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Farming

Link subsidies to infrastructure call

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Recommendations will develop digital infrastructure: Russell George AM

THE WELSH G​OVERNMENT should consider ensuring future public subsidies to landowners such as farmers are conditional on them allowing mobile phone masts on their land, according to a National Assembly Committee.

A new report from the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee calls on the Welsh Government to consider innovative ways to connect the last ​4%​ of Wales without broadband access, and to consider reforming the planning regime to improve mobile phone coverage across the country.

Other recommendations from the report include:​

  • The Welsh Government should consider establishing a repayable grant or equity scheme to allow small operators to fill broadband gaps
  • The hardest to reach ​4%​ of communities and individuals living without broadband connectivity should be engaged in the process so that solutions are tailored to their needs
  • The Welsh Government should reform the planning regime to allow the installation of telecoms masts that cover a wider geographical range
  • OFCOM needs to use all its regulatory powers to meet its target of 100​% mobile coverage and, as a minimum, this should be a condition of future auctions of the right to transmit

Committee Chair Russell George AM said: “Connectivity is no longer a ​’nice-to-have​’ in our daily lives; for many people and businesses we spoke to during our inquiry, it’s now considered an essential service – like electricity.

“Wales’ landscape and population spread poses challenges in a world where market forces determine broadband and mobile phone coverage.

“While the Welsh Government’s Superfast Cymru broadband scheme, delivered with BT – has connected high numbers of people, there remain pockets it has not be able to reach, and this is echoed with mobile phone coverage.

“Our recommendations will help Wales to develop a digital infrastructure which is as fast and as reliable as other parts of the UK, and is fit for the future.”

“Mobile phone operators must step forward with a business proposal in order to ensure they meet their universal coverage obligation,” said Charles Trotman, the CLA’s Rural Business and Economy Advisor in response to the Committee’s report.

Responding to the Committee’s message that the siting of mobile phone masts should be condition for land subsidy, Mr Trotman said​:​ “Operators are responsible for developing their infrastructure strategy including where masts and other facilities are located. Their strategy will logically be driven by their commercial priorities. The Government has the option of driving development in less economic locations to meet its own commitments to supporting the rural community.”

“We welcome the conclusions of the report which refers to mobile coverage as an essential service,” Mr Trotman continued. “Delivering coverage to the rural community is essential for landowners who run a diversity of businesses, vital to the local economy, employing a high proportion of rural people in Wales.”

“A structure exists which enables mobile phone operators to work with landowners to meet their obligation to ensure Wales is connected. It is crucial that the telecoms industry take action.

“Government has a role to play in ensuring service-providers meet their obligations and to ensure that the Welsh community receives a fair deal in terms of quality of service and in sharing the value of providing the necessary infrastructure.”

He added: “Government also has a role to play in developing planning regulations to facilitate and accelerate the process to install the infrastructure.”

Meanwhile, farmers and landowners in Wales who are approached about accommodating new Emergency Services Network (ESN) masts on their land are being urged to take advice from their agent before making any commitment.

The Home Office is planning to set up and install a number of telecommunications sites in Wales to support the transition of the ESN from the current Airwave system to the new 4G system being provided by mobile operator EE.

“This involves the deployment of large steel lattice masts or monopole structures in an enclosed compound,” explained land agent Kathryn Williams at Davis Meade Property Consultants.

“The apparatus is likely to be between 15m and 20m in height, to be confirmed by site survey, and the enclosed ground based compound will be roughly 10m x 10m.

Telecoms infrastructure service provider Clarke Telecom is negotiating heads of terms on behalf of the Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government on behalf of the Crown (the Tenant).

“We are encouraging landowners that are approached about the installation of an ESN mast to take professional advice in relation to the Heads of Terms negotiations, particularly as agents fees are covered by the Secretary of State up to an agreed cap,” Kathryn explained.

“There are many clauses that are site specific, such as connecting the electricity supply and the installation of access tracks and roads, and these need to be carefully considered,” she added.

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Farming

FUW criticise Assembly Committee

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Committee naive: Gavin Williams, FUW

ACCORDING to the FUW, a National Assembly for Wales committee has been misled into making a draconian recommendation that would play into the hands of multi-billion pound telecommunication companies.

The union has also suggested that the committee may have been naive in not identifying the true motives of those advocating such moves.

The National Assembly for Wales’ Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee published a report entitled Digital Infrastructure in Wales, which included a recommendation that ‘The Welsh Government should consider making future public subsidy conditional on supporting government policy to improve digital infrastructure, and to ensure that it meets the needs of consumers in the future, in particular any likely convergence between broadband and mobile internet connectivity.’

Responding to the report in a letter to Committee Chair Russell George AM, Gavin Williams, chairman of the FUW’s Land Use and Parliamentary Committee, said: “The Farmers’ Union of Wales has long been a proponent of increasing both broadband and mobile phone coverage in Wales, and has worked closely with Ofcom and others for more than a decade to highlight the needs of Wales’ communities in terms of both.”

Mr Williams goes on to highlight the fact that the union is unaware of any instances where farmers have refused to enter into a fair agreement with commercial companies responsible for digital infrastructure – but is aware of many cases where agreement has been reached between farmers and communication companies but planning permission has been refused, and of instances where companies have behaved in unacceptable and unprofessional ways in order to try and install communication infrastructure on private land.

“There may well be a handful of cases where landowners have been uncooperative, but we would suggest that members of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee have been misled if they believe this is so widespread that it warrants a draconian recommendation to Government, said Mr Williams.

