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Rural business association slams parties’ lack of plans to address ‘appalling’ connectivity

UK’s major political parties accused of failing rural businesses by lacking a credible solution to improve mobile 4G and 5G coverage

As the UK General Election campaign gathers pace, the major parties have all been criticised for lacking a credible plan for business mobile 4G and 5G coverage in rural areas.

Even though the Conservative Party and Labour Party have published manifesto pledges to expand broadband coverage to rural areas, and the Liberal Democrats have pledged to invest in mobile data infrastructure and expand it to cover all homes, rural diversification consultancy Rural Solutions, an advisory business for UK landowners and land-based businessese, said any future UK government will not be able to fix what it calls “appalling” levels of mobile connectivity in rural areas without a more radical policy for siting communications masts.

The criticism comes even after the government in October set out its plans to make radical improvements to mobile phone coverage across the country. Working in conjunction with the four leading UK operators, the £1.3bn scheme, the Shared Rural Network (SRN), proposes to wipe not-spots from the map, giving what the government claims will be “high-quality” 4G coverage to 95% of the country by 2025.

But speaking just before the launch of the Conservative manifesto, which also promises to provide greater mobile coverage across the UK, Joanne Halton, head of planning at Rural Solutions, said rural areas were still blighted by poor connectivity in many places, with designated zones for siting network masts being the missing solution.

She dismissed what the major parties were offering, emphasising that none of their plans and pledges would successfully address the problem of “appalling” mobile 4G and 5G coverage in rural areas.

At the heart of the issue was a lack of regard for planning applications, said Halton. “We won’t get the connectivity levels that political parties say they aspire to achieve without a further relaxation of planning regulations,” she said. “If any government is serious about rural connectivity, it needs to urgently modify its regulation of mast locations and heights in designated scenic and historic areas, which encompass much of rural Britain. 

“The measures proposed in the recent consultation on reforms to permitted development rights to support deployment of 5G and extend mobile coverage should be urgently adopted and local authorities, communities and providers should also be made to work together to select and designate mast sites in not-spot areas, to ensure a minimum level of mobile coverage across rural areas while controlling impact on the landscape.”

Halton said that whoever forms the next government will also need to recognise the current disparity in rents, which is a disincentive to improve connectivity. She said network companies were reluctant to pay higher rents for mast sites in areas of low population and needed support or incentives to invest in this to fulfil the promise of widespread digital connectivity.

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