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5G Masts: Greater Manchester

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the impact of 5G mast installations on communities in Greater Manchester.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this issue, and appreciate the time given by those who are here today and by the Minister who will reply to the debate.

The debate covers the powers given to telecommunication companies to instal infrastructure on and around a public highway in residential areas, and covers the roll-out of 5G and wireless broadband through masts, cabinets and telegraph poles across Greater Manchester. For Oldham, that includes installations primarily by IX Wireless, BT and Vodafone.

The British people work hard to provide a good life for themselves and their families. Many are first or second-generation homeowners, investing everything they have to form a community with others who share the same hopes, fears and determination to make it the best it can be. Those very places, however, are seeing change across the board, on the matter we are here to talk about, but also the loss of local pubs, too often being converted to houses in multiple occupation, and even family homes lost to the same use. There is a decline of many high streets and town centres and loss of community facilities that ought to bind people together.

Rather than giving people power in the places where they live, the past 14 years have seen power taken away from communities. It is that issue, perhaps known only to those who are impacted directly, that must be addressed. We are here to discuss the installation of equipment, whether 5G or wireless broadband, and I shall cover three main areas: first, planning policy and permitted development; secondly, guidance on the siting of cabinets and poles; and thirdly, access to the existing network. On planning policy and permitted development, I ask Members to imagine a 15-metre mast and cabinets being placed outside their home.

I thank my fellow Greater Manchester MP for raising such an important debate. I have residents in Astley Bridge, Bradshaw, Harwood, Bromley Cross and Egerton who are royally peeved off about the installation of some of these masts, which are going up around the constituency. As the hon. Member said, they can be 15 metres high, looking like something out of a North Korean military base. My residents are completely opposed to this. Does the hon. Member agree that the Government and these providers, such as IX Wireless, need to listen more to residents, and should go through a consultation process?

I share entirely those concerns about the impact. I will come on to some of the interventions we made in Oldham to try to bridge that divide on consultation, communication and co-production.

I commend the hon. Gentleman on bringing this forward. To support him and his claim, to which others have referred, I can give an example from back home. In Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, the very same issue has arisen. It involves health and safety concerns about the installation of these masts, as residents felt there was a lack of consultation. I understand that we all need 5G, but does the hon. Member agree that we need better communication from local planners on installation and the safety of masts that have been approved? That is what the hon. Member wants, and that is what we want back home.

That is the crux of the issue. Not many people object in principle to the installation of new equipment that makes life easier and better for people. Connectivity in the digital age is important for that, but how it is done is critical to garnering community support.

I want to paint a picture of what this means. Imagine someone sitting in the house they have worked hard for, where they are raising their children and where they have put down roots. It could be a normal two-storey house. The proposal is to erect a 15-metre mast outside. In context, that is the height of four double-decker buses stacked on top of one another. The cabinets that go alongside them are as tall as a standing adult. These are huge installations on residential streets, on cul-de-sacs, and on corners where people live. People are quite rightly concerned about the impact of that.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way; he is making a very powerful speech and I congratulate him on it. He represents Oldham West while I represent Oldham East, and this is also an issue across Oldham East, going from Shaw up to Grasscroft. Indeed, it is a massive issue. One constituent I called on said that literally overnight a mast had appeared at the end of their garden.

Will my hon. Friend support our right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), who has introduced a private Member’s Bill on this issue that is scheduled for discussion next week? She is trying to get Government support to ensure that there is mandatory consultation before such masts are erected.

Absolutely—I recognise the impact of these masts. I spoke to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) about her private Member’s Bill, which is scheduled for debate. The general view is that it is quite far down the Order Paper and it would require the Government to lend their support for it to progress it. I believe that there is cross-party support for such a measure. Across the political spectrum, there is a need to address the imbalance affecting local people, and I hope that the Minister will consider the matter.

The wi-fi companies are not doing anything that is not allowed or permitted by the Government—that is the point. These changes were introduced in 2019 in the national planning policy framework, which has created this permitted development. The impact has been the complete removal of the requirement to seek prior permission from the local authority, along with the public consultation that would go alongside that.

