ENVIRONMENTAL and outdoor charities have hit out at plans by phone firms to put “unnecessary” masts in remote, uninhabited areas of Scotland in pursuit of an arbitrary coverage target.
A coalition of groups including the John Muir Trust conservation charity, climbers’ and walkers’ groups Mountaineering Scotland and Ramblers Scotland, and the Knoydart Foundation, fears hundreds of masts could be put up in sensitive areas where there is no need for them.
The Shared Rural Network project (SRN) – a collaboration between the UK Government and phone giants EE, O2, Three and Vodafone – involves spending £500 million to achieve 95 per cent mobile phone coverage across Britain, to beat some of the not-spots where phone signal dies.
Around 300 masts have been suggested across the Highlands, but it has brought complaints from communities across the region.
In Knoydart, home of the UK’s most remote mainland community and only accessible on foot or by boat, at least three masts are proposed. 104 local people – 86% of the population – have signed a declaration condemning the proposals.
Locals say only one of the potential sites – close to the village of Inverie – would bring benefits, and all others being considered are in remote uninhabited glens where masts are not needed.
Other suggested Highland sites include the upper part of Glen Nevis, near Fort William, which can only be reached on foot and is known for its wild and magnificent scenery, and a nature reserve on the isle of Mull.
The coalition believes the focus of the scheme is on geography rather than population, and makes little sense in Scotland’s uninhabited and road-free mountain and upland landscapes.
Concerns include the impact of masts on the scenery, and the possibility that new roads and tracks will be constructed through wild land to enable mast construction and maintenance.
“It has unleashed a flood of applications for unnecessary mobile masts with the sole intention of filling in dots on a map,” says Mike Daniels, policy director of the John Muir Trust.
“We are completely behind the need for improving telecoms connectivity, which is vital for rural communities. However, contractors rushing to complete this scheme are bulldozing ahead without proper community consultation or respect for the fragile nature of precious wild places.
“Communities up and down the country are contacting us for help, saying that many of these masts are neither needed nor wanted. This seems a reckless and wasteful approach to achieving a vital outcome.”
The Knoydart Foundation community group owns much of the Knoydart peninsula. A new mobile mast there already provides coverage by the EE network across most of it.
Finlay Greig, foundation ranger, went with a mast survey team to potential sites in March this year. He said: “What was instantly striking was the scale of the project and the sites being discussed for potential masts. It was difficult to see any possible benefit for the community.”
Davie Black, access and conservation officer for Mountaineering Scotland, said: “This should focus on communities and businesses rather than map coordinates.
“We are greatly concerned that hundreds of unnecessary masts could be installed in sensitive mountain areas, along with tracks and other infrastructure, with the sole objective of meeting a pointless and purely geographical target.”
Mountain rescue calls go through the 999 service, and these calls are picked up through the existing Emergency Services Network (ESN) of masts managed by the Home Office.
The coalition is calling on the operators to consult with rural communities before siting masts; avoid new access tracks if possible; avoid the most sensitive wild places; and share masts rather than putting up more than one mast on sites.
The coalition also includes the North-East Mountain Trust, the Munro Society, the Scottish Wild Land Group, and community land ownership organisation Community Land Scotland.