Return of Warley and Brentwood south mobile signal could be months away

A full mobile phone signal that serves thousands of people may not return “for months”,  Brentwood residents have been warned.

Mobile phone operators had known for almost two years that masts on the roof of Ewing House, on Kings Road,  would be taken down in June  –  leading to thousands of Brentwood residents with virtually a non-existent phone signal for customers of Vodafone, O2, EE and Three across Warley and Brentwood South.

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.

Phil Drane, director of planning and economy, added at a meeting last night (Wednesday, October 14) that he understood that the process would take “months rather than days”.

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 admits that criticism is being levelled at the council for the situation but has said the fault lies entirely with the mobile phone operators.

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”.

Discussions are continuing between the council and the operators to find a way forward.

He added that he understands the legal arrangement to install emergency masts could be a lengthy process.

Cllr Drane said: “Whilst I don’t really know what that means I suspect it means months rather than days and clearly, delays beyond days is not acceptable.

“It is an unfortunate situation and clearly we are not very pleased with, so in that sense we continue to make the offers.

“There is no additional action from my point of view to meet with them at that high level again.

“But the way we left it was that officers would liaise with them to have those discussions  and we have been chasing to arrange that.

“We are waiting for them to get back to us when they can provide us  with some ideas of locations so we can have that conservation.”

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.

“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.”

Cllr Drane added that the appeal decision is likely to be at least three months away.

Cllr Mark Haigh, who represents Warley, said: “I am concerned that as far as the mobile phone operators are concerned that there is an element of inertia on their part and that possibly they are putting most of their eggs in the basket of appeal and if the appeal is rejected we are back to square one.

“I would welcome any plan B from them and which can be initiated immediately.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter