Councils can't ban 5G mobile networks

Adrian Short · 23 October 2019

(This information applies to England only. Planning is a devolved matter in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the position may vary.)

Totnes Town Council in Devon has declared a “moratorium” on 5G mobile networks in the town after local campaigners raised concerns about the potential effects of electromagnetic radiation on human health. But while there is nothing to stop a local authority making a statement that they are opposed to 5G (or other mobile networks) for whatever reasons, they have no legal powers to prevent telecoms companies installing antennas, cabinets and other necessary equipment for them.

Chapter 10 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) for England sets out the overarching rules that all councils must adhere to when making planning policies and considering planning applications for communications development.

Like all planning policy, the NPPF has the force of law. It is not merely guidance or a statement of general intent.

Paragraph 112 lays out the government’s overall objectives that planning policy and decisions should support new communications development:

Advanced, high quality and reliable communications infrastructure is essential for economic growth and social well-being. Planning policies and decisions should support the expansion of electronic communications networks, including next generation mobile technology (such as 5G) and full fibre broadband connections. Policies should set out how high quality digital infrastructure, providing access to services from a range of providers, is expected to be delivered and upgraded over time; and should prioritise full fibre connections to existing and new developments (as these connections will, in almost all cases, provide the optimum solution).

Paragraph 114 is clear on the unlawfulness of “bans”:

Local planning authorities should not impose a ban on new electronic communications development in certain areas, impose blanket Article 4 directions over a wide area or a wide range of electronic communications development, or insist on minimum distances between new electronic communications development and existing development.

Article 4 directions are local orders that limit applicants’ use of relaxed “permitted development” rules that create whole classes of planning applications that are considered to be acceptable in principle, even if they can be challenged on some specific grounds. Many communications developments make use of these rules, which are set out in Part 16 of the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO). Councils may only refuse such applications on the grounds of “siting” (it’s in an inappropriate place) or “appearance” (it’s unaesethetic or poorly camouflaged). Applicants have a right to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate if their application is refused on these grounds, so any attempt to use these limited grounds as a de facto moratorium or ban is unlikely to be successful. The government is currently consulting on a proposal to remove even these limited grounds for refusing telcoms applications. If policy is changed accordingly, in most cases telecoms companies will simply notify local councils of their intent to install new kit and then just do it – no permission required at all.

Paragraph 116 of the NPPF states what should be obvious:

Local planning authorities must determine applications on planning grounds only.

and with an eye to previous and anticipated obstruction, continues:

They should not seek to prevent competition between different operators, question the need for an electronic communications system, or set health safeguards different from the International Commission guidelines for public exposure.

Persuading your local council to oppose 5G might have political and publicity value but it has no legal force whatsoever and runs the risk of creating false expectations that planning applications for 5G equipment will be refused wholesale and the networks will not be installed. Aside from refusing individual applications on specific, limited grounds on a case by case basis as happened recently in Brighton and Hove, councils can only engage in public debates and lobby central government where they are opposed to new telecoms developments like 5G.

National planning policy follows the government’s industrial strategy, which declares:

We will build a Britain that lives on the digital frontier, with full-fibre broadband, new 5G networks and smart technologies.

Unless anyone can change the government’s mind on that, or change the government for one that thinks otherwise, 5G will continue to be rolled out whether local councils – and local people – want it or not.