MHCLG phoneboxes permitted development consultation response

Adrian Short · 14 January 2019

This is my response to MHCLG’s consultation on the proposal to remove planning permitted development rights for public call boxes and for deemed consent for single-sided advertisements on public call boxes.

Question 1.21: Do you agree that the permitted development right for public call boxes (telephone kiosks) should be removed?

Yes.

I campaign against the installation of BT InLinkUK kiosks across the UK, many of which have sought, and some of which have been granted, planning permission through telecoms prior approval/permitted development applications. I track the progress of many of these applications and appeals against refusal on my website. I am aware of and broadly opposed to similar kiosks from other operators such as New World Payphones and Euro Payphone (Pulse).

These operators are using the current permitted development rights to perform a literal landgrab of pavement space for devices and purposes that are far outside that originally envisaged for simple public telephony. Ofcom’s universal service obligation for public call boxes was last updated in 2005, two years before the iPhone, the first real smartphone in the modern sense, was launched. While the GPDO was last revised much more recently in 2015, it has nonetheless not kept up to date with developments in technology, business and social custom.

The current generation of digital kiosks that are using permitted development rights incorporate a range of features and technologies that are radically different from traditional phone boxes. Yet as long as they retain the ability to make telephone calls they are permitted in principle. This “feature creep” creates a range of new opportunities for street kiosks, but also a range of new concerns regarding them including issues around privacy and surveillance, as well as more traditional planning matters, which require careful local consideration rather than automatic permission in principle.

Permitted development rights for kiosks are undermining councils’ efforts to declutter pavements both physically and visually, to make them safe, accessible and pleasant for people on foot. While the current regulation permits councils to refuse permission on siting and appearance grounds in each individual case, it does not permit them to take into account the cumulative impact of fleets of kiosks from multiple operators or even from a single operator. Councils should not be effectively forced to play whack-a-mole with applications using telecoms prior approval applications when they really want to refuse such applications in principle.

Westminster City Council writes:

Over the last two years Westminster council has already rejected 170 applications for new telephone kiosks which the authority believes serve little purpose beyond creating advertising space in high profile locations like Oxford Street, Victoria Street, Edgware Road and Baker Street.  If all of the applications had been approved there would be one phone box every 15 metres along Edgware Road.

Thus, new business models for these kiosks have transformed them from “phones with adverts” to “adverts (and many other things) with phones”. For example, InLink kiosks permit free phone calls and therefore principally rely on their advertising screens to generate revenue. This has led to unintended consequences such as the situation in Tower Hamlets, where BT disabled all calls from InLink kiosks to mobile phones on the advice of the police and council after 20,000 drug deals were arranged on just five InLink kiosks in 15 weeks.

The fans required to cool the computer equipment and screens inside modern digital kiosks also have the potential to create a significant noise nuisance, especially during hot weather where the fan speeds are automatically increased to compensate. This is a material planning consideration that cannot currently be taken into account in decisions due to permitted development rights that limit local control to siting and appearance matters. There is no scope within the current regulation for a council to require a noise impact assessment and management plan to be submitted with a telecoms prior approval application.

New generation kiosks typically include a range of surveillance features or surveillance potential that requires councils to consider privacy as an amenity matter in a similar way to how overlooking has traditionally been viewed. For example, InLink kiosks incorporate three cameras facing onto the street, a feature that is unprecedented in the traditional phone box. The kiosks’ high-speed network connection creates the possibility that they could be used for a range of realtime or recorded CCTV applications such as remote monitoring, automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), facial recognition (as is currently being trialled by police forces in London and Cardiff) and similar applications. The wifi services in such kiosks can also be used as a surveillance system to monitor people’s mobile phones in passing even if they are not connected to that operator’s network. Transport for London trialled a system of this kind on the Tube in London in 2016, allowing them to reconstruct 42 million detailed journeys by over 5.6 million people during the course of a single month. InLink has said that they are interested in using their kiosks to track pedestrian and vehicle movement. While such applications may have benefits, depending on their implementation they also have significant potential drawbacks. Local councils should be empowered to decide what forms of street-based surveillance are acceptable in principle and in each individual case. Removing permitted development rights would enable that.

Removing permitted development rights for public call boxes will enable councils to make policies for this kind of digital/physical infrastructure in their local plans which reflects the local context and priorities and which has the potential to be more flexible than one-size-fits-all national regulation. For example, local council responses to the InLink system range from those that are enthusiastic to those that are bitterly opposed, with some gradations in between. While the merits, and indeed the necessity, of such systems can be debated, what is not in debate is that there is no broad consensus at local, regional or national level that they are necessary or desirable. It is undeniable that the new generation of digital kiosks are substantially a different kind of thing to the traditional phone box. While they retain a phone feature, their multiplicity of features brings new and often complex concerns along with every potential benefit.

This situation demands that national government does what it is proposing to do: leave these decisions in local hands, enabling councils to consider the full range of material considerations in their determinations. Public space belongs to the public, not to telecoms, technology and advertising companies. Local people, through their elected representative councils, are best placed to decide how their public space is best used and what amenities and technologies should be permitted there for the public benefit.

Yes.

There is no national strategic requirement for street advertising of any kind. Therefore, the acceptability in principle and practice of any advertising, including that which this consultation proposes to remove deemed consent for, should be a matter for the local planning authority.

As the current provision specifically excludes illuminated advertisements, it is unlikely to have any significant impact on the new generation of internet-connected kiosks with illuminated digital advertising screens. However, there is scope within the current deemed consent provision for operators to install non-illuminated digital e-ink screens. Removing deemed consent here would allow local planning authorities to control such advertising according to their local contexts and priorities.