An invasion of “Trojan horse” phone boxes is threatening to blight Preston’s main shopping streets.
The city council is embroiled in a battle to halt eight state-of-the-art kiosks planned for Fishergate, Church Street and Market Street.
Seven of the solar-powered hubs are earmarked for the city centre’s shared space scheme, which won a national award for decluttering after the removal of street furniture like signposts and traffic lights.
But, as in other towns and cities around the UK, there is deep suspicion the real purpose of the booths is to plant lucrative advertising in prime locations.
Preston has joined a long list of councils fighting the spread of the payphone stands.
And even though the Government has now changed the rules to make it more difficult for companies to erect them in urban hotspots, the city council is still being taken all the way to an appeal by a London-based phone company - owned by the world’s largest outdoor advertising corporation.
Infocus Public Networks Ltd, part of the huge multi-national JCDecaux group, submitted the eight Preston applications on May 15, 2019 - just 10 days before the Government stepped in and removed the “permitted development” status from phone boxes.
On July 15 the applications were all refused by the planning committee and just over a month later IPN lodged appeals in each case.
Now, despite the change in planning rules, the appeals will have to go before the Planning Inspectorate because the case was already ongoing when the rules changed.
A Town Hall spokesman explained: “Although the permitted development rights were amended in May 2019, the applications for prior approval of the phone kiosks were submitted before the date when the regulations were changed.
“As such the determination of the appeals submitted in relation to the phone kiosks will be based on whether the kiosks would have been acceptable on the date on which they were submitted.”
So, as similar cases in the past have resulted in some appeals being upheld, there is still a risk Preston will get the phone boxes it doesn’t want, or need.
IPN has clashed with numerous local authorities over its legal right to site kiosks in city and town centres without the need for full planning permission.
Under the old system, as a registered electronic communications network provider, it had the right to erect them on a public highway under the term “permitted development.”
The only way a council could stop them was to rule they were “detrimental to visual amenity” because of their size, appearance or where they were being placed.
The battle was joined last year by the Local Government Association which released figures showing applications for so-called Trojan boxes had increased more than ninefold in two years.
And eventually the LGA persuaded the Government that they should no longer be permitted development and must in future go through the full planning process.
IPN wants to install one phone box on the pavement outside Preston Railway Station and five more at intervals along Fishergate. A seventh is earmarked for Church Street where it joins Fishergate and the final one is planned for Market Street, outside the new Market Hall.
All eight were declined by the city’s planning committee because of their appearance and the fact that they would bring new obstacles to shared space areas which had previously been decluttered.
The committee ruled that “the siting and appearance of the proposed communications hubs would have an unacceptable adverse impact on the public realm improvements carried out within the city centre and would reduce the width of usable footway available to pedestrian traffic.”
It said the proposed phone booths were therefore contrary to the Preston’s Local Plan, its City Centre Plan and the National Planning Policy Framework.
Undaunted by the knock-back, IPN lodged an appeal and the matter is now going before a Government inspector who will decide if, under the law as it stood seven months ago, Preston has the right to determine what is allowed on the pavements of its city centre.
A decision is not expected for several weeks, possibly as late as April.
Like Preston, other councils around the UK have questioned the motives of a company wanting to erect new phone boxes when, because of the increase in mobile use, they are widely regarded as the “obsolete relics of a bygone age.”
That suspicion has not been helped by the nature of the parent company’s business and the background of the IPN executive who submitted the firm’s applications for permitted development in Preston and other cities.
Nathan Still, shown as the applicant on behalf of Infocus Public Networks Ltd, is also a director of JCDecaux, which claims to be the world’s leading provider of billboard advertising, street furniture and transport advertising.
On his LinkedIn profile, Mr Still describes himself as “an experienced commerical development manager with a demonstrated history of working in the marketing and advertising industry.”
At JCDevaux he mentions the acquisition of an independent outdoor telecomms advertising company and says that, prior to working with that firm, he worked in a partnership with BT in delivering the “deployment of more than 800 new bespoke advertising assets nationwide.” He also lists being a former regional head of the firm’s street furniture department.
A small survey of just 12 council areas last year by the LGA showed applications to install new phone boxes had risen from 89 in 2015 to 914 in 2017, a rise of more than 900 per cent. And those figures are believed to be mirrored across the UK.
At the time Coun Martin Tett, the LGA’s planning spokesman, said: “The rise of the smartphone and digital age has seen the telephone box become a largely obsolete relic of a bygone era.
“While there is still a limited need for some telephone boxes in our town centres and cities, for example for emergencies, the number of applications councils have seen is simply staggering.
“Companies are exploiting a loophole in the law to allow what is tantamount to Trojan telephone boxes being used as advertising spaces, rather than the original purpose of providing a place for people to use a phone.
“As a result pedestrians are being bombarded with a series of eyesores that blight the public highway.
“Councils are currently powerless to act, so we want the Government to overturn the existing out-of-date legislation and give local authorities the ability to take action where this is an issue.”
The Post has attempted to contact Infocus Public Networks Ltd for a comment, but surprisingly the firm has no published phone number or email address. It is registered at 991 Great West Road, Brentford, London - the same HQ as JC Decaux.
Despite approaching the parent company, we have not received a response.
TROJAN HORSE PHONE BOX BATTLE
Councils around the UK have been complaining for two years that phone boxes were being used as Trojan horses to sell adverts in prime spots.
Even though the rise in mobile phone use has seen traditional red kiosks disappearing from high streets, applications for new digital “communications hubs” have been soaring.
In January 2018 the Local Government Association called on the Government to scrap permitted development status, which allowed telephone providers to install boxes without planning permission.
A snap survey of 12 of the 370 councils represented by the LGA showed there had been 914 applications for phone hubs in 2017, compared with just 89 in 2015.
The crux of the LGA case was that pedestrians were being “bombarded with a series of eyesores which blight the public highway.”
The Government agreed with the LGA and withdrew permitted development from phone boxes on May 25, 2019.
WHAT DO THEY DO?
The payphone kiosks are solar powered and have a 32-inch HD touch screen with a hands-free phone facility and internet access to council services. They also have an emergency button.
The design is suitable for use by blind or partially-sighted pedestrians and wheelchair users.
The kiosks are waterproof, dust resistant, rust resistant, do not fade in the sun and can operate in temperatures of 45C down to minus 15C. The screen is designed to be visible outdoors in direct sunlight.
The manufacturers say the hubs are made “mainly” from sustainable and recyclable materials.
The kiosks measure 2.63 metres high, 1.338 metres wide and 917cms deep.
THE PRESTON APPLICATIONS
IPN wants to site one of its Smart City Communication Hubs on the pavement outside Preston’s busy railway station, at right angles to rather than parallel with the road.
Five others are planned for Fishergate, outside Nos 44, 84, 104-107, 108-110 and 125-128. Further up a box is earmarked for outside 1-4 Church Street and the eighth is outside the Market Hall in Market Street.
They were all refused by Preston Council in July, mostly because “the siting and appearance would have an unacceptable adverse impact on the public relam improvements (shared space) carried out with the city centre and would reduce the width of the usable footway available to pedestrian traffic.”
Lancashire County Council’s highways department offered no objection, although it said the kiosks should be installed side-on to oncoming pedestrian traffic, not facing it.