The rise and rise of mobile phones has changed the dynamics of the relationship between agricultural landlords and telecoms operators, and left farmers and landowners in a much weaker position, writes Tom Bodley Scott MRICS FAAV of Batcheller Monkhouse.

New legislation in response to the political and market imperatives around increasing the number of telecoms mast sites to deliver higher quality data, faster, across the whole of the country, has strengthened the operators’ hands to an enormous extent.

Where a farmer or landowner might once have been happy to be paid between £5,000 and £7,000pa in rent for a rural mast site, renewals are now typically being offered at just £1,000 or, at best, £1,500 – a drop of around 80%.

Meanwhile the operators are demanding more, offering less and making life more difficult for the landlord, backed up by changes to the Electronic Communications Code (the Code).

Strengthened hand for the telecom operators

Further legislation in the form of the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Act 2022 (PSTIA) came into force on 6 December 2022, with many of its provisions being introduced in stages.

The Act makes several changes to the Code which strengthen the operators’ position yet further. Alongside a lower rent, it gives operators greater rights to access the landlord’s property and upgrade and share their equipment, which can mean larger equipment and antennae and increasingly frequent and disruptive visits. What was once a benign tenant providing a reasonable income can quickly become disruptive and difficult to control.

Given the changes, landlords with an existing agreement should not be in a hurry to suggest a renegotiation, as the existing lease will almost certainly have been agreed on far better terms than a new one could hope to achieve.

Those who are approached by the operator regarding a new letting should make sure they take professional advice from an experienced agent who will seek to agree terms that protect property rights and minimise the burden on the landlord’s own operations.

How do I get rid of a mast on my property?

There has been a significant increase in the number of landlords seeking advice on how to remove or relocate radio masts, often because the changing nature of the business has seen farmers bringing forward plans to redevelop part of their land or diversify in a way that isn’t compatible with hosting the hardware.

Landlords understandably want to protect their ability to control the use of their land, including the potential to develop it, and will want to be confident that they are able to secure vacant possession.

The problem is that, under the Code, there are very few ways in which a landlord can require an operator to remove their equipment. The landlord needs to prove that they intend to redevelop all or part of the land, or any neighbouring land, and could not do so unless the equipment is moved.

Redevelopment break clause is essential

Assuming there are no substantial breaches by the operator, a lease can only be terminated by the landlord if it includes a redevelopment break clause, which means it is crucial for the landlord to evaluate their future development intentions before agreeing any renewal. Farmers and landowners should seek advice from a telecoms specialist to ensure a suitable redevelopment break is included in the agreement.

Operators will often argue that as there are no existing plans to redevelop, no break clause should be included in the lease, which would effectively give the telecoms operator a 10-year term and leave the landlord no way of removing the apparatus from their property.

The removal process itself can be a complex and prolonged process, as it requires a two-stage process that may last two years and may involve the operator seeking to relocate the mast to another part of the property, a right they are often able to exercise.

The current complex legislation favours the operator in their drive to site or relocate a mast on land. The need to seek expert help is accepted, with the operator generally agreeing to pay legal and agents’ fees.