BT urged to 'refurbish phone box' as digital hub plans rejected

Planning applications seeking permission to install large advertising screens which provide Wi-Fi and calls have been thrown out.

BT urged to ‘refurbish phone box’ by Edinburgh Council as digital hub plans rejected LDRS

Edinburgh councillors have squashed another attempt by BT to replace a derelict phone box with a digital ‘hub’.

A slew of planning applications seeking permission to install large advertising screens which provide Wi-Fi and calls throughout the city have been thrown out by the council over the past two years.

The latest bid to overturn a previous refusal by planners came on Wednesday August 30 as councillors were presented with proposals for a ‘Street Hub’ on the corner of Leith Walk and Brunswick Street.

A report raised concerns over the visual impact of the three-metre high units, which were said to be an “unacceptable and unnecessary intrusion into the streetscape which would result in advertisement clutter”.

In appeal documents submitted to the council, applicant British Telecoms (BT) pointed out that it is required by Ofcom to “provide telephony services throughout the UK” .

It added: “The old telephone network will be retired by 2025, moving to a fully digital Internet protocol. As such, public call boxes will need to be upgraded with new equipment to ensure they still work.”

The telecoms giant hoped to replace 50 payphones with 26 double-sided screens which also offer users access to council services, maps and directions, however so far only one has been approved outside the Commonwealth Pool. Other local authorities including Glasgow and Aberdeen have been more welcoming of the plans and have allowed the roll-out to go ahead.

Following calls for Edinburgh’s dilapidated phone kiosks to be taken away – regardless of the planning decisions on Street Hubs – BT removed two from Hunter Square and three from Hanover Street earlier this year.

Council planning officer Gina Bellhouse told councillors this week there was “no planning permission required to remove the redundant phone boxes”.

She added: “In the papers from the appellant they have referred to the fact they have to provide telephone equipment, full coverage to meet their obligations through their own statutory regulations.”

Councillor Chas Booth, Greens, said he had not heard or seen anything which “puts forward an exceptional case”.

He said: “If they want to de-clutter they are very welcome to do that and they do not need consent to do that.”

Lib Dem Alan Beal said although the proposed hub would be sited on a wide pavement it was “much bigger, wider and taller” than the existing phone box.

He added: “It would be quite a big device that would attract a lot of people if it works well, which I just don’t think would be appropriate in that particular location.”

Cllr Jo Mowat, Conservatives, said BT’s obligations to provide phone coverage “conflicts directly with our guidance on outdoor advertising”.

She said: “I’m not sure how we marry those two things unless the guidance is changed.

“If they wish to provide a universal service, which is the first time we’ve seen that information in one of these applications, they could refurbish the current phone box and do it that way.

“I think we’re between a rock and a hard place – I don’t see under our current guidance how we can permit these.”

The decision to refuse the application was unanimously upheld by the committee.

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