Operators not only have free rein on the siting of masts but, with the permissions that are in place, they can also send cables over people’s homes with a clearance of just 2 metres without requiring any further permissions or legal agreement. Someone can have a mast erected outside their home and the cable can go across their roof, and they have no legal right to stop that at all, because it is all permitted development and it is all licensed under the regulator.

The reality is that councils are left powerless and communities are left voiceless. On the siting of cabinets and poles, the House of Commons Library is clear:

“The Government’s 2016 cabinet and pole siting code of practice states that companies should consult with local residents, but it is entirely voluntary. Broadband companies are not legally required to follow the code of practice and Ofcom, the regulator, does not have the power to enforce it.”

Councils are left powerless, communities are left voiceless and the regulator is left without the power to regulate.

Moreover, we know that there is scope to upgrade the current 4G masts rather than having additional 5G ones. Working in this way would minimise the disruption caused by new installations. This has been the case with, say, BT locally in Oldham.

What about shared use? What many people find staggering is how weak the requirement for shared networks and facilities really is. First, the requirement to share existing equipment only rests with BT Openreach; in areas such as ours, where there is cable, it does not rest with Virgin Media, with what was then the 9X network or with any other new operators coming into the market. The operators themselves say that that is nonsense. Why not allow just one 15-metre mast, rather than a second, or a third, to go alongside it, because under these rules it is not just one operator that can instal equipment? Another one can come along, then another one, and another one, and there is no requirement at all to make them work together so that they share the equipment that is installed. The operators say that is wrong and I think local people say it is wrong too.

What happens if any one of these companies, or all of these companies, go bust? Who would be responsible for the legacy equipment that is then left on the highway? The fact is that the responsibility falls to the local council, which had no say in the equipment being installed to begin with, but which now has the financial liability placed on it to deal with the aftermath.

We also need to consider the rapid pace of change in technology. SpaceX is significantly reducing the cost of its Starlink satellite system, and other companies will follow—none of us knows today what practical commercial lifespan the current 5G masts and fixed wireless units will have in the future, given the rate of technological change and the technology that is coming down the line.

The community impact is heavy for many people in Greater Manchester, including constituents of mine in Oldham West, Chadderton and Royton. Many of the 5G masts installed by Vodafone, for instance, are on main roads or junctions, but that is not always the case. The masts are large and they change the character of an area. For instance, at Chadderton Hall Park, where the installation abuts a children’s play area and community café, no effort whatsoever was made to minimise the impact on visual amenity, so houses that once looked out on a very beautiful park across the road now look out on the huge telephone equipment that has been installed.

However, it has to be said that most complaints in Oldham West, Chadderton and Royston relate to IX Wireless broadband installations. Some of those are up to 15 metres high, and mast installations do not require any kind of prior planning approval from the council.

I have raised the issue constantly and have pushed for change. I reached out to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in April last year, but did not even receive a response on this important issue. That fuelled the mistrust that is already there in the local community. It was central Government who brushed local communities to one side and ignored legitimate representations from MPs, but it did not help—I will be blunt about this—that the same company was recently reported to have paid donations of £138,000 to 24 Tory MPs in the region. At a point when we should be rebuilding trust in politics, things like that undermine that effort.

My approach is always that we have to bring competing interests together to find common ground. On that issue, we have to find a way that balances the need to expand connectivity with the need to bring local people on board. I wrote to Oldham Council and IX Wireless asking for intervention and a different approach. I will be honest that it was not without challenges, as is often the case with these things, but eventually we got an agreement on a more inclusive way forward, first by working through sites that were of concern. In July, we held a meeting with the support of my fantastic constituency staff in Chadderton town hall, where we held a residents workshop to arbitrate between the two sides. I am grateful to BBC Radio Manchester for reporting on the same issue late last year. The workshop gave an opportunity for residents to meet IX Wireless and go through its impacts site by site. Some changes were made, such as using more underground cabling, relocating cabinets and masts or removing the need for them at all.

The hon. Member is being generous in giving way again. We have been successful on a couple of occasions in relocating the masts, with one example in Bradshaw recently, but unfortunately it was moved only 50 metres. We have to keep constant pressure on IX Wireless. The same is true in Egerton, where Councillor Nadim Muslim was successful in ensuring that a pole was not erected there. What level of success has the hon. Member had in ensuring that since July’s meetings the masts are not placed where residents do not want them?

The approach we tried to take was, where possible, to use the underground ducting that was there through the BT Openreach system. We were able to remove some masts and cabinets completely because of that. Residents were clearly delighted that the proposed cabinet was eventually withdrawn. In some cases, we were able to move a mast around the corner if that meant it would be near a garage site, rather than outside somebody’s living room window. It would still be in the locality, but at least its impact would be diminished.

In other cases, where equipment could not be moved at all, we even got an agreement to paint it the colour of the background—if it was against a wall to paint it the colour of the wall, or if it was by a park to paint it green like the park—or even to be creative. We have suggested to IX Wireless that Royton has a proud history of remembering its veterans, and the British Legion in Royton have done a fantastic job pulling together the histories of servicemen who lost their lives in the second world war. The company is open to vinyl-wrapping some of the cabinets that cannot be moved to commemorate the sacrifice people made for our freedom. If we can secure a compromise like that, we can bring people with us.

In the end, some people just do not want this equipment outside their home, and that is difficult, but we should always try to find common ground. What I struggle with is that the system is almost designed to write local people out of the process. At a time when there is so much mistrust in politics and politicians, we should be using every opportunity to bring people together in the same room to work through these difficult issues together. Hopefully I have explained what we were able to do in my constituency, thanks to the hard work of my staff and the willingness of the operator and the local authority, but it should not be voluntary. We should have that hard-wired into what we do.

We have been able to make a degree of progress. The law does not require prior approval, but we have managed to get an agreement with IX Wireless and Oldham Council that they will apply as if they were required to have it. They will make the application and give the notice, and the public consultation that would be natural and normal in a planning application will take place as part of that process. Even though it is not required, we see that process under way in Oldham. It is important that a consultation is genuine, and not just an admin process that does not deliver the outcome that local people want. It must be seen as a partnership.

There remains work to be done. Although we have made progress, I urge IX Wireless to remove, relocate or redesign the remaining contentious proposed installations, including one on Denbydale Way in Royton, where local people have a legitimate concern about its implications and disruption to the street scene in that area. Digital inclusion should enhance communities and bring people together. It should not increase tensions and hurt our neighbourhoods. Consistent Conservative top-down implementation has to change, and community power must be respected—not to block, but to build the future together.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for arranging this debate on a huge issue that is impacting so many of our constituents in Greater Manchester. He has already made important points about the technicality of the law on this issue, and how changes to permitted developments have caused chaos on the streets of Bolton and across our borough.

I have been raising my concerns about poorly sited, low-quality masts and wooden poles placed across Bolton since 2019. They are tall, ugly monstrosities, blighting our landscape and causing much distress to my constituents. It has become a case of whack-a-mole, with the masts, boxes and poles popping up everywhere; we get one re-sited, and another appears in a different area. We have had them placed on private land, on dangerous road bends and right up against residents’ walls, making access for essential pointing impossible.

All that causes huge distress and a sense of powerlessness for our local residents. Indeed, in my Saturday drop-in advice surgery last week I had a constituent come and talk about a recent installation placed so near his side wall that, if there was a problem with his wall, he would have to break down the whole wall to repair it. The companies do not give any warning that works are going to commence in the area. There is no consultation done with anyone. The first people see of it is these stupid, horrendous things outside their homes.

