It’s time to unlock the potential of connected public spaces
Permitted Development Rights have been the cornerstone of public telecoms infrastructure for over thirty years. They allow for the speedy, national deployment of critical telecoms network infrastructure, without the excessive delays of the regular planning system. One can only imagine the cost and consequences if these rights – or code powers – hadn’t existed when the UK’s mobile network was rolled out in the 1990s and before, writes Ashley Smatt, the chief executive and founder of Maximus Networks.
As the UK falls further behind in its digital connectivity, there is greater need than ever to encourage and promote innovation and investment, particularly in connecting public spaces. This is why permitted development rights, rather than being limited, need to be updated to reflect the needs of 21st century Britain.
There are many developments in telecoms, instrumental to developing smart cities and improving how we interact with our smartphones, including expanding 4G connectivity, introducing 5G and rolling out small cells. Key to unlocking the potential of these technologies is network rollout across our cities, towns and villages.
However, the proposed consultation on changes to Permitted Development Rights, buried deep in the Government’s Autumn Budget, threatens to stifle innovation, seriously threatening to slow down the Government’s smart cities drive and securing the UK’s digital competitiveness.
Digital Britain needs planning reform to benefit from next generation telecoms
A new generation of accessible public call boxes is emerging, providing free Wi-Fi, calls, apps and the types of integrated interactive services that are needed by consumers, communities, high streets and visitors alike. The principle of PD Rights is key to ensuring this new telecoms infrastructure is rolled out quickly, with minimal obstruction.
Permitted development rights were enshrined in law for this very purpose. By granting “express consent”, they ensure each unit can be installed and deployed without the need for the obstructive planning permission process, saving time, money and resources. Removal of these rights would not only leave the already overstretched planning inspectorate and Local Authorities with a headache, but would stifle innovation, investment and deployment in our telecoms infrastructure.
The misconception seemingly driving the Government’s consultation on PD Rights is that public call boxes are no longer used in the way they once were due to mobile phone adoption. However, public call boxes – often badly maintained and not accessible to disabled users – is too limited a definition. The new generation of interactive streetside hubs bear little resemblance to traditional public call boxes, in the way that a smartphone bears little resemblance to an old rotary dial.
High street and public connectivity is key to unlocking smart cities
A recent King’s College London study recognised the pivotal importance digital hubs can play on high streets as a ‘key strategic infrastructure asset’ in its recommendations for how the government can drive innovation in 5G. This coincides with the announcements of plans to begin 5G rollout across 16 major UK cities in 2019, with the Government committed to a smart cities agenda.
However, as the report recognises, 5G deployment demands a radically different network infrastructure from the one we have already. From a government perspective, the installation of this infrastructure is costly, complex and time-intensive.
If the Government is serious about 5G it must recognise the role digital hubs can play in boosting connectivity. This is especially important in rural areas where coverage is poor, or in our cities where users still experience sudden drops in connectivity and calls, even in major hubs such as around London’s Kings Cross and Waterloo stations. The location of digital hubs on our high streets, with their height and clear sight lines imperative for radio frequency, is critical for countering these gaps in coverage.
The UK currently lags 35th in the world according to 2018 broadband data rankings, behind countries such as Bulgaria and Madagascar. Digital hubs offer a key asset helping to bring 5G coverage, as well as 4G and small cell coverage, across the country.
In addition, digital hubs can help the Government achieve its smart cities ambitions. As urban areas expand, it is right we employ data in tackling environmental and city-planning challenges. Digital hubs can monitor things like pollution and passing footfall and provide the huge extra data connectivity needed for the autonomous vehicles of the future.
Public telecoms fit for the 21st century
Now more than ever, the UK requires innovation in public telecoms. This is why it is essential that PD rights are updated to reflect the needs of 21st century Britain in a world that requires us to be competitive, innovative and game-changing.
By updating these rights, we can deliver greater support to our local businesses, local authorities and citizens, including those who most need it. We can rise to meet new economic challenges, ensuring all citizens have access to data services, revitalising our high streets and making our public spaces smarter, safer and more connected.