Councils react to proposed changes in planning rules
The first major broadband related announcement from the new Culture Secretary Maria Miller was relaxation of planning rules, and while many of our readers appear to support the relaxation the announcement has got a very different reaction from councils.
"We are concerned that the ability of local people to oppose commercial broadband boxes, of which some can be large eyesores, will be diluted by these proposals. It is more important that councils work in partnership with broadband companies to locate infrastructure sensibly.
"I would question why the Government’s approach is needed at all - it will only result in a gradual and prolonged development across the UK rather than the big bang in broadband that the UK needs. Under existing rules, councils such as Westminster are already leading a revolution in high-speed broadband – helping business connect through projects such as Hub Westminster and Sohonet. Earlier this year, Westminster and partners rolled out Europe’s largest free wifi zone in some of the West End's most popular destinations, at no expense to the taxpayer."Cllr Philippa Roe, Leader of Westminster City Council
"The Government’s proposals take the right away from people to have a say over six-foot high junction boxes outside their windows and gardens or poles and wires festooning their streets. Decisions on where to place broadband infrastructure must consider the impact on local environments rather than simply suit the convenience of companies and their engineers. Rushed and unnecessary road works to lay cables also risk costing council tax payers a fortune in repairs and, even when done properly, shorten the life of the roads.
Residents expect councils to protect their homes and make neighbourhoods nice places to live, and planning regulations exist to do just that. The drive to meet broadband targets should not force poorly thought out knee-jerk measures that spoil local environments and needlessly damage roads. Government needs to encourage providers to work together to make better use of existing ducts and poles, rather than duplicating infrastructure."
We should point out a few obvious points:
- The new rules do not take effect until after consultation, thus 2013 is the earliest we will see any changes.
- No announcement was made, suggesting Ofcom Code Powers will not be required.
- Only Conservation areas currently require advance planning permission for cabinets and other furniture (e.g. pavement chambers) for those with Code powers.
- Openreach roll-out to 66% of the UK (cities and large towns), is expected to finish by start of 2014. Thus most areas will have their cabinets in place before the rules change.
If the local government and lobbying of MP's by concerned residents is high enough to have them worrying about votes, then it is possible these changes will not go ahead. Whether the changes would have made a big difference to the BDUK roll-outs is unclear, as co-operative councils would not have unduly hindered the roll-out, particularly those that accept that if they are to not become a living museum for how the UK was in the 1950's that they need to move forward.
If the Government is serious about these changes, then it would do well to highlight what safeguards are in place to ensure that incorrectly placed cabinets can be re-located.
Of course there is a solution to the problem of street cabinets, and spend a few billion more and roll-out FTTP. Alas none of political parties appear to endorse this approach. The common approach has been that while FTTC is not perfect, it should be enough to produce a benefit to the economy, and with further money expected to be available between 2015 and 2020, subsequent projects will thus keep project management and construction staff gainfully employed.
If the changes do not go through it will be a shame, as they currently benefit the smaller broadband operators (in addition to Openreach) who are springing up providing services across the UK, and if anything we need to encourage these firms to increase their footprints. Also the UK is competing for capital investment, and if local authorities in other countries are welcoming new operators with open arms, while in the UK we present a wall of red-tape and nimby court cases, why are we surprised that a lot of fibre investment money remains in mainland Europe. The success of fibre roll-outs in Europe has so often been due to local authorities having vision and ambition, something that appears almost totally lacking in the UK.