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Project Gigabit

Astley Parish Council Project Gigabit

Project Gigabit is a £5 billion government infrastructure project to enable and deliver fast, reliable digital connectivity for the UK. The prime objective of the programme is to deliver gigabit broadband to those areas of the country that are commercially unviable for broadband infrastructure suppliers to build to without public funding.

Previous broadband infrastructure procurements were undertaken by Shropshire Council, but Building Digital UK (BDUK) is now responsible for procurements, contracts and supplier management, not Shropshire Council. BDUK is an executive agency, sponsored by the UK government’s Department for Science, Innovation & Technology. 

For the purposes of Project Gigabit, Astley is classified as being in North Shropshire and the necessary infrastructure is being installed by Freedom Fibre Limited who will, where possible, use the existing apparatus although this isn't always possible.  Apparently it is fairly easy to reuse telegraph poles, but the power poles are a different matter and Freedom Fibre will have to install some additional apparatus.

The law states that poles being erected by communications network operators for the expansion of fibre-to-the-premises broadband do not need planning permission under the Electronic Communications Code (Conditions and Restrictions) Regulations 2003 and the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015.  Under the 2003 regulations, broadband street cabinets, new telegraph poles and overhead lines can be installed in any location without the need for prior approval from local planning authorities or consultation with residents under permitted development rights.   This leads to frustrated and concerned residents when they look outside their window one morning to discover a telegraph pole erected at the end of their garden, outside their front gate or very close to their home without knowing anything about it. More significantly they would also be incredibly annoyed to discover there was absolutely nothing they could do about it, because the current legislation makes this situation completely permissible.  The changes to the law that were brought in in 2013 were introduced for only five years, but they have now been extended indefinitely.

The Government has big digital ambitions for the country believing that reliable, fast, digital connectivity is vital for the prosperity of all and made the move in an attempt to try and reduce some of the bureaucracy and difficulties that had hampered roll-out of quality digital infrastructure. In 2018, only 6% of UK premises had access to gigabit-capable broadband. In 2023 that had increased to 74% which the Government feels demonstrates how their actions in amending the legislation have significantly improved broadband coverage.  The aim is for that figure to be above 85% by 2025, with gigabit broadband available nationwide by 2030 and to achieve this the infrastructure deployment needs to continue at pace with the legislative framework supporting the companies who are working to help achieve that target.

The House of Commons was petitioned last year by UK residents wanting the Government to “make statutory requirements for designated communications network operators to apply for permission to the LPA on any proposed installation of telegraph poles and for the LPA to consult with affected residents before issuing any permissions.”  The Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure responded saying much the same as above in justification for the current legislation.  However, he did state that the Electronic Communications Code (Conditions and Restrictions) Regulations 2003 include requirements for operators “to share apparatus where practicable; to use underground, rather than overground, lines where reasonably practicable, with certain exceptions; and when installing apparatus, to minimise the impact on the visual amenity of properties, potential hazards and interference with traffic as far as reasonably practicable.”

Ofcom, as the independent regulator for telecommunications is able to take enforcement action in respect of breaches of the restrictions and conditions contained in regulations if it has reasonable grounds to believe that operators are failing to comply with those requirements when installing equipment. Local planning authorities may inform Ofcom of any situations where they believe operators are not complying with their statutory duties.  However, as the regulations are stacked in favour of the operators, it would be difficult to prove any breaches.

The Cabinet Siting and Pole Siting Code of Practice 2016 was developed by the Government, in collaboration with two major fixed-line operators and other interested parties and provides guidance on ways operators can ensure these installations are placed appropriately, and that local authorities and communities are engaged with regarding the proposals. For example, the code of practice sets out that, where new poles are to be installed, the operator should place a site notice to indicate to nearby residents the intention to install a pole, and the proposed location. However, this is purely a voluntary code of practice and so unfortunately it is not mandatory for operators to follow the guidance.

Part 12 of the Electronic Communications Code includes rights for individuals to object to and seek the removal of certain apparatus in specific situations.  An objector must be the landowner or the owner of land neighbouring the apparatus.

Obviously Project Gigabit is not something that Astley Parish Council, or indeed Shropshire Council, has any control over.  However, the Parish Clerk is trying to arrange for someone at Freedom Fibre to come out and talk to residents about their concerns.  This would not be a parish council meeting but a community meeting.  Hopefully this can be arranged in the near future prior to the installation works.  

Shropshire Council's Historic Environment and Planning Teams have advised that the work being undertaken is "permitted development" even if in a Conservation Area.  The only guidance they can give Freedom Fibre is that any poles should be natural timber left to weather down to a recessive silver colour.

Further information can be found here on Shropshire Council's website.