The main point I want to emphasise to the Minister is the economic value of allowing all those companies to dig up our roads and pavements without any oversight. I have written letters and asked the Minister several times whether the Government track the commercial viability of the companies that they have allowed to place infrastructure on private land. The reply is always, “No.” The Government are not even collecting data on whether the policy of permitted development is driving the growth it was meant to, whether any of the companies sticking up those ugly things are commercially viable, or whether they are using technology that is viable even in the short term. Many argue that the appearance of these things suggests that they are not exactly at the cutting edge of industry innovation.

In Bolton, for our part, we do not need or want these installations. Bolton is well served by broadband providers, and we already have ample coverage in our area. We do not need the masts. I do not think the public of Bolton will forgive those who have allowed companies free rein to blight our landscape for no economic benefit, other than someone somewhere making a quick buck. I urge the Minister to revisit this, and, if there are going to be any such placements, to ensure that there is a proper consultation, with permission to be given before they are installed.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I hope we will not be interrupted by votes. I thank the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon) for securing this debate on the impact of 5G connectivity on communities in Greater Manchester. I am grateful for the attendance of his constituency neighbours. It is very useful to hear what is happening on the ground, and it sounds as though there is some very good partnership work going on, thanks to the hon. Gentleman’s efforts to get the council, the community and the provider to work together more productively.

Like the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi), we feel like a whack-a-mole team in Bolton North East: councillors Toby Hewitt, Hilary Fairclough and Mudasir Dean have to go out every week or month to try to whack the mole. It is great that we are having this debate, and I hope the Department will consider reviewing the current legislative measures to ensure much more consultation with the providers, especially IX Wireless in my constituency. These massive masts going up are almost like a middle finger to the local community, to consultation and to a peaceful living environment.

It sounds as though my hon. Friend has some very hard-working councillors. I commend them for their efforts, but they should not have to play whack-a-mole; that is very time-intensive and likely unnecessary.

As Minister, I am trying to establish the extent of the problem. I know it is an issue in pockets of the country—the number of Greater Manchester MPs here today is testimony to that. Although this debate is about a specific area, there is also a challenge in relation to the whole area. Reference was made to the private Member’s Bill tabled by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and to specific issues with the way the market operates in the Kingston upon Hull area. It seems that there are also particular challenges in Greater Manchester with specific operators. I am holding a roundtable with colleagues next week, I believe, and I hope we will get a better sense of how geographically widespread this issue is, and whether we need to take action against particular providers or deal with specific issues on the ground, particularly in Hull. When I meet Ofcom next week, I hope to discuss this issue in some detail.

I will set out the general policy aim, and then the next steps that we will take to address communities’ concerns. It is absolutely right that they are addressed, because this is not what we want to happen. There is an overall and well-supported policy aim on connectivity, and we do not want the broad support for the connectivity agenda to be undermined by bad practice. As the House knows, reliable, fast digital connectivity is vital for the prosperity of our country. We are working hard to ensure communities across the UK can get those services at prices they can afford.

That is not just about connectivity needs now; increasingly, healthcare will be delivered in a technologically enabled way, more education will be provided in that way and so will economic opportunities. For me, it is important that we ensure every part of the country has fantastic connectivity. I do not want a digital divide to emerge.

The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton said that this issue is disempowering for communities, but that is precisely the opposite of our intention. The policy intention is to empower communities by ensuring they have the infrastructure they need. I do not want them to feel that this is leading to a deterioration of the overall amenity of their areas.

I think there is agreement on the need for the roll-out of digital connectivity; that is a welcome investment. The frustration for local people and the industry is that there is not co-ordination across Government. I had a call earlier today with a provider that would love nothing more than to install the devices in the lamp post infrastructure that is already in place on the streets, but cannot do so because it cannot get an agreement here or through the local authority. That would seem very logical. We need to look at charging points for electric vehicles and wireless connectivity, and that requires joined-up thinking from the Government on making best use of what we already have.

