Telephone Kiosks vs Homes

Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” (Edward Lorenz)

Congratulations to Trudi Elliott for her well-deserved appointment as independent chair of the Planning Inspectorate’s board of directors on 1 April 2018. She is uniquely qualified for the role and it is such a crucial time for the Planning Inspectorate.

As far as I’m concerned PINS has been one of the country’s most impressive bodies, truly independent in its decision-making, rigorous and non partisan in its approach and in recent years increasingly open as to the targets it is working to and the challenges it faces. Sarah Richards appears to be a competent chief executive and in the best traditions of the organisation.

However, I am worried that all is not well. Current average performance timescales for appeals by way of written representations, informal hearings and inquiries are reported to be as follows, as at 20 March 2018:

– written representations are taking 24 weeks overall (with the first ten weeks being to start date)

– hearings are taking 36 weeks overall (with the first 17 weeks being to start date)

– inquiries are taking 49 weeks overall (with the first five weeks being to start date).

Whilst the numbers do not appear to be worsening materially over the last year or so, they are certainly not materially improving, at a time when you would think that the Government should be pulling every lever. Furthermore the most frustrating delays are between validation of the appeal and receipt of the ‘start date’ letter, which sets the procedural deadlines for the appeal process itself. Until the start date, you’re just sitting in the in-tray.

Whilst individual experiences are inevitably anecdotal, we are acting on one appeal, in relation to a scheme for around 70 apartments (refused by members against the officers’ recommendation), where an appeal was submitted on 14 December 2017, with the written representations appeal procedure requested, validated on 9 January and yet still no start date.

Not quite the flap of a butterfly’s wing, but I posted a frustrated tweet on 20 March commenting on the delay.

Various people responded to the tweet with their own similar recent experiences, which led Mark Wilding to write a good piece in Planning magazine on 28 March Why new inspectorate data substantiates complaints about lengthening appeal delay. That in turn for instance led to a former inspector writing to the magazine with his own speculation as to the reasons for the current problems.

After the Mark Wilding piece, I wrote on 3 April to Sarah Richards to provide more details about the particular appeal in case something could be done to unlock the continuing delay in obtaining a start date. Sarah responded very quickly on 6 April. She made clear that of course she could not intervene in the particular appeal but she took the opportunity to set out the challenges which PINS is currently facing. As she said in her response that she would do, she adapted the response into an open letter to Planning magazine which it published online on 12 April.

One particular passage in her letter was news to me:

The demand on our resources has been compounded by the unexpected receipt of more than 1,000 prior approval appeals for phone kiosks, and that number is likely to increase. Currently these have been absorbed into our normal planning appeal work, with consequent delays. We are now adopting a different model to process these appeals which will use our non-salaried inspectors, and this should release capacity back to mainstream work. This will have a positive impact on the overall time taken to determine appeals over the coming months.”

So one of the reasons that there are currently delays in the processing of appeals for housing and no doubt other forms of development is a deluge of prior approval appeals for phone kiosks??

Who uses a phone kiosk any more, I naively thought. Well of course advertising companies do, for a start.

I did a little digging and I now see that there is this huge drain on the resources of local planning authorities as well as PINS caused by somewhat of a gold rush.

The Local Government Association raised a concern earlier this year, LGA: call for crackdown on ‘trojan’ telephone boxes amid 900 per cent rise in some areas (27 January 2018).

Councils have been under sustained attack for some time from a variety of, usually pretty anonymous, companies, each with a licence to operate under the electronic communications code, each seeking approval for the erection of a large number of new style telephone kiosks. The main companies include such household names (not) as Maximus Networks Limited, Infocus Public Networks Limited, Euro Payphone Limited and New World Payphones.

Electronic communications code operators benefit from deemed planning permission for the installation of their telephone kiosks under Schedule 2, Part 16, Class A of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 2015, subject to prior approval by the local planning authority of siting and appearance. Need, or the lack of it, is irrelevant (see for example a decision letter dated 14 November 2017 relating to an appeal in Hackney by Euro Payphone Limited).

