LONDON: Telephone boxes are rarely used to make calls and are alleged to be vehicles for smuggling advertising on to high streets, following increases in new applications as high as 900%, councils say.

The Local Government Association, which represents 370 councils across England and Wales, is lobbying for the central government to change planning laws that give companies the right to install telephone boxes without planning permission.

Such legislation, the LGA says, is out of date, having been designed for a “pre-digital” era prior to the rise of the mobile phone. As a result, ‘excessive numbers’ have appeared on streets, often serving as just another billboard.

A sample of 12 council authorities by the LGO found a combined rise in applications of 927% between 2015 and 2017. An illustrative example is Newcastle, which in 2015 received just one application. In 2017, Newcastle had 96 applications.

Under the existing legislation, companies need only apply to OfCom, the country’s communications regulator, when they want to install a telephone box. Though councils can contest their installation based on design and appearance, an appeal from the company will leave the final decision up to the planning inspectorate.

“While there is still a limited need for some telephone boxes in our town centres and cities, for example for emergencies, the number of applications councils have seen is simply staggering”, said Cllr Martin Tett, the LGA’s Planning spokesman.

“The rise of the smartphone and digital age has seen the telephone box become a largely obsolete relic of a bygone era”, he added. “Companies are exploiting a loophole in the law to allow what is tantamount to Trojan telephone boxes being used as advertising spaces rather than the original purpose of providing a place for people to use a phone.

“As a result pedestrians are being bombarded with a series of eyesores that blight the public highway.

In October last year, OOH media owner Primesight noted the attraction of phone boxes, as it announced a new contract with BT. The reach is impressive; the company’s figures say that with 19,000 boxes, advertisers can reach 90.3% of the UK population. Figures on WARC also demonstrate that OOH makes other media work harder.

Sourced from the LGA, Primesight; additional content by WARC staff