Clause 61 - Rent under tenancies conferring code rights: England and Wales

Part of Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:00 pm ar 17 Mawrth 2022.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), Minister of State 2:00, 17 Mawrth 2022

I thank the hon. Members for Ogmore and for Cardiff West for their contributions and for the amendment. I acknowledge that this is a tricky issue. There have been problems between both parties since the 2017 reforms, but we maintain that the 2017 valuation provisions created the right balance between the public need for digital communications and landowner rights. I think there is agreement that the prices being paid for rights to install communications apparatus before that date were simply too high. With digital communications becoming an increasingly critical part of our daily lives, that needed to be addressed.

The new pricing regime is more closely aligned to those for utilities such as water, electricity and gas. We think that that is the correct position. As I said earlier today, we are not seeking to take sides. We are on the side of good digital connectivity for our constituents, and we firmly believe that landowners should still receive fair payments that, among other things, take into account any alternative uses that the land may have and any losses or damages that may be incurred. I was alive to the concerns expressed to me by the Protect and Connect campaign, but also to those raised by individual Members about tricky constituency cases. When I came into my role in September, I met individual Members to discuss those cases. I also met Protect and Connect.

I tested the cases that were brought to my attention and asked for further details, which often were not forthcoming. There was a catch-all excuse that a lot of them were under non-disclosure agreements and the precise amount of rents settled at could not be disclosed. My broad view is that there were initial concerns and difficult cases where the mobile network operators were too aggressive in their negotiations—I think that was effectively acknowledged in the panel discussions earlier in the week—but we seem to have found an equilibrium now, helped partly by some of the cases that have gone through the courts.

We now have a body of case law that can be referred to in some of these tricky negotiations. We are also trying to deter people from going to the courts in the first place, by introducing more alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. I say that to reassure Members. There were problems initially. As far as I can tell from my case load, the correspondence coming in, the discussions that I have had with Members and the lack of additional noise on the subject in the Chamber, a better equilibrium has now been found between the mobile network operators and the landowners. If that is not the case, I am happy to look at those cases again, and we are introducing mechanisms to provide better negotiations between parties via the legislation.

Turning to the amendment, I am not sure why the hon. Member for Ogmore thinks that a specific limit should be imposed on the percentage by which rent can be reduced when the rental payment is determined by a court. Further, it is unclear why he has chosen arbitrarily to apply a figure of 40%. We have strongly resisted specifically regulating the amount of rent payable under a code agreement. Our preference has been to allow the parties to freely negotiate the amount payable under an agreement, based on a statutory framework either in the code, the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954 or the Business Tenancies (Northern Ireland) Order 1996. Even where the parties cannot reach an agreement and the court has to impose its terms, including the rent to be paid, the court has the freedom to reach its own conclusions using that framework, rather than having its discretion restricted by statutory rent controls. As I said, my understanding is that we now have a much better equilibrium, in that we have amounts of rent that both parties are much more content with.

I understand the concerns about whether this has stymied roll-out. If operators cannot get their infrastructure on to land, I imagine that they would start paying more to try to incentivise landowners to take it on. I think we have also seen cases where it has been in the landowner’s interests to try to drag the process out so that they are on the old rents, rather than the reduced, new rents. I think that has also contributed to some of the delays.

If the amount of rent is controlled in the way suggested in this amendment, we will be heading closer to a regime that will apply reductions on a blanket basis, rather than take into account the broader range of relevant circumstances, as permitted by the legal framework. I suspect that that is something that both site providers and operators would be keen to avoid.

I am aware that it has been alleged that the Government expected rents to fall by in the region of 40% following the 2017 reforms. It is unclear whether it is on that basis that the hon. Member for Ogmore chose the statutory cap of 40% in his amendment. At the time of the 2017 reforms, which I confess predate me, the fact is that the Government were unsure what the level of rent reductions would be. We were clear that that was the case. Independent analysis contained in the impact assessment that accompanied those reforms predicted that reductions could be 40%, but that was never a Government prediction nor a target.