Police object to new Google InLink kiosks over drug deal phone calls

Adrian Short · 18 January 2019

London’s Metropolitan Police are objecting to all new planning applications for Google/BT’s InLink kiosks over concerns that their free phone call facility is being used for drug dealing.

In an objection letter to Merton Council for application 18/P4226 (outside 120 Broadway, Wimbledon), a police designing out crime officer wrote:

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) are working hard to reduce offences and decrease the fear of crime associated with the introduction of free call telephone kiosks. The kiosks are known to the MPS to facilitate free calls to offenders with criminal intent on dealing drugs.

A recent investigation by the MPS showed that a significant number of calls made from such phone kiosks, were calling mobile numbers known to be solely used in connection with drugs supply.

Until the crime risk, together with design and safety resolutions in the application of InLink phone kiosks can be achieved, - by all key stakeholders -, the Metropolitan Police Service object to this application and all new installations of free call kiosks being implemented.

There are current trials taking place within the borough of Tower Hamlets, whereby the mobile calling function has been limited to determine if the crime issues ease, these will be reviewed in early 2019.

Until the crime risk, together with design and safety resolutions in the application of InLink phone kiosks can be achieved, - by all key stakeholders -, the Metropolitan Police Service object to this application and all new installations of free call kiosks being implemented. (emphasis mine)

The police then set out the conditions under which they would be prepared to support further planning applications for InLink kiosks:

The following solutions would allow a positive response to the installation of these devices:

A. Activate the built in CCTV cameras in the kiosks so the user is visible on screen when using the device.

B. Remove the facility to make calls to mobile phones.

It’s not clear whether they mean either or both conditions must be satisfied. I assume either.

## Merton’s reasons for refusing planning permission

Merton Council refused planning permission for this application. Merton has yet to make decisions for a further eight kiosks. Previously the council has granted permission for four InLink kiosks.

As the police referred in their objection, calls from InLink kiosks to mobile phones are suspended in Tower Hamlets on the advice of the police and council after police logged 20,000 drug deal-related calls on five kiosks in 15 weeks.

But it’s unlikely that the police’s intervention was decisive in persuading the council to refuse planning permission in this case. The council’s stated reasons for refusal were:

  1. The proposal, by reason of its siting, appearance and design would result in a visually harmful addition to the streetscape in conflict with policies DMD2 of the Sites and Policy Plan 2014.

  2. This written notice indicates that the proposed development would not comply with condition A.4, Class A, Part 1, Schedule 2 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 (as amended by SI 2008 No. 2362 and SI 2013 No. 1101). It is important to note that this written notice doesn’t indicate whether or not the proposed development would comply with any of the other limitations or conditions of Class A, Part 1, Schedule 2.

These reasons reflect the fact that InLink has used the telecoms prior approval process for “permitted development” to make its planning application rather than a standard application for full planning permission. This privileged form of application gives an easier route for a registered telecommunications operator (in this case, InLink’s partner BT) to automatically have planning permission approved in principle, subject to the council being satisfied that the “siting and appearance” of the telecoms equipment is acceptable. Conventionally, the council isn’t empowered to refuse planning applications for phone kiosks generally if it considers that there are too many already, or to make a policy to that effect.

And also under this type of application, the council is conventionally not empowered to consider matters relating to crime or antisocial behaviour or to refuse an application on those grounds. Any applicant is entitled to appeal against refusal of planning permission to the Planning Inspectorate, who would almost certainly overturn any decision to refuse on crime-related grounds in a case such as this, no matter how well-founded they might be.

Refusing telecoms permitted development applications in principle

If councils want to be able to consider crime and other matters besides siting and appearance in their decisions, they can follow the examples of Westminster and Sutton, who are refusing telecoms prior approval applications for new phone kiosks entirely, saying that applicants must apply for full planning permission instead.

Here’s part of a refusal notice from Westminster for an InLink kiosk telecoms prior approval application on Oxford Street (18/08710/TELCOM):

[4] The application for prior approval does not fall within the ambit of Part 16 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, as it is not considered to be for the purpose of the electronic operator’s communication network and it is not required for those purposes.

The planning officer’s report goes into more detail why they consider that the telecoms prior approval permitted development route is not applicable:

Between 1994 and 1999 the City Council dealt with nearly 2,000 applications for prior approval for the installation of new telephone kiosks, including traditional K6 types; the latter were mainly in conservation areas. Most of these were submitted by BT or New World Payphones. Not all of these approvals were implemented but many hundreds were installed. With the rise of the mobile phone these telephone kiosks are now largely unused. Many are in very poor condition and attract anti-social activity. The City Council considers that most of these telephone kiosks are redundant and should be removed by their owners from the streets of Westminster.

