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Rental income from mobile-phone masts on church land falls by £7.1 million

14 October 2022

iStock

Maintenance is carried out on a mobile phone mast in Pencoed, near Bridgend, in Wales, last year

Maintenance is carried out on a mobile phone mast in Pencoed, near Bridgend, in Wales, last year

CHURCHES hosting mobile-phone masts on their land are reported to be among the small landowners suffering a drastic fall in rental income from the telecoms giants that comprise the Shared Rural Network: a £1-billion deal between the Government and EE, O2, Three, and Vodafone.

Site providers — largely churches, sports clubs, local authorities, small businesses, and farmers — are estimated to have lost £209 million a year since the introduction of the Electronic Communications Code in 2017, which changed the way in which rents were negotiated. The loss for churches is put at £7.1 million.

Campaigners from Protect and Connect, launched in February 2021 to demand a fair deal for the people and companies whose property is used by telecoms companies, say that the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, which was due to reach the Report Stage in the House of Lords on Wednesday, will make it easier for operators to impose rent cuts by abolishing any right of appeal to the land tribunals.

Some rents have been cut by 90 per cent or more. The rent at St Mary the Blessed Virgin, in Gomersal, West Yorkshire, has been cut from £14,000 a year to just £1008. A parishioner, Susie Bell Proctor, said: “The rent cut will have a considerable effect on our ability to keep the church running as it does now. It’s not much money to a company like EE, but to our church it is everything.

“We struggled hugely during the pandemic, as we were unable to organise our usual fund-raising efforts, which keep the church heated throughout the year. Now, with everything going on with the energy crisis and the huge bills we are expecting, I am seriously worried about how, going forward, we can keep our church operational for our community.”

Anna Turley, a former MP for Redcar, who chairs the Protect and Connect campaign, said: “These figures are shocking, and show the scale of the financial hit churches are having to take because of changes made to the Code which give all the power to the operators.

“We all want good broadband access, but experts have confirmed that the Bill will not even speed up internet roll-out, and, relative to a well-functioning market, will lose the UK an astonishing £7.4 billion in lost GDP in the next decades.

“It is the last chance for the Government to take another look at this broken piece of legislation, to stop bending over backwards and throwing more money at telecoms companies, and instead make them commit to better connectivity and treating the public fairly.”

The Times took up the story on Monday, referring to a potato farmer whose £5500 rental income had fallen by 83 per cent; and a local council, Wolverhampton, which now received £200 a year — down from £35,500.

The paper quotes the lobby group Speed up Britain as suggesting that rents had been unsustainable before 2017. The new pricing structure was “more aligned to utilities like electricity infrastructure and provides much needed clarity and certainty on the rental values to be applied”, the group said.

The Church of England is understood to have signed memoranda of understanding with four mobile-phone operators: two in 2019, and two more in recent weeks. It falls to PCCs to decide whether to proceed in each case, subject to faculty jurisdiction. Most of the existing sites — a figure estimated to be between 250 and 300 — are urban or suburban.

C of E guidance on church buildings says that connectivity is increasingly necessary for everyone, and that people in unserved areas are severely disadvantaged. To host mobile-phone infrastructure is a service to the community that surrounds the church, and, since the antennae are enclosed within a church tower, this solution is very often preferable to an ugly mast in open ground, the guidance says. It also points out that it provides PCCs with regular income and gives each church connectivity.

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