Planning Cannot Continue to Lead Cuts at the Expense of Other Departments
September 2017, Gareth Elliott, Head of Policy and Communications, Mobile UK
It is often too easy to view the relationship between planning and mobile infrastructure as a battle with one side acting as a barrier to the desires of the other. This, however, is a very narrow view and one that misunderstands the nature of planning and the needs of the mobile industry.
Planning is critical to mobile infrastructure deployment and development. Planning regulations exist to ensure that mobile infrastructure is developed in the public interest, carefully balancing the economic, environmental and social benefits and ultimately ensuring that places are well designed, sustainable, and attractive places to live.
The mobile industry exists to provide critical connectivity to people through mobile signals. To provide this a network of masts and cells must be installed across the country. A set of requirements, such as access to power and fibre or microwave backhaul, mean that sites are carefully chosen and, depending on the equipment involved, further factors must be considered, such as the height of a mast to achieve line of sight or the siting of base stations where there is customer demand. It is the nature of radio physics that determines a location and this often means that equipment will be visible.
The National Planning Policy Framework highlights the need for mobile infrastructure as being essential for sustainable economic growth. The continued expansion and development of mobile networks is a key element of the National Infrastructure Delivery Plan which recognises that digital communications are now a crucial component of everyday life, with improvements in connectivity being key to a vibrant economy. Indeed, recent changes to the Permitted Development Rights Regime in England have sought to make it easier to deploy mobile infrastructure and are intended to align with Government communications policy. Further changes are planned or being studied by the devolved administrations across the UK.
What’s the problem you might ask? And this is the dilemma. The mobile industry needs effective planning policy and an efficient planning regime which is well resourced to enable and be flexible to mobile infrastructure deployment. Planning permission, per se, is not the problem. The industry regularly receives high rates of acceptance, often 90% or more. The issue is how quickly planning permission can be granted and further reform of permitted development rights to take mobile infrastructure out of full planning where appropriate. Further, it is essential that planning officers are well trained and resourced to process applications. And it is here that the process is beginning to show signs of strain.
Planning and development functions of local authorities have been cut back as local authorities have struggled with difficult budget constraints. In fact, planning and development functions have experienced the deepest cuts of all local services. The National Audit Office reported that budgets of planning departments had nearly halved (less 46%) since 2010-11 to 2015-15. This can be explained in part as local authorities have sought to cast the knife across departments considered less critical than others such as adult and children’s social care.
Buts cuts can only go so far before they undermine development and growth. Planning officers are the gatekeepers to development and yet there are signs that the industry is becoming less attractive and churn rates are rising as skilled planners move out and students look for other opportunities. This not only denies planning and development functions of much-needed skills but is in danger of losing vital institutional knowledge. It is now becoming common that over several applications, or even within a single application, an applicant may be forced to deal with several different personnel. This not only adds time to the process but can also result in different outcomes as separate planning officers might have different interpretations of the regulations. This creates uncertainty and can have greater impacts when scaled up nationally to the overall mobile infrastructure roll-out.
It is a false economy not to invest in planning and development functions. Further resource cuts will only undermine development and growth and ultimately the ability of local authorities to plan for longer-term sustainable growth. As departments are stretched thin they will have even less resource to look at the strategic needs of their areas and will be forced simply to react rather than shape proposed development.
Mobile infrastructure is vital to development and the amount of resource that goes into planning and development must be equal to the task. Across local authorities and Local Enterprise Partnerships, the focus on mobile is limited. Over half of Local Development Plans have yet to be adopted and 56% of LEP Strategic Economic Plans do not include mobile. This can often mean that in terms of planning mobile is not treated as a national network but only on a case by case basis as planning applications are processed. When combined with the reductions in resource across planning and development functions the risk is that the efficient roll out of mobile infrastructure could be compromised.
Mobile UK is working with stakeholders across the country to enable the effective roll-out of mobile infrastructure. As part of this campaign, under the title Building Mobile Britain, we are urging Government and local authorities to consider the importance of planning and to ensure resources and funding and not cut back to unsustainable levels. Further expansion of the Permitted Development Rights Regime is important as it adds certainty into the process for mobile operators, but more importantly it reduces the resource burden on local authorities. In addition, we are calling on local authorities to appoint digital champions to bring together planning and development in the interests of digital connectivity. At a strategic level, it is important LEPs, metro mayors and local governments work together to prioritise mobile infrastructure but also to utilise their statutory and moral powers to ensure consistency across boundaries, both at a planning regulatory level and the wider strategic level.
Planning is critical, nationally and locally, and it is vital that it doesn’t become an afterthought or the service that takes the undue financial strain at the expense or other departments. There is too much at risk in terms of skills, today and tomorrow, and the sustainability of the industry itself. It is ultimately a false economy and will impact not only on the roll-out of mobile infrastructure, and by virtue the nation’s digital connectivity, but also on the sustainability of those services that were meant to be protected.
1. National Audit Office
Head of Policy and Communications
Tel: 07887 911 076