Quietly introduced in the Queen’s Speech earlier this year, upcoming changes to the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) in the Digital Economy Bill could have a significant impact on the relationship between landowners and telecoms operators if all of the proposed changes come into force, particularly those involving the relocation of masts and other telecoms installations. 

Martin_Edwards Shakespeare

Currently, a landowner has the ability to secure the removal of masts from their land if they can make a compelling case to the Court to do so under existing law. 

This may be a farmer with a mast on their property, or owners of office buildings or residential blocks with installations positioned on their roof space. 

They cannot be so sure of their position under the new ECC. 

These changes are part of the government’s move to deliver on key infrastructure plans, ensuring that as much of the country as possible is well connected and has good network coverage.  This new approach means that operators will now be given every opportunity and assistance to secure the coverage they require, by making it easier for them to operate their existing sites and equipment, to share sites and to swap them between operators, as they will no longer need land owners’ agreement to do so. 

These amendments to the Code could have a significant financial impact on revenue streams gained from telecoms installations, as the way rents are valued and distributed will most likely be reduced.

Similarly, once the telecoms operator is established on a site it is more likely that in the future they will be able to stay and operate as they wish and it seems that their infrastructure could be increased and without much control.

Unwanted apparatus

Landowners wanting to remove masts will find it more difficult in future as the notice period to terminate operators’ agreements is likely to be extended from 28 days to 18 months.  After that they may also find that the new Code requires them to go to Court, twice in effect, first to obtain a possession order and then to enforce it. 

There must be a question mark therefore around the ability of landowners looking to find alternative uses for their land in the future where there are already masts located, particularly when looking to redevelop for housing as telecoms masts remain an emotive subject.

There must be a question mark around the ability of landowners looking to find alternative uses for their land

The advice for landowners is to act now before the new legislation comes into force. 

For example, those landowners with unwanted apparatus on their land may find that it is in their interests to seek possession now under the existing law where there is thought to be no prospect of the operators securing a renewal. 

In other cases, some landowners may find it better for them to start negotiating longer agreements with existing operators now so they retain the protection of the existing law for as long as possible. Doing nothing is not advisable as we can expect the operators will want to secure the benefit of the new legislation as early as possible. 

Martin Edwards, partner and head of real estate disputes at Shakespeare Martineau