On the 19th of December a news report from the Tavistock Times noted how the familiar old telephone box at Postbridge was in danger of disappearing. This famous old kiosk is one of 41 in the West Devon area that BT want to take away as presumably they are not making sufficient profit from them. As with most things these days, regardless of whether or not it is a public service if it don’t pay then no way. It is thought that 75% of the UK’s adult population uses a mobile phone of some kind or another which obviously means the usage of and revenue from Public Call Boxes (PCBs) has decline rapidly. However, what about upland areas such as Dartmoor where the mobile phone signal is poor or intermittent? It doesn’t matter if 100% of the adult population uses a mobile phone, if there is not signal then they will be making no phone calls at all. To take this one step further, what if somebody needed to make an emergency call and there is no mobile network coverage and all the PCBs have been removed? Highly unlikely? Imagine this scenario, you have been parked at Postbridge and have gone for a days walk up onto the remoter parts of the north moor. You have misjudged the length of the walk and have to return in the dark, on the way back somebody in your party has a nasty fall and needs urgent medical attention. There is no mobile phone signal and so the only way to summons help it to get back to Postbridge. By the time you get to Postbridge it’s late, dark and everything has closed. The PCB has been kindly removed by BT and you the people in the nearby houses have gone out – now what? It is a fact than on several occasions in the past this particular phone box has been used to summons the emergency services. In a similar light, it’s 1.00am in the morning, you are driving across the moor on a freezing cold night and the car breaks down, again there is no mobile phone signal so how are you going to get assistance? Simple, use the phone box, ah yes, there is one in Postbridge, oh bugger it’s gone!!! On many occasions I have used the kiosk to phone home to say that I am on my way back. It is slightly reassuring for those at home to know that having left at 6.00am on a winters day and returned to the car at 6.00pm one is safe and sound.
Another similarly famous phone box on Dartmoor is the one that stands opposite the Forest Inn at Hexworthy. It was not that long ago if you walked into the inn and asked to use a public pay phone that you were directed to the phone box over the road. The fate of this particular box, despite being listed is also under consultation.
The fact that the iconic phone box at Postbridge is in danger of disappearing is bad enough but what is more alarming is that it is just one of 11 such boxes which are under threat within the boundary of the national park. Several more are just outside its limits in equally such rural settings, the list is as follows:
|Box removal under consultation
|SX 57555 74976
|SX 52073 65532
|SX 66803 90853
|SX 67243 88347
|SX 69080 92506
|SX 65530 72640
|SX 51988 80082
|Non Consultation Box Removals
|SX 54451 66213
|The Croft, South Zeal
|SX 50843 78827
|Leg O Mutton Corner, Yelverton
|SX 51393 77527
|Old Exeter Road, Tavistock
|SX 64748 78881
|Plymouth Road, Horrabridge
Fortunately the West Devon Borough Council have objected to all these PCBs being removed under various grounds that have been set down by OFCOM. Here are the factors that must be considered before any PCB removal can take place and are guidelines for objection to any removal:
A.4 Set out below are some (not exhaustive) important factors which might be assessed when considering a proposal for the complete removal of PCBS and/or CBS from a Site.
Housing type in the area
A.5 A Relevant Public Body may consider whether the area within the same postcode as a PCB is predominately owner-occupied, privately rented or council housing. The more owner-occupied housing in the area the more likely it is that people living in that area would have access to mobile and fixed telephones. If there is predominantly private rented or council housing in the area, this may suggest Guidance on procedures for the removal of Public Call Boxes people on a lower income without access to mobile and fixed telephones and support the view that a PCB should be retained. Number of households in the area.
Number of households in the area
A.6 There may be concerns about alternative access to telephone services for low population densities. A Relevant Public Body may determine the number of households within the same postcode as a PCB. The number of households within 400 metres of a PCB could be seen as the catchment area for that PCB.
A.7 The number of households in the area would not however include any passing traffic or reflect that a PCB might be situated on a main road or busy terminus. Such detail should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
A.8 BT and Kingston may be willing to provide information about the revenue generated by a particular PCB. This should help measure PCB usage and could be an indicator of its value to the community. The lower the annual revenue that a PCB generates, there could be grounds for its removal.
A.9 Consideration may be given by a Relevant Public Body to the other factors listed above before it relies on annual revenue alone to support a decision to consent or object to the complete removal of PCBs and/or CBS from a Site. The annual revenue of a PCB should be assessed on a case-by-case basis.
A.10 Many people place great value on having the option to use a PCB in an ‘emergency’. However, not all calls considered as emergency calls by the public are calls to the emergency services, for example police, fire, ambulance and coastguard services. For example, people often cite calls to roadside breakdown as being emergency calls.
A.11 The importance of retaining a PCB for ‘emergency calls’ should be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The body needs to think about whether a particular PCB is more likely to be used for emergency calls than another. For example if there are alternative means of making calls available locally and/or there is good coverage for mobile phones, this may suggest that there is a reduced need to retain the phone box on emergency grounds. But if, for example, the call box is near a known accident black-spot, it may suggest it should be retained.
Mobile phone coverage
A.12 While three-quarters of adults now personally use a mobile phone, people often cite poor, sporadic or the lack of mobile network coverage at a location as being an important factor for retaining a PCB.
A.13 The main mobile networks, including 3, 02, Orange, T-Mobile and Vodafone allow you to check the network coverage in any given postcode area on their websites. While this might not be conclusive, it should help to assess network coverage within the same postcode as a PCB.
As can be seen from the above, it can and is being argued that most of the Dartmoor phone boxes will fall into one or more of these categories and therefore provide strong cases for remaining insitu. However, at the very last moment BT came up with two options which they presented to the various councils concerned. They could either sponsor a kiosk for £500 a year in which case a connection service would be maintained and the box remain in use or it would be possible to adopt a box for £1. This would mean that all the equipment would be removed thus leaving the actual kiosk structure, this BT considered would be an option where for sentimental reasons people wanted the box to serve as an icon – very generous indeed? I have no idea how the sponsorship scheme works but it would seem a fair option to ‘rent’ the box, in other words pay £500 a year for the service but then keep any profits it makes – a kind of put up or shut up.
This is just another example of the nationwide problem whereby essential rural services such as shops, petrol stations, buses, post offices etc are disappearing because they are unprofitable. I think the big clue is in the words, ‘public service’ and it suggests that the, ‘public at large’ does not all live in towns and cities, some actually live in remoter areas.
Just one final question – where are the views of the Dartmoor National Park Authority in this matter? Afterall the Postbridge kiosk stands about 100 yards from their visitor centre. Maybe they are planning to put a pay phone in the centre and make a bit of money for themselves?