Tomorrow, the House of Lords will receive the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill. This obscure piece of legislation is expected to return. Its effects however – if passed unamended – will be far from diminutive.
It will allow mobile phone companies to decide how much rent they, as tenants, pay for the properties that mobile phone masts are situated.
It would be an unprecedented reversal of traditional property rights – a cornerstone of western liberal democracy and conservative values – serving to enrich some of the wealthiest and most powerful companies while eviscerating the rights of site providers. True conservatives will find it unacceptable. They instinctively recognize the healthy and symbiotic relationship of property rights and democracy as an assertion against tyranny.
This Bill is important because many parties that will be adversely affected are small community groups such as churches, sports clubs, and social clubs.
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They are the social glue that binds people together. They are usually run and managed by volunteers who volunteer their time. Many of the current rent agreements, which are not large but still provide a financial lifeline for many, were entered into in good faith, but are now open to unilateral manipulations by large corporate entities.
If we don’t pay attention, the PSTI Bill could give telecoms companies unrestricted power to endanger existing agreements and determine the terms of their renewal. My honorable colleague Desmond Swayne made an excellent point when he called it in Parliament the most unconservative bill he’d ever been asked to vote.
Hard-working farmers, community groups and churches were not paid fairly and adequately until recently for hosting telecommunications equipment. Based on market principles, the value of that lease was theirs.
2017 saw changes that distorted these market principles and, consequently, the rights of property owners. It established the principle that site provider or telecom operator must negotiate these leases under law. This is because the site and equipment have no special financial value for the telecoms networks. In other words, as if the mast weren’t there, and the two parties were merely bargaining over an unremarkable parcel of land.
The change was made in order to give operators huge cash to reinvest their infrastructure investments. There is no agreement or transparency as to where the savings might go. Almost all of the UK’s mobile mast infrastructure is owned by companies listed abroad, in Germany, Spain, and Canada. Cryptic accounting makes difficult to determine how much ends up in shareholders’ pockets. The law also fails to acknowledge that the thousands of small property owners across the UK are the true drivers of digital connectivity – they are hosting the equipment that keeps the modern economy moving.
Inflation and annual price increases (cynically calculated by the outdated measure of RPI rather CPI in some cases) will cause internet and telephone bills to soar over the next year, most likely by an astonishing 17%. Operators are looking to make a profit out of conditions that harm the economy and leave consumers in the dust. We must be cautious when considering legislation that may infringe consumer and property rights. These rights are what modern conservatism is capable of offering families across the country: freedom, choice, and individuality. The State can interfere with them at any cost.
This Bill is an example in the areas that I believe the Conservative Party needs to be more pro-community and pro-individual choice and right governing. Conservatism recognizes its roots in communities, which are the building blocks of our values, principles, and beliefs.
This isn’t to say that better connectivity and the roll-out of 5G aren’t vitally important. Contrary to popular belief, Conservative governments have been leading the charge on these issues and must continue to do so. As the Prime Minister has made clear, economic growth and the values that have formed the core of Conservative political identity don’t necessarily go hand in hand. They are in fact aligned – and together could win the Conservatives an election. Tomorrow, the House of Lords will begin this work.
Marco Longhi, Conservative MP for Dudley North