Scots landowners calling out telecoms giants

Farmers and other landowners in Scotland have seen the average rent paid by telecoms giants to use their land for mobile phone masts and broadband apparatus slashed since a new Electronic Communications Code was introduced two years ago.

The Code, introduced by the UK Government on 28 December 2017, intends to facilitate the installation and maintenance of electronic communications networks.

However, telecoms operators are using the new code to take advantage of landowners and are refusing to work collaboratively with them.

Rents offered by the operators for using land for this purpose have plummeted to as low as £1 compared with over £10,000 just two years ago.

The UK Government hoped that the code would facilitate the expansion of the telecommunications network and expand digital connectivity across the UK.

However, two years on there has been a stagnation of new sites being used for telecoms apparatus and low numbers of lease renewals for land with existing apparatus.

In the past two years there has been a ten-fold increase in the number of cases going before the Lands Tribunal, relating to the code. There were 77 cases in 2017-2019 compared with just five tribunal cases over the 33-year period under the old code.

The site payment being offered by the operator is based on the agricultural value of the land which inevitably becomes a tiny figure when the annual leasehold figure is calculated. The Lands Tribunal has confirmed they do not feel this was an appropriate valuation method, but we are still seeing operators use this method. These low rent offers are a key reason that new agreements are not being reached.

Scottish Land & Estates and NFU Scotland have set up a special telecoms forum bringing together utilities and telecoms professionals to help tackle the issues arising from the new Code.

Stephen Young, head of policy at Scottish Land & Estates said: ‘For the past two years landowners have been fleeced by telecoms giants. They are taking a very aggressive approach to lease renewals, often using underhand tactics to scare landowners into signing agreements they do not understand the full consequences of.

‘The telecoms operators are shying away from encouraging the landowner to take professional advice, which they are entitled to and should be paid for by the telecoms company.

‘Many landowners don’t realise they are entitled to this and the telecoms companies are failing to offer this. The Code could be really effective if telecoms operators changed their behaviour.’

NFU Scotland head of policy, Gemma Cooper said: ‘An efficient and reliable broadband and mobile network is essential for rural businesses and we welcome the upgrade and expansion of the service network.

‘However, there have been problems in the roll out of this expansion that are related to the way the Electronics Communication Code is currently being interpreted by operators. We welcome the formation of the forum to tackle issues associated with the Code.

‘Improved operator interactions with landowners, farmers and crofters will be fundamental to ensuring rural businesses and communities can thrive and reap the benefits of an improved telecoms network.’