Operators then have deemed consent under the Advertisement Regulations for non-illuminated advertisements on the kiosks, but often apply for express consent for illuminated advertisements (see for example a decision letter dated 12 January 2018 in relation to an appeal in Eltham by New World Payphones).

Councils often understandably seek to resist these proposals but it is clearly difficult. The BBC reported last June Westminster City Council’s rejection of 80 proposals by Maximus Networks Limited as well as proposals by other companies:

Councils block ‘ugly and unwanted advert space’ phone boxes.

Whilst the issue has raised concern in local areas and provoked comment, I have not tracked down any recent Parliamentary debate when plainly something is not quite right is it?

This from the ChiswickW4 website about Infocus Public Networks Limited (I haven’t verified its accuracy):

The phone boxes, which are wheelchair accessible, have been rejected by a number of local authorities, and critics say their primary purpose is for the display of advertising rather than making phone calls.

The Warwickshire-based company, Infocus Public Networks Ltd, applied for ‘prior approval’ to site the phone boxes on the pavement at 120, 96, 135 Chiswick High Road (outside Insider Dealings Interior Design , Sainsbury Local, and the former Ballet Rambert) .

Local authorities, including Hammersmith & Fulham, Kensington & Chelsea, and Westminster have all said ‘No’ to the kiosks on grounds of siting and appearance – the only grounds on which a local authority can refuse ‘prior approval’. Councils are not allowed to consider any advertising benefits which may accrue from the phone boxes as they are already the beneficiaries of ‘deemed consent’ from the regulatory body Ofcom.

Infocus, which describes itself as the UK’s third public payphone operator, has challenged a number of local authorities for refusing to allow the phone boxes in their area. An attempt by the company to install fifteen phone boxes in Swindon, which was turned down by Wiltshire council, was partly overturned by the Planning Inspector who ruled that nine phone boxes could be sited in the town streets.

The payphone kiosks use mobile telephony for connection to other networks and the company says there are no invasive pavement works involved. They say the large windows deter the use of the kiosks for antisocial and criminal activity, and that there is still a need for public payphones for tourists, and ethnic minorities and those in wheelchairs.

The old-style kiosks are not allowed to be installed because they do not comply with disability regulations from Ofcom. BT has also removed hundreds of kiosks from UK streets due to the growth of mobile phone use.

Wiltshire Council has asked the government to give local authorities greater powers over the control of advertising on public payphones, following the Inspector’s reversal of its decision, according to the Swindon Advertiser. The City of London also lost its attempt, on appeal, to prevent seven similar boxes in the Lambeth area.

Critics of the scheme say the phone boxes are a lucrative method of attracting commercial advertising to the company which installs them, and are not of any public benefit to disabled users as they take up more pavement surface than traditional kiosks and add to ‘street clutter’.

Incidentally Infocus has possibly the world’s least informative website.

These kiosks are prime advertising space as is clear from Clearchannel’s website.

Do these payphones serve a legitimate function? If they aren’t “for the purpose of the operator’s electronic communications network” the permitted development right doesn’t apply in the first place.And what of some data privacy concerns (according to a piece in Wired, Stop replacing London’s phone boxes with corporate surveillance which might be considered alarmist if we weren’t currently highly sensitised by the Facebook data mining scandal)? Doesn’t the Government need to form a view and quickly? In the meantime these applications and appeals (1,000 appeals!) risk jamming up the system, quite apart from unnecessarily cluttering our streets. Of course PINS needs to do what it can to avoid the problem contaminating its mainstream caseload but why should it be forced to employ external consultants, at taxpayer cost? If ever there were a case for appeal fees!

One of the roles of the PINS board is “ensuring the Planning Inspectorate delivers against its strategic objectives and ensuring sufficient resources are available to achieve those objectives”. A brief scroll through previous minutes of its meetings will demonstrate the level of scrutiny given to every aspect of its performance, although no reference yet to these wretched kiosk appeals! Trudi, you have a crucial role to play in ensuring that resources are correctly prioritised.

Simon Ricketts, 14 April 2018

Personal views, et cetera

Author: simonicity

Partner at boutique planning firm, Town Legal LLP, but this blog represents my personal views only.

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