New rules have been unveiled to boost broadband and mobile connectivity across Scotland while protecting wildlife, heritage and the environment.

Planning Guidance on Digital Communications aims to safeguard populations and natural assets, at the same time encouraging investment in infrastructure such as phone masts and street cabinets.

Officials believe the planning system has a big role to play in filling connectivity gaps and removing barriers to digital access by easing delivery of services and technology improvements.

The long list of challenges faced by phone operators in this includes terrain affecting radio transmission, protecting nature and history, serving high-demand urban areas, dealing with landowners, and accessing sites and power connections. They must also navigate natural obstructions that weaken signals and obey radiation rules.

“Modern telecommunications and digital connectivity have a central role in unlocking the potential of our places across all of Scotland.. [allowing] people to be connected for business and social purposes at work, home or remotely, with greater demands on fixed and wireless communications,” according to the guidance, published on 20 December.

Site location

The guide urges operators to ‘future-proof’ digital infrastructure, focusing on areas with no or low connectivity and where there are benefits to communities, local economies and in reducing travel. They should:

  • Share information with planners on other infrastructure in the local area.
  • Minimise landscape, visual and amenity impacts, where possible using existing buildings, structures, sites and masts and taking into account heritage assets and landscape, safeguarded sites or environmental designations.
  • Observe biodiversity principles to safeguard nature and nature recovery.
  • Engage with planners, site owners and communities in pre-application discussions.
  • Observe local development plans (LDPs) and the National Planning Framework for Scotland (NPF4).
  • Demonstrate measures to minimise impacts, producing plans, design statements and visualisations and, where relevant, a declaration under ICNIRP, the international radiation body, and..
  • Remove redundant apparatus.

We often find there is a lack of co-operation and co-ordination between mobile operators who propose new sites in close proximity to each other without properly investigating the opportunities to share sites.  The 2017 Electronic Communications Code has granted the mobile operators significant powers to impose sites on landowners that it is often easier for them to progress a new site than share with each other.

Operators are reminded not to obstruct airports and aviation, technical sites, or transmitter/receiver facilities, observing minimum antenna heights. They must also provide protection against the adverse effects of non-ionising radiation.

The guidance further urges operators to:

  • Share sites with others where practicable, as required by the Electronic Communications Code, minimising the number of sites required
  • Instal the smallest suitable equipment.
  • Consider, for example, a slimline pole with antennas packed in a shroud for a new mast on a public road, instead of the usual lattice design with exposed antennas.
  • Use ‘small-cell technologies’ such as microcells and picocells to improve capacity in urban areas or in using 5G technology.
  • Hide or disguise equipment, unless existing equipment brings a slimmer design requiring less support equipment.
  • Conceal antennas in flagpoles, telegraph poles or behind louvres in church towers.

Sometimes a new mast is the only practical option – to avoid unsightly clutter, a big height increase or radio interference, or where an existing mast is poorly sited or too short for good coverage or cannot cope with extra equipment.

Mitigation hierarchy

Ways to lessen the impact of a new, ground-based mast include placing it near similar structures or adjacent trees, using a slimline, light-permeable lattice mast or colouring the structure to suit the sky or backdrop.

Cabinets housing support equipment should be located close to antennas, coloured to blend in and where appropriate, screened with landscaping or planting. The specification and colour for any compound fencing should be appropriate for the local environment, as should any security measures.

Operators should reduce the impact of access tracks for building and maintenance by ensuring they fit with field and vegetation boundaries and contours, address drainage issues, redress cuttings and banks with any vegetation stripped along the route. They should avoid harm to historic environment assets and use appropriate materials and greening of tracks.

There’s also a ‘mitigation hierarchy’, avoiding or minimising soil disturbance, avoiding deep peat, and using bog matting, low-pressure vehicles, floating tracks and cut batters to abate disturbance, while ensuring verges are quickly re-vegetated.

Impact minimisation

Operators should bear in mind the height, scale and style of equipment installed, especially where it may affect historic environment assets. Consents in addition to planning permission and permitted development rights may also be needed, such as listed building consent.

Equipment installed on buildings or structures should be retain proportion, respect architectural style, minimise impact on roofline, important views and skylines, avoid clutter, use clean lines, maintain symmetry and be coloured to correspond with the background or reduce contrast.

Demand is growing for infrastructure in urban areas due to increased call and data volumes and to facilitate the rollout of the 5G radio network, requiring significantly taller apparatus with greater visual and radio frequency impact. Here, operators are encouraged to site equipment in industrial areas and business parks, on commercial buildings, at traffic junctions, near main roads and on pylons and telephone exchanges.

In residential areas, operators should locate new equipment away from areas where the exclusion zones for radio frequencies impact residential properties and this is becoming more difficult as exclusion zones are larger for the 5G rollout..

Boosting mobile

A historic focus on population centres has left large areas and dispersed communities with little in the way of mobile coverage, while some large underpopulated areas host visitors and people travelling through on road or rail.

Both the Scottish and UK governments aim to boost mobile broadband in these areas through the Shared Rural Network (SRN), to link computing devices embedded in everyday objects to the web. This will serve agriculture, tourism and emergency services, help monitor protected species and air quality, and enable drones. Inevitably, some projects are controversial and the overall geographical coverage targets don’t require the mobile operators to cover the full extent of any specific area but just a proportion of the overall UK landmass.  Therefore, even with new SRN sites deployed there are often large areas with no coverage so people in these areas won’t be able to rely on receiving mobile reception and will still need to deploy alternative measures for connectivity.

Scotland’s often rugged and mountainous topography, lack of fibre infrastructure and masts can make line of sight between antennae difficult to achieve, while achieving a power connection can be complex and costly. This is heralding the use of taller masts and sites powered by renewable power such as solar panels or wind turbines potentially reducing the number of sites required in some sensitive landscapes.  However, these sites can have a significant environmental and visual impacts on the natural beauty of these areas which is often what attracts visitors to these areas.

Providing power to a remote location by installing new overhead and underground powerlines will usually impact the landscape, sometimes more than the mast sites themselves.  In forested areas powerlines require trees to be cleared and will sterilise wide corridors from forestry crops at a time where Scotland is looking to increase the percentage of tree cover across the country to help mitigate the effects of climate change. The effects of overhead or underground cabling should be understood and mitigated if possible.

Any generator used to power a mast should be sited where it can be refuelled from a road or track and connected by cable to the base station. However, this won’t always be possible and some proposed SRN are so remote they are only accessible by helicopter.  Solar arrays can also be used, usually with a long-life battery and back-up generator. Renewable solar reduces carbon footprint and can negate landscape impact as it will need neither power lines nor underground trenching but this requires the mast sites to take up a larger land area potentially causing greater visual amenity impacts.

Potential impacts on historic assets and places need to be balanced against the benefits that increased coverage brings. Any detrimental effects should be minimised, if possible, but some proposed sites just aren’t suitable and shouldn’t be granted planning consent.  Having been involved in over 150 potential new sites for the SRN alone Galbraith have a wealth of experience in advising landowners on mobile phone mast site locations and design.