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What Is a ‘Mast’? Telecommunications Industry Suffers Court Setback

Very occasionally, issues of great commercial or social importance can hinge on the correct legal definition of a single word. That was certainly so in one case in which the meaning put upon the word ‘mast’ by the Court of Appeal had a major impact both on the telecommunications industry and the UK’s streets.

The case concerned nine antennae which had been installed on the roof of a block of flats bordering a conservation area. They were secured to poles just under three metres in height. At the behest of a telecommunications company, the local authority certified that the installation was permitted development, thus not requiring planning permission.

A judge, however, overturned that decision after a local resident mounted a judicial review challenge. In ruling on the company’s appeal against that decision, the Court noted that the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 confers permitted development rights on small, building-based, antennae and cell systems.

However, masts installed on buildings that are less than 15 metres in height and within 20 metres of a highway are excluded from such rights. Both those height and distance criteria applied to the relevant apparatus and the outcome of the appeal therefore depended entirely on whether the supporting poles could properly be described as masts.

The company argued that the word ‘mast’ denotes a tall, self-supporting structure that supports antennae at a height where they can satisfactorily send and receive radio waves and is capable of providing 360-degree coverage from a single position.

Rejecting the appeal, however, the Court drew upon the Oxford English Dictionary in finding that, in a telecommunications context, a mast means any upright pole or lattice-work structure whose function is to support an aerial or antenna. The poles in question thus did not have to be ground-based or of any particular height, scale or design in order to qualify as masts. The local authority having erred in law, it was directed to reconsider its decision in the light of the Court’s ruling.

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