BT own the majority of telephone kiosks in Westminster. Many of these are not used for making telephone calls. They are often in a poor condition, suffering from anti-social behaviour and vandalism. The City Council has been in high level talks with BT over recent years, requesting BT to remove their redundant kiosks from Westminster, especially in Soho where there are particular problems with anti- social behaviour. Unfortunately these negotiations have not been fruitful.

The City Council does not consider that existing kiosks should be regarded as an opportunity for other commercial uses, including advertising. They were installed in the streets for the purpose of telecommunications only, in accordance with the permitted development provisions of the provisions of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order. Now that the original function is largely, if not wholly, unnecessary, they should be removed, in accordance with the conditions which form part of the permitted development provision.

The City Council considers that the primary purpose of these structures is for advertising. The telecommunications apparatus is secondary. It is highly likely that it will not be used by the public who are much more likely to use their mobile phone than stand at one of the structures. The City Council regards the proposed structures as freestanding advertising / telecommunications structures.

While “need” is not referred to as an issue in respect of whether prior approval is required or granted, it is inherent in the scope and conditions of Part 16 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 that the kiosks must be required in order for them to benefit from permitted development rights.

A. The rights are granted specifically for “Development by or on behalf of an electronic communications code operator for the purpose of the operator’s electronic communications network.

B. A condition of such rights is that the development is removed when it is no longer required for such purposes.

Taken together it is plain that in order to fall within the ambit of the permitted development rights under Part 16, it is a pre -requisite that the kiosks are needed for the purposes of the network.

Westminster has refused permission for over 120 InLink kiosks using this rationale, with Sutton doing likewise for four. Both councils have also taken a “belt and braces” approach and refused on siting and appearance grounds too. If appealed, this still provides a reasonable prospect of the council’s decision to refuse being upheld, even if the planning inspector rejects the council’s argument that the permitted development process is inapplicable.

Permitted development rights for phone kiosks will probably end soon

Councils that are vexed by large numbers of permitted development applications for InLink kiosks and similar should be reassured that central government is aware of their concerns. MHCLG (for England only) is consulting on changing the rules to specifically exclude phone kiosks from permitted development, so any future applications would have to be made for full planning permission. The Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Local Government Association are supporting the proposal, as am I.

In response to the consultation, the RTPI wrote:

[T]he [permitted development] system is being abused and call boxes can add unnecessary clutter to streets which may have a detrimental impact on accessibility.

RIBA argued:

There is less need for public phoneboxes than when the policy was introduced due to changing habits as a result of the widespread availability of mobile phones. Local authorities have made it clear that this policy is now being exploited as a means of advertising revenue, especially in high value areas, with Camden Council reporting that it had received planning applications for 170 new phone boxes through the past two years.

While public phone boxes still have a place in the built environment for those less likely to use a mobile phone, it is right that the introduction of new telephone kiosks should require a full planning application.

The Local Government Association responded:

We are pleased that the government has listened to councils’ concerns relating to the proliferation of telephone kiosks in our town and city centres, which has been impacting upon councils’ local economic growth ambitions and the pedestrian experience of their residents and visitors. The proposals will ensure that future applications for public call boxes can be considered through a full planning application process, so that all material planning considerations can be taken into account when deciding to grant or refuse planning permission.

The LGA would also like to see changes to the current legislation to:

  1. Remove any compensation liability payable by the local planning authority where they subsequently refuse an application for planning permission, or grant permission subject to conditions, for the development which previously benefitted from permitted development rights.

  2. Empower councils to require the removal of kiosks where they are likely to impede public works including those necessary for regeneration, or where they are causing nuisance or antisocial behaviour issues.

  3. Empower councils to require the removal of kiosks if they are persistently not in working order or have consistent low levels of use. This would require code operators to provide clear, transparent data to local authorities on the number of calls made from each kiosk.

It seems likely that the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) will be amended in due course. Councils will then be able to refuse phone kiosk applications on any material planning concern including crime and antisocial behaviour. In the meantime, InLink and similar operators are trying to rush as many applications as possible through the system before the rules change. Councils who don’t want them have nothing to lose by rejecting telecoms permitted development applications in principle as well as on siting and appearance grounds.

My website kiosks.adrianshort.org tracks planning applications for InLink kiosks across the UK as well as the results of appeals and related media stories. It’s updated automatically every day.