That was an interesting intervention. I have never discussed the idea of sharing lamp posts or infrastructure of that nature. Not long after becoming Minister in this policy area, I put through the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Act 2022, whose intention was to make it easier to share existing infrastructure, to crack open some of the telecoms monopolies and allow new companies and new entrants to provide connectivity. Community connectivity was falling behind because of that monopoly interest, and ultimately there has been a much faster roll-out.

The whole intention is for that roll-out to be done, not through new poles, new masts and all the rest—notwithstanding the fact that they will be required in some areas—but through much better sharing of existing infrastructure. I will take away the point raised by the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton about other types of infrastructure.

The Minister is being very generous in taking interventions. On that point, the Act in itself was a good piece of work, with the exception of the guidance that followed, which essentially allowed the sharing requirement to be one of request and then consideration, rather than requiring it to happen. The Government should be more directive and say, “No, if it’s there, you ought to use it together.”, rather than just asking for people to have a conversation about it.

I do not want to mislead the House in any way. My understanding is that there are requirements on some companies, particularly Openreach, for infrastructure sharing. That is not universal, and we may come to review that in the future. I want to set out the overall success levels, because I do not want this debate to be about only the negative side. Ultimately, the 2022 Act has driven roll-out, but, as I alluded to, it is just that there are particular problems in particular geographical areas where I think we need to be doing something, whether that is ensuring that infrastructure in Hull is better shared or addressing the particular operators acting in a way that is certainly not the intention of the code and guidance.

In 2019, 6% of UK premises had access to gigabit-capable broadband. That is now 81%, so we can see there is a massive difference in connectivity. We all understand from the pandemic just how important that connectivity is to people’s life chances. It is effectively akin to a key utility, and we want to ensure that people are not disadvantaged by poor connectivity. I am very proud of that achievement, and we must ensure that infrastructure deployment can continue at pace.

We know that the legislative framework has been supportive of that, and we want operators to be able to install infrastructure quickly, but that is not some kind of one-way street. We must ensure that operators understand that that is not without restriction. The legislation rightly recognises that there can be an impact of network deployment on communities and the environment, and there is a balance to be had and rules to which telecoms companies ought to adhere. Good operators understand that, but I think there is an issue with bad actors and bad examples, which we are very keen to drill down into.

The hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton will be aware of the legislative framework—he spoke about it in some detail. It ensures that the vital infrastructure can be deployed quickly, while ensuring that communities can have their say. That is supported by best practice guidance on where new infrastructure should be placed and how best to limit the impact on the landscape and our streets. The legislation also ensures that either Ofcom or the local planning authority can take enforcement action when either the regulations or the planning rules are not being adhered to. Local planning authorities have powers to take enforcement action where they believe planning regulations are contravened.

I understand that has already happened and is actively underway in some parts of Greater Manchester. I think there is a piece of work to do about helping local authorities to understand how and when they can push back on some of those applications. From the feedback that I have had from local authorities, some of those applications are being put forward by planning consultants rather than the companies themselves, so they do not use that local knowledge or have that accountability.

I am conscious of time, so I will just set out some of the extra steps that we will be taking. As I mentioned, the policy aim now is to ensure that there is better infrastructure. On Monday, I will be meeting Melanie Dawes, the chief executive of Ofcom, to ask that her officials work closely with mine to bring about a swift resolution to some of the challenges raised in this debate and previously. That follows a letter from the Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), which asked Ofcom to set out the conditions under which they would take enforcement actions if the regulations are not being adhered to. As I suggested, I will also be holding a roundtable for concerned colleagues on 25 March, and the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton is very welcome to join me. I look forward to hearing his constituents’ concerns in more detail, and to picking up some of the issues that he raised that we do not have time to go into today.

We will be working closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to support local planning authorities, exploring what extra steps are needed, and I will write this week to operators and their representative bodies to ensure that they are aware how seriously we are taking this and what we expect them to do to minimise unnecessary infrastructure. I hope that provides some assurance on the immediate next steps, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are listening to the concerns raised in this House and we are open to slightly tougher steps if we are dissatisfied with progress. I am conscious of time, so I will wrap up.

Question put and agreed to.