks including Vodaphone, over siting a mast on his family farm at Plas y Bryn, Llanbedr.

When the family had been approached in 2017 by the firm, then known as CTIL, about hosting a mast on their farm an annual rent of £5,500 was proposed. But after the ECC was approved by Parliament in December 2017, the firm changed its offer to just £3.50 a year over 10 years – a rent that would yield just £350 over the length of the contract.

Cornerstone says the total amount it offers a landlord will contain more than just the rental fee.

When there is a dispute between the landowner’s valuation and the proposed rental fee a price can be set by a tribunal and some landowners fear firms are making low offers to force them to the tribunal.

“It was a source of great frustration trying to find a way through and a source of great stress having the threat of a tribunal,” said Mr Bailey.

“If the two sides disagree on the rent it will go tribunal and the offer was so far away it seemed like it forced us to say we disagreed with it and so it would go to a tribunal. That will often happen and one side will not have legal representation.”

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While Mr Bailey, who is 41, was negotiating over the proposed rent his father, also Edmund, suffered a stroke.

“I’m not blaming it for the stroke but it was very stressful and I had to explain to my father the money may not be coming from the phone mast. He has old ways and thinks if you do a deal but it’s not agreed then just move on, but I had to explain it may not be possible to just move on and there may have been a tribunal.”

Mr Bailey senior, who is in his mid 60s and runs the farm with his brother William, is no longer able to physically work on the farm but his son says “is very much calling the shots”.

The sheep and suckler cow farm at Llanbedr, near Barmouth, in the Snowdonia National Park stretches from the Wales Coastal path, at sea level, to 2,500 feet up. The higher ground is what has made the farm attractive for those looking to site phone masts.

Since the breakdown of the talks between the family and Cornerstone a new deal has been negotiated with another firm, who Mr Bailey declined to name, which has now sited a mast on the farm though it isn’t in operation yet.

Site owners like the Baileys have found themselves caught in a battle over upgrading mobile infrastructure.

While Protect and Connect says it is campaigning for protections for the owners of the UK’s 33,000 existing mast sites and the further sites the rollout of 5G will require, the Speed Up Britain campaign wants the code adapted to “speed up” agreements.

Both sides say they want, and recognise the need, for faster and better broadband coverage in rural areas. But Protect and Connect’s position is that by weakening landowner rights, the code will lead to fewer entering agreements with those looking to erect masts. Since the revised code was introduced just under 500 new code agreements have been renewed and the average rent reduction is 63 per cent.

Some firms claim high rents, charged by landowners, are slowing down the acquisition of new sites, and money saved can be invested in their networks, but landowners believe firms are looking to reduce costs.

Mr Bailey says siting the mast means part of their field is fenced off and out of use and says the code gives power to private firms.

“It is similar to compulsory purchase but these are relatively new powers handed to commercial operators.”

Belinda Fawcett, general counsel and director of property and estates, for Cornerstone said it’s committed to negotiating on a case-by-case basis to reach fair outcomes within the government’s valuation framework.

She said: “The final amount consists of several elements which make up the overall agreement and amounts paid to a site provider.

“The government introduced the new legislation because the unsustainable high level of rents was slowing down the industry from deploying the mobile infrastructure we desperately need across the country and have come to depend on in recent times. Speeding up the rollout of mobile technologies is critical to society, particularly in our post-pandemic recovery.”

A spokesman for the NFU Cymru union said: “NFU Cymru has long held concerns over the way in which mobile phone mast sites are now valued under the EEC.”