Planning Market Insight Report interview with Cornerstone Community and Planning Manager, Sean McHenry

Planning Market Insight Report interview with Cornerstone Community and Planning Manager, Sean McHenry

Monday, 20 December 2021

We're delighted to be featured as one of the lead articles in this quarters Planning Market Insight Report for December 2021. It has been sent to everyone who uses the UK government's Planning Portal digital tool for submitting planning applications and covers every single UK development type from housing to renewables to commercial to telecoms. 

It's brilliant to have this opportunity to share with a huge audience the amount of work and investment that is taking place to deliver 5G for the benefit of society and our economy. We are pleased to give you the opportunity to read the full interview below.

Ten months on from our last look at Telecoms data, we have revisited the topic to see how the market is progressing. We spoke to Sean McHenry, National Planning and Community Manager at Cornerstone. Cornerstone is the leading UK mobile infrastructure services company providing passive infrastructure to support the UK’s leading wireless operators and enabling the digital lifestyles of the connected population.

We have noticed that submissions throughout 2021 are tracking very closely to the figures we have seen in 2020, is this due to the continued upgrade to the 5G networks?

While 4G networks continue to be upgraded, it is certainly the rollout of 5G that is the main reason behind the increase in both prior approval and full planning applications. At the same time, upgrades to existing 4G networks also continue. Major cities across the UK have seen a vast amount of new and upgraded streetworks sites for new 5G provision. New sites require applications and, while there are useful PD rights for the replacement of ground based sites, many of the upgrade works an application due to width and height parameters related to the replacement of infrastructure. For example, in England we can replace a ground based mast up to 33% wider than existing as permitted development, but anything above this will require a full planning application. Many of the new structures required for 5G went of the 33% width parameter, necessitating application submissions to the LPA.

Due to these permitted development width parameters and the increased volume of equipment needed for 5G delivery, especially on sites shared by more than one operator (something that has been advocated for in planning policy and guidance), there has also been an increased necessity to submit full planning applications for the upgrade of greenfield sites too.

As we have moved further through 2021, the focus has switched to upgrading existing rooftop and non-streetworks ground-based sites, to facilitate 5G provision. Changes in legislation interpretation relating to rooftop deployment, following a High Court Judgement in 2018, has necessitated an increase in applications for prior approval.

Due to the closure of many LPA offices over the course of the pandemic as employees moved to home working, there continues to be an increased volume of applications being submitted via the Planning Portal as opposed to paper submissions.

Looking towards the future now, what would be your predictions for 2022 and beyond? Are there any particular regions within England and Wales that are likely to see greater activity due to a focused approach to the upgrade?

The rollout of the 5G network is set to continue and is likely to ‘ramp up’ in 2022. This will mean a high volume of infrastructure proposals will be submitted via the planning process with many applications being required.

A revision to Part 16 of the English GPDO is due to be adopted in early 2022, which will impact both the type and number of new applications. Based on the amendments that the UK Government has consulted on, it is likely that many proposals that currently need full planning may move to prior approval, and many proposals currently requiring prior approval may move into straight permitted development. This is seen as a really positive change, aligning the process with other parts of the UK and promoting the rollout of 5G, which will bring with it significant socio-economic benefits for the UK at a local, regional and national level, especially with IoT applications and post-pandemic recovery.

Following on from the previously mentioned Government consultation, the width and rooftop restrictions may be reduced, removing the necessity for many of the applications we are currently seeing as proposals move into straight permitted development. While the volume of infrastructure deployment and 5G service provision is due to increase, the number of applications may reduce across England – something that will be welcomed by the telecoms industry as it will facilitate faster rollout of new technology and also likely to be welcomed by LPAs as it may relieve pressure on resources, negating the need for the assessment and determination of relatively minor proposals.

It is likely that 2022 will continue to focus on deployment within the major UK cities before we begin to deploy in smaller cities and large towns. In terms of rural deployment, 2022 will see a volume of applications go in as part of the ‘Shared Rural Network’. The Shared Rural Network is £1 billion deal between UK Government and the 4 UK Mobile Network Operators, that will make poor and patchy rural phone coverage a thing of the past. The ambition is to make sure everyone can benefit from fast services on the go - from those running small businesses to people shopping or booking travel online to speaking to friends and family. It will spur economic growth and close the digital divide across the country through better connectivity.

This project will deliver much-needed 4G superfast mobile broadband connectivity to the most rural and remote communities across the UK. The majority are expected to be applications for prior approval, but a number will require full planning applications.

We understand the importance of community engagement, especially when it comes to proposing new plans in local areas and gathering support from local bodies. Can you explain a little more about what Cornerstone’s approach is?

Our approach to local community engagement is outlined in the ‘Code of Best Practice’, although each UK nation has their own version of this document and it can be titled differently. These codes of practice provide templates and guidance on siting and design as well as commitments for community consultation. In practice, engagement is usually seen in the form of letters and drawings being sent to representatives such as LPAs, Ward Councillors, Assembly Members, MPs, Community Groups and Resident Associations, Parish Councils and Schools.

It is accepted industry-wide that this engagement process is most productive when working with community representatives as opposed to individuals, and occurring pre-application. The process usually involves outlining the intention to deploy mobile infrastructure and offers further engagement with a date we request comments by.

The UK Governments are due to publish a new ‘Code of Practice’ document in parallel with the new Part 16 GPDO revisions which may amend some of these community engagement principles. Cornerstone have worked closely with the UK Governments and other stakeholders on this document. In March of this year, and also following significant engagement with Cornerstone, Welsh Government published their new Code of Best Practice Document. Scotland are due to publish their new Planning Advice Note (PAN62) early in 2022 to guide community engagement. We are hopeful that Northern Ireland will agree a review of their Development Control Advice Note (DCAN 14) as part of an upcoming ‘Mobile Action Plan’ and this may also see revisions to community engagement principals there.

Alongside working with local communities, we also strive to work closely and in collaboration with LPAs. Given the high volumes of 5G and SRN deployment, we look to engage LPAs and LA Economic Development Departments in ‘pre-rollout’ meetings so they can understand upcoming deployment plans, siting and design rational alongside what they can expect from us in terms of planning applications and permitted development notifications.

Sean McHenry, BSc (Hons) MRTPI, National Planning and Community Manager at Cornerstone