The urgent need to improve broadband in rural Scotland must take account of the interests of farms and land-based businesses, Scottish Land & Estates has said.
The organisation, which represents rural businesses across Scotland, has submitted written evidence to the committee in Westminster examining the Digital Economy Bill, which will bring in a reformed Electronic Communications Code. The code determines the rights of telecoms network operators regarding digital infrastructure across the UK.
Scottish Land & Estates has said that the new Code, as currently drafted, would hand too much control to telecoms companies at the expense of rural businesses and may lead to a negative situation where broadband provision becomes harder rather than easier to achieve.
Katy Dickson, Senior Policy Officer (Business, Property and Connectivity) at Scottish Land & Estates, said: “Scottish Land & Estates firmly supports improved digital connectivity. Our members are mainly based in rural areas and enhanced broadband and mobile signal would be a huge asset to rural communities allowing forms to be completed online, tourism businesses to be developed and create new opportunities for home working and business start-ups.
“Sadly, we believe the Electronic Communications Code as currently drafted will have the opposite effect, discouraging farms, estates and other land-based businesses from engaging with telecoms companies and playing a vital role in improving telecoms infrastructure.
“The draft code alters the valuation basis for telecoms sites meaning the telecoms companies will pay less money to station their equipment whilst giving them even more substantial rights of access, to sublet and share the equipment, and to assign the rights. There is clearly a desire to reduce cost and time in securing mast sites but we believe that significantly altering the property rights of businesses – when the current system functions well – will lead to more and more contested cases ending up in court.”
Scottish Land & Estates added that the income provided to land-businesses for access to their property was an important stream of funding.
Ms Dickson continued: “We believe it is about balance and fairness. Essentially, the new code is attempting to subsidise large telecoms companies at the expense of farms and other land-businesses. Telecoms rental is part of the diversified income streams of land based businesses which supports employment and investment in fragile communities.
“We have seen little evidence that landowners and farmers are holding telecoms companies to ransom. There is a valuation methodology which works well and in our experience, landowners are generally favourable to permitting a request should it be possible in conjunction with their own activities.
“We are concerned that the concept of having a mast site will no longer be attractive and will instead be viewed as a burden. If a large number of cases are contested, existing digital networks may become fragmented and the rollout process will become slow and expensive. The Law Commission has said that a different basis of payment would be ‘disruptive, would generate resistance and litigation, and could not be shown to produce sufficient public benefits to justify the change.’ We wholeheartedly agree.
“Scottish Land & Estates will continue to make the case for a revised code which does not disrupt a stable market and will encourage landowners to be site providers, therefore allowing operators to roll out services more quickly and widely.”