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Local Government Association Slams Broadband Planning System Changes

Monday, September 10th, 2012 (8:04 am) - Score 539

The Local Government Association (LGA), which claims to be the national voice of councils across the United Kingdom, has warned that last week’s newly proposed measures to boost the roll-out of superfast broadband services by relaxing planning rules will result in a “significant erosion of people’s ability to influence their local environment“.

The changes, which were announced on Friday by the government’s new culture secretary, Maria Miller MP, broadly seek to make it easier for ISPs and related developers to deploy new telecoms infrastructure (e.g. street cabinets, fibre optic cables etc.) “without the need for prior approval from the local council” (summary of the new UK planning system proposals).

At the time Miller said that the move was necessary in order to “cut through the bureaucracy” that is holding the country’s deployment of faster internet access technologies back, although the LGA warns that the real barrier to broadband roll-out is the fact that the government has not yet gained the European Commission’s (EC) approval to use its state aid for related projects (related news). The government recently said that it expected this to be resolved before the winter begins.

An LGA Spokesperson said:

In the absence of state aid clearance there is no superfast broadband programme and resolving this blockage must be the main focus for Government.

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 shouldn’t 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.”

Indeed it’s important to remember that not all objections are frivolous, such as the serious case of the i3 Group’s initially failed deployment of a 1Gbps capable Fibre-to-the-Home (FTTH) service in Bournemouth that left a number of roads and pavements needing remedial work due to poor streetworks and dubious financial problems (here); this was later resolved after CityFibre took over the task.

BT’s own national deployment of FTTC and FTTP services, which often involves the need to install a big green 1.8m tall street cabinet that some people consider to be quite “ugly” and or “obstructive“, has also faced a mass of objections. For example, BT’s original 2009 trial in Muswell Hill was halted over similar concerns (here), not to mention related problems in Midhurst (here), St Albans (here) and Ripley (here) to name but a few of many similar incidents.

Most recently BTOpenreach shocked local residents and businesses in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (London, UK) after it sensationally pulled out of plans to deploy superfast broadband services at 108 local street cabinets (covering 34,200 premises), which followed a conflict with the council’s aim to “de-clutter” the local streets (full story).

The point is that such situations are not uncommon but we shouldn’t be surprised by that. Any major national deployment of new infrastructure is bound to face similar complaints. Crucially most of these issues end up being resolved, usually to the broad satisfaction of both parties, although it’s true that this can add some delay to the process; big operators usually factor this into their planning.

An LGA Spokesperson continued:

If enacted the Government’s proposals are a significant erosion of people’s ability to influence their local environment. The current planning requirements are a vital part of the democratic process that seeks to weigh up the economic benefits of new infrastructure with the impact on quality of life, the local environment and businesses as a result of disruption due to road works.

Any amendments to local planning rules must ensure councils retain enough powers to maintain and improve the character and integrity of local areas. We would welcome urgent clarification from Government on what the “exceptional circumstances” are which would permit councils to impose planning restrictions on the installation of new infrastructure.”

The government has said that councils should still hear objections and attempt to find alternative solutions, yet under the new rules broadband infrastructure providers could potentially just ignore such concerns. In reality objections only occur in a small percentage of related work and the added flexibility is likely to do more good than harm, yet at the same time councils do still need the ability to say NO, especially when it’s clear that streetworks could result in a serious problem.

In addition it’s worth remembering that the deployment of related services is now beginning to move outside of urban areas and into more rural locations, where objections are likely to be fewer due to the sparse environment and greater flexibility for infrastructure placement. Not to mention that many rural folk often seem to have a stronger demand for and better appreciation of just how vital the technology is.

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Mark Jackson
By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
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3 Responses
  1. Avatar FibreFred says:

    Has it been a mass of objections though, in terms of how many cab’s have been deployed how many people have complained? Its bet is less than 0.1%

    I’d certainly be miffed if I had a big cab outside my window or if it blocked wheelchair access for others (as have been some of the complaints so far) but surely this new change makes little different to BT? I thought it only relaxed the conservation areas?

    If the LGA are correct in that BT (or any other telco) could simply ignore objections then that is just plain wrong and should not happen, there should always be a way to appeal even if you end up failing.

  2. Avatar dragoneast says:

    Um: “more rural locations, where objections are likely to be fewer due to the sparse environment and greater flexibility for infrastructure placement. Not to mention that many rural folk often seem to have a stronger demand for and better appreciation of just how vital the technology is.” I have a different experience of rural life from you then, Mark!

    The LGAs comments actually apply to all infrastructure works, so what: they’d like to revert to the early nineteenth century as a sort of local authority National Trust? That said, I hold to the view that the actual likely impact of the changes is probably “modest”.

    1. Avatar DTMark says:

      There are two cabinets in our rural area. One is not really overlooked by anything and while a fibre cabinet wouldn’t look pretty it probably wouldn’t get too many complaints from the pub, the nearest building which does not face it.

      The other is directly opposite someone’s house in their line of sight at the front on the other side of the narrow lane, and I’d be amazed if they were pleased at having a second cabinet next to it – I’d fully expect them to try to block that. I would probably do the same.

      In this manner I’d have thought there would be far more opposition to cabinets in rural areas than urban ones.

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