The New Electronic Communications Code
28 June 2017
The new Electronic Communications Code received royal assent on 27 April 2017 as part of the Digital Economy Act 2017. The Code is expected to come into force later this year.
The new Code will have a significant impact on the relationship between landowners/occupiers and ‘operators’ (the licensed providers of electronic communications services) and agreements relating to telecoms apparatus on land or buildings throughout the United Kingdom.
The new Code is intended to clarify the law, give operators clearer rights, greater flexibility in enjoying those rights and is intended to facilitate the sharing of network apparatus.
It is fair to say that the new provisions strongly advantage the operators as opposed to the landowners.
What is the Electronic Communications Code?
The Code regulates the legal relationships between landowners and certain network operators.
It gives rights to the providers of these networks to install and maintain apparatus in, over and under land. These are known as Code rights.
Those Code rights apply to the physical equipment that support the operators network which comes in a variety of forms: fibre optic cables, equipment cabinets, mobile phone antennae and masts, to name only a few.
Why is there a new Code?
Growth in the mobile industry has been dramatic by virtually any measure with enormous investment in network expansion and upgrades in recent years. Demand for data usage and consumer demand for digital technologies continues to grow. The ability of operators to easily upgrade apparatus and infrastructure to reflect changes in technology has been a major factor influencing the reforms. The Government wanted to reform the Code to put in place modern regulation which fully supported the rollout of digital communications infrastructure.
The Code was also in desperate need of reform due to it being outdated, complex and difficult to apply (having also previously been described judicially as…”one of the least coherent and thought-through pieces of legislation on the statute book…”). The real problem for landowners and occupiers has been in recovering possession of land occupied by an operator and in the interface between the Code and the separate form of security of tenure under the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954. The two conflict and simply do not fit together. The Code also lacked clarity around how to assess the level of payments for the grant of rights, enforcing the termination of those rights and a swift and effective route to resolving disputes
Clarifications under the new Code
Interaction with the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954
The new Code provides some much needed clarity regarding the interaction between the Code and the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954. The security of tenure provisions of the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954 will not apply to any agreement between a landowner/occupier and an operator where the primary purpose is to grant Code rights. There is of course room for doubt and dispute as to the “primary purpose” of a lease but in most cases it should be clear cut.
The new Code will therefore remove the “double whammy” of providing operators with the dual protection of security of tenure provisions under both the Code and the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954.
The reforms will mean the operator will only benefit from one form of security of tenure, addressing the consensus that dual protection is unnecessary and addressing the incompatibility between the two regimes.
The new Code requires a greater degree of formality to any arrangements between landowner/occupier and operator. Any agreement must now be in writing and signed by or on behalf of landowner/occupier and operator, and must state its duration and any notice period. Hopefully this will result in fewer “inadvertent” agreements being entered into by landowners/occupiers with long term ramifications and more far-reaching and durable rights than anticipated by the owner or occupier of land.
In certain circumstances the Code requires operators, landowners/occupiers and other parties to provide notice to on another. Those notices must be given in the form prescribed by Ofcom to be valid.
It is now completely clear that an agreement under the new Code will not have to be registered at HM Land Registry, or otherwise, to be binding on third parties. This will be the case even if the agreement is in the form of a lease. So inspection and investigation and enquiry will be essential when dealing with land that has telecoms equipment present on it.
New rights for the operators
An automatic right for operators to assign Code agreements
Any provision in a Code agreement will be void to the extent that it purports to prevent or limit the assignment of the agreement to another operator, or make such an assignment subject to the fulfilment of conditions. The only exception to this is that a Code agreement that is a lease under the Landlord & Tenant (Covenants) Act 1995 can still require that the outgoing operator/tenant provides an authorised guarantee agreement.
An automatic right for operators to upgrade or share apparatus
If the two conditions set out below both can be satisfied, an operator will be able to upgrade apparatus and share its use with another operator, notwithstanding any term of the Code agreement:
(1) the upgrade or sharing of apparatus should have no adverse impact on the appearance of the apparatus; and
(2) the upgrade or sharing of apparatus should not impose any additional burden on the landowner.
The automatic right to share includes the right to carry out works to enable the sharing. How those concepts are to be judged and tested is likely to be quite difficult in practice.
“No scheme valuation”
The new Code will make major changes to the way land is valued. In circumstances where a Code agreement is imposed upon a landowner/occupier valuation of the compensation will be on the basis of market value – adopting the wording and definitions uses in the “Red Book” – RICS valuation standards, modified to include certain assumptions.
It will be valued on a “no scheme” basis based on compulsory purchase principles – rights valued on the basis of their value to the landowner rather than on the basis of the value to the operator and tied to future use as a telecoms site.
This could make a substantial financial difference. Rents will, in effect, be regulated and we expect that this approach will favour operators.
Termination & removal under the new Code
One of the most important and contentious areas under the existing Code is the previsions concerning the removal of apparatus. There are new provisions governing how a Code agreement can be brought to an end and apparatus then removed.
It isn’t a one stop shop. There is a two stage process under which an Order ending the relationship does not give an instant right to possession. There is a separate process to follow for removing apparatus.
Part 1 of this process requires a landowner/occupier to first give notice to the operator citing the grounds on which the Code agreement should come to an end and the end date. At least 18 months’ notice is required. The new Code sets out four grounds upon which the site provider can rely (which closely mirror the grounds under section 30(1) of the Landlord and Tenant Act 1954) and include substantial breaches of the agreement by the operator, persistent delay in paying rent and an intention to redevelop by the landowner.
Upon receipt of the notice the operator then has three months (as opposed to 28 days) to give counter-notice stating that (i) the operator does not want the agreement to come to an end, (ii) that the operator wants the site provider to confer/be bound by the existing Code rights on new terms, or, new Code rights. If no Counter Notice the agreement comes to an end.
Within three months of the date of the counter-notice the operator must apply to the Court for one of a series of orders that can be granted. If the landowner/occupier makes out its ground of opposition then the Court can order the Code agreement is at an end.
Part 2 of the process relates to removal. Having secure the right to require the removal of apparatus a landowner/occupier must then give notice to the operator requiring removal of the apparatus and the making good of the land within a reasonable period of time. Ultimately an occupier/landowner can then make a series of applications to the Court for an order which requires the removal of the apparatus and the restoration of the land or permits the occupier/landowner to remove/sell the apparatus.
In order to ensure more effective and speedier dispute resolution the forum for almost all disputes under the Code will be the Lands Chamber of the Upper Tribunal. There will be a move away from the ordinary Court system to provide swift adjudication for this sort of dispute given the time, expense and delay involved in securing determination through the Courts.
Impact On Existing Agreements
The new Code as a whole will not apply to all existing agreements retrospectively. The reforms will not have retrospective effect, existing Code will continue to apply to existing agreements until the existing Code eventually become obsolete.
The new provisions strongly advantage the operators and intentionally so. They will have a significant impact upon the relationship between landowners/occupiers and operators.
The new Code will be accompanied by a Code of Practice, prescribed forms and standard terms to be used in agreements under the new Code. There will be the inevitable period of uncertainty as the new version of the Code comes into force and settles down into practice. Until the existing Code gradually becomes obsolete different regimes will apply to existing and new Code agreements.