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Landowners exploited by telecoms legislation in face of 5G switch on, experts warn

Michael Watson, Partner at Shulmans LLP

Leading telecoms experts have called on landowners to ‘carefully consider’ any approaches from telecoms operators, as Three Mobile launches its 5G network this month.

Michael Watson, partner and renowned telecoms lawyer at Leeds-based corporate law firm Shulmans LLP, has warned that telecoms operators have slashed the prices they are prepared to offer landowners to install network apparatus on properties, backed by the threat of Tribunal if the offers are not accepted. It means that the market for mast sites has effectively seized up and major problems could lie ahead for the rollout of 5G.

Watson, a well-known industry commentator at the helm of a large team of specialist advisors to UK property owners, said: “There are a number of issues that a landowner can face if an operator asks to either renew existing mast site leases or enter an agreement for a new site. Landowners should be extremely cautious and seek specialist advice before responding to, or even acknowledging, an approach from an operator.”

The potential drawbacks for landowners include reduced rental income, devaluation of property as a result of mast installations and restricted ability to remove operators, even if a lease has been breached or rent not paid. Additionally, leases can allow operators the right to access their apparatus at any time which can cause significant inconvenience to the owners of the land and property they are installed on.

Following the introduction of the controversial Electronic Communications Code in 2017, operators that are unable to agree terms with landowners can take them to Tribunal. With operators seeking to use the Code to drive down rent payments, the networks are beginning to face wholesale resistance from landowners and will therefore need to routinely resort to time-consuming Tribunals.

A recent telecoms Tribunal, Evolution (Shinfield) LLP v BT PLC, rejected an application by developers who sought an order for the removal of an operator’s apparatus from a publicly maintained footway, at the operator’s expense. It shows that developers need to be vigilant in their due diligence as to existing telecoms apparatus, and understand that this may have an adverse impact on their ability to develop land.

Ria Wilkinson, property litigation lawyer in Shulmans’ leading telecoms team, said: “With the announcements from various operators regarding 5G, landowners are likely to be approached with increasing frequency by operators wanting to acquire new sites in order to facilitate the rollout of their 5G networks.”

Watson added: “After many years of reaching consensual agreements, the Code – coupled with the approach of network operators – has alienated the very people whose cooperation the telecommunications sector has previously relied upon. Until there is a fundamental change of approach by the network operators, landowners must face up to this new reality and either accede to the demands of the operators, or prepare and respond accordingly.”