No date for return of lost Brentwood mobile signal

Mobile phone operators had known for almost two years that masts would be taken down, leading to thousands of Brentwood residents with virtually non-existent phone signal.

Brentwood Council has sought to deflect its share of responsibility for the lack of mobile phone signal after masts that provided coverage for Vodafone, O2, EE and Three were taken down in June from the roof of Ewing House.

That has meant potentially thousands of customers living across Warley and Brentwood South have been left with poor or no signal at all.

The council has said that to date no firm information has been received from any of the network groups regarding the timing of any installation of emergency equipment to restore network capacity.

Until recently, the four national mobile network operators – Vodafone, O2, EE and Three, and in turn the smaller providers that also use their networks – all used Ewing House in Kings Road as a base station to provide 2G, 3G and 4G network coverage for a large area around Warley – people living as far away as Hartswood Road have reported a drop off in signal.

As part of the redevelopment of that building, all operators were served a Notice to Quit by the owner, requiring the removal of all equipment by the end of June 2020, on or before October 2018, after Brentwood Council’s initial decision to refuse permission to develop the roof was overturned at appeal.

In June, when the masts were removed, an emergency mast had been put up near Brentwood Station, but did not provide sufficient coverage.

Brentwood Council has admitted criticism is being levelled at the council for the situation. Applications for replacement masts were all refused by the council after “it was not possible to reach agreement and support the proposals even considering the benefits such networks bring”.

Applications were made by Vodafone and O2 in 2019 for a mast in Pastoral Way and another at the corner of Crown Street and Coptfold Road, but both were refused by Brentwood Council in February on the grounds it would be detrimental to the character of the area and the amenity of nearby residents.

This decision has been appealed.

Officers and representatives of Mobile Broadband Network Ltd/MBNL (for EE and Three) have met to discuss the issues regarding a replacement mast on the roof of Masefield Court, owned by Brentwood Council and which refused the application in July. The council says it is hoped that a satisfactory alternative proposal can be agreed.

The council has said that irrespective of time pressures or the level of confidence or expectation the network operators may have had about the acceptability of their proposals, it is also not clear why the mobile network operators did not programme the installation of the emergency equipment in good time for the end of the June 2020 switch-off deadline as a safety net to avoid a degraded service.

Provision of the emergency equipment should have avoided the break in service.

Labour group leader Councillor Gareth Barrett said: “This situation is absurd. Since the development at Ewing House was approved at appeal, which once again showed how lax Brentwood’s planning rules are, this risk was known.

“That notice that this situation would appear was given in late 2018 and yet nothing has practically been done is ridiculous.

“With the increase in home working and then isolation being experienced by so many town centre residents, the ability to talk to others is absolutely essential. It is up to those responsible to get their finger out and finally sort it.”

A statement to the planning committee, which is due to discuss the situation next week, said: “Officers and representatives of Mobile Broadband Network Ltd/MBNL (EE and Three) have met to discuss the issues and it’s hoped that a satisfactory alternative proposal can be agreed. Cornerstone (Vodafone and O2) has appealed the refusals on their applications to the Planning Inspectorate.

“The outcome of the appeal is unlikely to be known for some time but will either result in the equipment being able to be carried out as applied for or require the companies to develop new proposals to address the lack of network service in the area.

“To date no firm information has been received from either network group regarding the timing of any installation of emergency equipment to restore network capacity.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter