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Mobile Coverage: 5G Deployment

Volume 710: debated on Monday 7 March 2022

Now more than ever, reliable digital connectivity is essential for people and businesses. We have committed to extending mobile geographical coverage across the UK. In order to improve coverage in rural parts of the country, the Government have agreed a £1 billion shared rural network deal with the UK’s mobile network operators to extend 4G mobile geographical coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of the programme. We also want to ensure that people and businesses right across the country can realise the full benefits of 5G as soon as possible. Through our £200 million 5G testbeds and trials programme, we are already seeing the benefits 5G can bring to manufacturing, farming, transport networks and healthcare.

In order to realise these ambitions, it is essential that the planning system can effectively support the deployment of new mobile infrastructure, as well as network upgrades. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities—formerly the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—have been consulting on proposed changes to permitted development rights for electronic communications infrastructure in England. Following an initial consultation in 2019 on the principle of the reforms, we published a technical consultation last year on implementing the proposed changes.

Having reviewed the responses to the consultation, we believe that the proposed changes will have a positive impact on the Government’s ambitions for the deployment of 5G and extending mobile coverage. In considering the reforms, we have sought to ensure that we find the correct balance between facilitating improved connectivity, minimising impact in protected landscapes and ensuring that the appropriate environmental protections are in place.

The Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), and I can announce that today the Government have published their response to the consultation, which sets out that we will make the following changes to permitted development rights:

Enable the deployment of small equipment cabinets on article 2(3) land—such as national parks, conservation areas and areas of outstanding natural beauty—and allow greater flexibility for installing equipment cabinets in existing compounds, without requiring prior approval from the planning authority, while retaining prior approval for cabinets over 2.5 cubic metres;

Allow for the strengthening of existing masts by permitting limited increases in the width of existing ground-based masts without the need for prior approval, and greater increases subject to prior approval, on all land. Also allow for limited increases to the height of existing ground-based masts without the need for prior approval outside of article 2(3) land, with greater increases on all land, up to specified limits, subject to prior approval;

Enable the deployment of building-based masts by permitting these in closer proximity to a highway subject to prior approval outside of article 2(3) land. Permit smaller masts to be installed on buildings without the need for prior approval outside of article 2(3) land; and

Enable taller new ground-based masts to be deployed—up to 25 metres on article 2(3) land and 30 metres on unprotected land, subject to approval from the planning authority.

To balance these freedoms, we will introduce new planning conditions that will require operators to minimise the impact of all new development, especially for more sensitive areas, as far as possible. We will also make changes to the procedure for safeguarding aerodromes and defence assets, and technical changes to the definition of small cell systems. Following the consultation, we have decided not to allow any new ground-based masts to be installed without the prior approval of the planning authority.

Improved mobile connectivity, especially 5G, will ultimately bring benefits to all communities and businesses throughout the country in support of our levelling-up agenda. The reforms will provide operators with the flexibility they require to upgrade existing sites in England for 5G delivery, enhance coverage and meet the growing demands for network capacity. They will also reduce the time, cost and uncertainty involved in upgrading mobile network infrastructure as well as encourage the use of existing infrastructure and promote site sharing to reduce the impacts of new deployment.

Alongside the Government response, we have also published a new code of practice for wireless network development in England. This will provide updated guidance to ensure the impact of new and upgraded mobile infrastructure is minimised and that appropriate engagement takes place with local communities.

In order to make these changes, we will shortly make amendments to part 16 of schedule 2 to the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, as amended, through secondary legislation.

As planning law is a devolved matter, the legislative changes will apply to England only, but we will continue to work closely with the devolved Administrations to ensure that the planning regime continues to support the deployment of mobile infrastructure across the United Kingdom.