“Rather, we would suggest that the underlying motive for those who have suggested such a barrier exists at any scale is the wish to boost company profits by seeking changes which would allow farmers and landowners to be bullied into signing contracts which do not represent the commercial nature of work and installations.”

Mr Williams concludes his letter by saying, “We share the Committee’s frustrations regarding barriers to broadband and mobile coverage, but find it wholly unacceptable that a National Assembly for Wales committee has been led to believe – some would say naively – that it would be desirable to see multi-billion pound commercial companies boosting their profits by forcing family farms to accept one-sided agreements that in no way reflect the commercial nature of mobile and broadband infrastructure.”

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Farming

Lynx trial decision near

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Eurasian lynx: Could be introduced next year

THE NATIONAL SHEEP ASSOCIATION (NSA) is concerned to hear rumours that Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove may be prepared to fast-track a decision on lynx release.

It is calling on representative farming bodies and individuals to unite and take action to voice unanimous concerns over the proposals.

NSA is aware the Lynx UK Trust is continuing its campaign work while the application is considered, and feels it is essential Mr Gove appreciates the substantial and widespread concerns rural communities have around the proposed lynx release.

Lynx became extinct in the UK around 1,300 year ago.

The medium-sized cats can grow to around 1.3m, are apex predators in their environments, and hunt by ambush in forest habitats.

Phil Stocker, NSA Chief Executive, said: “I know Mr Gove is interested in these proposals and I am certain now is the time for individual farmers, land managers and their representative organisations to make their feelings heard. I would go as far as urging every farmer who has views over this to write to the Secretary of State so he can appreciate the strength of stakeholder concerns, which go way beyond the losses that will be suffered by sheep farmers.”

A verdict on whether lynx should be released in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, is still pending after Lynx UK Trust submitted a formal application to Natural England earlier this year. The Government advisory body is currently reviewing information, and is expected to announce a decision in the coming months.

The Trust has also asked landowners in Wales if they would be happy to allow lynx to roam their properties and its chief scientific advisor, Dr Paul O’Donoghue, claims that five Welsh landowners have expressed an interest in lynx being placed on their land.
Dr O’Donoghue said in Europe, the kill rate was 0.4 sheep per lynx per year.

Mr Stocker continued: “The risks to landscape and wildlife, heavily invested in for years, are real. Alongside disease and welfare risks, coupled with concerns around whether any lynx population could be genetically sustainable on our heavily populated island. This of course in addition to the resultant losses and stress on farmers.

“It is not a simple matter of a compensation package putting everything right. We know from sheep farmers in Finland, Norway and elsewhere that losses go way beyond those predicted. I simply cannot accept that the conscious release of a high-level predator is compatible with the high level of animal welfare expected of British farmers.”

The Lynx UK Trust has announced an agreement with Lloyds Syndicate ARK Speciality Programs, which they say will insure the entire sheep population against lynx attacks throughout the period of a trial – if it goes ahead.

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Farming

Brexit trade agreement attacked by US

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WTO members: Object to EU and UK deal

AN ADVANCE in the Brexit negotiations between the European Union and the UK Government has been rejected by the US Government and other major agricultural exporters.

EU negotiators had reached a tentative agreement with the UK to establish a single approach to dividing up their relationship with other members of the World Trade Organization post-Brexit.

At the moment, the UK is a joint member of the WTO with the other 27 EU members.

The British economy accounts for about 16 percent of the EU economy but its share of EU imports from other WTO countries at preferential tariffs varies according to products.

As the UK quits the EU in 2019, it will need to separate out its share of the EU’s overall quotas for farm goods that can be imported from countries such as New Zealand and Australia.

According to Reuters, neither the remaining EU states nor Britain want to have to accept greater quantities of low- or zero-duty farm imports from the rest of the world to avoid increasing competition for their own producers. But determining where such goods currently end up being consumed inside the EU customs union is problematic.

In an interview with Bloomberg News, International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said: “We have come to an agreement on the methodology of splitting EU quotas as we move forward,”

The Cabinet Minister described the agreement as ‘a step in the right direction’, but not a final agreement.

However, the agreement reached on quotas has been rejected by seven members of the WTO, including the USA.

Those signing a joint letter objecting to the agreement are US, Canada, New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Thailand.

The letter from the objectors states they were not consulted and the deal would disrupt “the delicate balance of concessions and entitlements that is fundamental to the global trade architecture today.”

It continues: “We are aware of media reports suggesting the possibility of a bilateral agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union 27 countries about splitting Tariff Relief Quotas based on historical averages,

“We would like to record that such an outcome would not be consistent with the principle of leaving other WTO members no worse off, nor fully honour the existing TRQ access commitments.

“Thus, we cannot accept such an agreement.”

A spokesperson for the UK Government promised to coordinate with the complainants: “The UK wants to ensure a smooth transition which minimizes the disruption to our trading relationships with other WTO members and tariff rate quotas are one of the issues that we are discussing with the EU, and with WTO members.”

But New Zealand’s Deputy Trade Secretary tweeted: “Sorry that key partners assume a deal they strike between them will suit the rest of the world.”

And the US Government said: “Ensuring that US exporters of food and agricultural products have the market access in Europe due to them even after Brexit is a high priority for the administration.”

In a response to Brexit, exporters to the EU will want to redress what they regard as an imbalance in quotas by seeking larger export quotas for their own goods. That move could spell disaster for UK farmers, as goods could be dumped on to the UK market, potentially pushing already pressed British farmers out of business.

The British-EU proposal is expected to be debated during the WTO’s week of agricultural talks later this month and at the WTO ministerial conference in Buenos Aires in December.

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