The new Electronic Communications Code comes into force on 28 December, setting out revised rules for telecoms operators and their use of land for apparatus like masts or cables. Landowners therefore need to check their rights and take steps to protect their interests, according to the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers (CAAV).
“The new telecoms Code is designed to facilitate the wider coverage and improvement of phone and broadband infrastructure across the UK,” explains Jeremy Moody, secretary and adviser to the CAAV. “While better connectivity will be good news for rural businesses and residents, it does mean that telecoms operators will be seeking new sites and to update existing agreements.”
A common misunderstanding about the new Code is that it moves from market rents to a compulsory purchase type compensation for loss, enabling operators to slash payments – but that isn’t the case, explains Mr Moody. “This apparatus is only to be on land by agreement: All the terms are open for negotiation and rents are to be based on market value. It’s therefore important that landowners get professional advice to avoid selling themselves short – operators will have people acting in their interests; landowners should do the same.”
While the new Code continues to allow operators to ask for an agreement to be imposed by the court, that will only be done where tests are passed and then on terms that are fair and reasonable, including a market-based rent and minimising loss to the landowner.
Once a Code agreement is in place, it can be hard to secure vacant possession when it ends, warns Mr Moody. “The grounds for removing an operator are extremely limited and include substantial breaches, persistent delays in making payments or re-development of the site. It’s therefore vital to consider the conditions that you want to include in the agreement and the potential impact of the operator’s terms on your business.”
Landowners’ terms might include arrangements for access to land, the right to be notified of any apparatus sharing or upgrade, and a bond to ensure the site is restored at the end of the agreement. “What might all that mean where an antenna is on a grain store, a mast in a field of cattle or a cable where you want a slurry store?”
The old Code had many shortcomings, resulting in increasing legal challenge and delays, explains Mr Moody. “To address these, the new Code may be quite complicated and prescriptive, but it gives recourse to the court in the event of disagreements.”
There are provisions for landowners who are seeking to redevelop the site and compensation is payable for any damage caused by the operator or contractor. Landowners and neighbours can also claim for any reduction in the value of land and buildings caused by the telecoms infrastructure.
However, there may be issues when buying and selling land, as there is no central register of agreements. “Code agreements are not included on the Land Registry, so there could be difficulties when conveyancing or assessing land for lending.”
The Code also introduces new rights for operators to assign new agreements to other operators without landowners’ consent or additional rent, and gives them limited powers to upgrade or share apparatus.
“There is now a voluntary code of conduct, which landowners may want to consider when dealing with telecoms operators,” says Mr Moody. “Unfortunately, there are no sanctions for breaching this, so it in the landowner’s interest to check everything is professionally drafted to avoid future disputes.”