The importance of reliable, robust and consistent communication links enable flexible and agile working practices .
As with many other parts of the draft NPPF, the thrust of the revised section on Communications does not, on the face of it, look dissimilar to the existing 2012 edition. The devil, however, is in the detail and subtle changes give an indication of the importance that the government is attaching to advance and emerging technologies.
Currently the focus of the NPPF is on the ‘vital role’ that high speed broadband and other technologies (3G and the expansion of 4G) have had in enhancing local community facilities and services. The new draft focusses on the delivery of full fibre broadband and the next generations of mobile technology (5G and subsequent upgrades); it elevates these to being ‘essential’ (rather than ‘vital’).
In 2012, ‘Advanced, high quality communications infrastructure’ was considered essential for sustainable economic growth. In 2018 that statement has expanded such that ‘Advanced, high quality and reliable communications infrastructure is essential to economic growth and social wellbeing’. Reliability in the services and networks we rely upon now forms part of the policy environment, and the policy also omits the word ‘sustained’. This recognises the reliance we now have on accessing effective communications to develop our technologies, industries and run our businesses, as well as the importance these have to our home lives and social engagements.
This very much reflects the changing world in which we live. The importance of reliable, robust and consistent communication links enable flexible and agile working practices. They support small businesses and home workers. It also reflects the increasing reliance that society places on access to information and data and that broadband, amongst other things, is seen as being as important as other utility services within the home.
Mobile communications and smart phones are part of everyday life and the frustrations of dropped calls, low speed or no data access is still a daily frustration for many. There are still areas where mobile communications are almost non-existent, or where broadband speeds can barely sustain email, let alone internet access and video streaming etc.
In plan-making, Councils are no longer required to simply ‘support’ the expansion of communications infrastructure or use policies to prevent its delivery but instead they are to provide the direction and support necessary to ensure its delivery. Specifically, full fibre connection should be prioritised to existing developments and incorporated into, and as part of, new schemes.
The requirement to keep radio and telecommunications masts to a minimum is carried forward, as is the requirement to use existing masts, buildings and other structures for new capabilities. New masts should only be brought forward where they: are necessary to meet the needs of consumers and the efficient operation of the network; meet the requirement for sympathetic design; and where the camouflaging of masts/antenna is retained.
Furthermore, the requirement for applications and prior approvals remains unchanged too, as are the criteria and constraints within which Councils can exercise their decision-making functions. In the latter, there is one subtle change in relation to health safeguards and the role that the International Commission safeguards have in Planning going forward - arguably preventing decision-makers making decisions at variance to these.
In summary, whilst the draft NPPF does not substantially change the approach to decision-making, the subtle changes to the overall narrative elevates the importance of supporting advanced, high quality and reliable communications infrastructure to being ‘essential’ to economic growth and wellbeing. Bringing forward, and incorporating in new developments, full fibre broadband; improving the quality and reliability of our infrastructure; and preparing for new technologies will benefit telecommunications operators and suppliers. Councils will be required to plan positively in their local plans and establish policies that support, and will ensure the delivery of, advanced, high quality, reliable communications infrastructure.
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