Westminster City Council has today claimed victory in a landmark legal case which could spell the end for unwanted new phone boxes across the UK.
A High Court judge has found in favour of the council in a judicial review – ruling that new phone boxes being installed across the city would be used as advertising and therefore require planning permission.
Until now, historic planning rules have treated phone boxes as ‘permitted development’ meaning planning permission has not been required and limiting a council’s grounds for refusing an application.
Westminster City Council took the case to court after telecoms companies submitted applications for 300 new phone boxes in two years, which the authority believes serve little purpose beyond creating advertising space in high profile locations like Oxford Street, Victoria Street, Edgware Road and Baker Street. If all of the applications had been approved there would be one phone box every 15 metres along Edgware Road.
Westminster City Council Cabinet member for place shaping and planning Cllr Richard Beddoe said:
“Today is a red letter day. This ruling gives council’s across the country back control of their pavements. Most people would struggle to think when they last used a payphone. For twenty years they have been obsolete, and just end up as anti-social behaviour magnets or x-rated display boards for private escort services and drug dealers.
“The last thing phone boxes are now used for is phoning people. Instead, advertisers see them as high visibility advert hoardings. Whilst we’ve had some success refusing and removing unwanted phone boxes it has been an expensive and lengthy process, telecoms companies can see the opportunity to make a quick buck and the applications have poured in. Hopefully this ruling will make telecoms companies reconsider installing advertising hoardings on our streets.”
This decision has far reaching consequences for companies looking to install phone boxes for advertising purposes, not only in Westminster but across London and nationally. It throws into question recent approvals for thousands of phone boxes across the country and means where structures, panels and other equipment are sought to be erected for the purposes of advertising displays, then such development cannot “piggy back” on an application for prior approval for a telecommunications kiosk.
Few people still use public telephones and the council believes that the boxes offer very little benefit to the public, particularly as many of the proposed telephone boxes offer no wi-fi or internet connectivity.
Westminster already has more than 1,000 phone boxes and last year the council conducted a survey of the existing phone boxes around Oxford Street and Marble Arch, finding many neglected, out of service and/or disused. Many suffer from vandalism and anti-social behaviour.
The authority has previously called for Government and Ofcom help to change rules and enable the council to require the removal of underused or redundant boxes and greater powers to resist new ones.
In response, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) recently published proposals to remove the planning rules – known as ‘permitted development rights’. The move, currently being consulted on, will hand councils greater control to refuse planning permission for new phone boxes.