TIME TO FIGHT BACK AGAINST ‘INVOLUNTARY DIVERSIFICATION’
Published 29 April 2023
Agriculture has been through a real rollercoaster ride in recent years, with soaring input costs (fertiliser prices have eased just slightly, but are still in the stratosphere at £600 a tonne), and prices paid for wheat falling from over £300 a tonne to around £200 a tonne today, writes Simon Evans.
Couple this with continuing uncertainty about what ELMS is actually going to look like – the only sure thing is that it won’t be as generous as the Basic Payment Scheme it replaces – and it’s hardly surprising that many are looking to diversify their operations away from food production.
But one recent development is leading to a type of ‘involuntary diversification’ for many farmers, and one which is returning less than commercial returns.
The introduction of the Electronics Communications Code (ETC) in 2017, coupled with the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Act (PSTIA) of 2022, has taken away the ability of farmers to negotiate fair and commercial rent for land given over to communications infrastructure such as mobile phone masts – and even removed their right to decide whether they want such structures on their land in the first place.
Prior to the introduction of the ETC, telecommunications companies had to negotiate market rents if they wanted to place their (entirely commercial) structures on someone else’s land. If the land they wanted to use was particularly productive or vital for the farmer, they could simply say no. But that fundamental right to decide what happens on their own land has now been taken away.
The ETC and the PSTIA effectively give telecoms companies near carte blanche to put up new masts where and when they want to, and to dictate new rental terms when existing (pre-ETC) agreements come up for review.
The rents the telecoms giants pay are now far below the commercial value of the site and there is little the farmer can do about this, save for challenging such offers in courts and tribunals.
The government would argue that mobile phone networks are now just as important a part of the national infrastructure as roads, power lines and water schemes. But why should farmers be subsidising the huge profits of the telecoms giants and sacrificing areas of the farm in order to line the pockets of their shareholders?
With many legacy agreements coming up for review, telecoms firms will be attempting to impose new operator friendly heads of terms on existing masts, as well as building new ones across the countryside. The good news is that farmers can fight their corner where these heads of terms are manifestly unfair – although the process is complicated and difficult to undertake without expert advice and guidance. That might entail an initial cost, but if the result is receiving more favourable terms with a rather more commercial rent for land sacrificed, then it will be money well spent.
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