Agricultural Solicitors Suffolk – Phone mast leases: all change?

‘I was recently contacted by a farming client who was concerned about a letter he had received from an agent acting on behalf of a substantial telecommunications company.  My client has a lease with the company who have operated a mobile phone mast from a small part of my client’s farm for almost ten years, and paying a rent of several thousand pounds per annum.

The letter my client received suggested that the lease held by the company would be terminated unless he agreed to reduce the rent paid by the company and also permitted the phone mast site to be shared with other telecom operators.  By way of explanation, my client was advised that in recent years the market for phone mast operators had changed significantly with sites commonly being shared between companies due to network consolidation.  This was all very well, but the lease my client had granted did not permit the company to make the wholesale changes it was now proposing.  I therefore advised my client to resist the pressure being put on him and told him to refuse to accept the suggested variations to the terms of the lease given that there were no valid grounds for the company to terminate its agreement.

It does seem that the scenario mentioned above is now becoming fairly common and landowners must check the terms of their lease very carefully when faced with a similar situation.   It is true that a number of telecom leases permit the mast operator to invoke a “break clause” where a site becomes unsuitable for its intended purpose or where an appropriate “environmental reason exists.”  However, a site is not unsuitable simply because the mast operator does not require it and a valid “environmental issue” would need a change in the actual environment such as the construction of a development or the growth of some large trees to block out a site.

If a mast operator does have genuine grounds to terminate a lease then regard should be had to the provisions applicable on termination.  In most cases, the operator will be required to reinstate the land to its former condition but the lease may not permit the use of vehicles or machinery on the land.  This may give the landowner some assistance when negotiating with the telecom company and it will pay to look at one’s lease carefully as there are many different versions in existence, depending on the size of the compound or mast and the operator concerned, by way of example.

In summary, landowners who have received a request to agree a variation to an existing phone mast lease are well advised to seek professional advice on whether such a variation is permitted under the lease.’

Andrew Nicholson is an agricultural law solicitor at Barker Gotelee, solicitors in Ipswich

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