Why Sheffield is fighting back against 'Trojan' phone boxes

The humble phone box could be making a comeback in Sheffield and other cities, following a raft of new applications, but not if the council has its way.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 23 February, 2018, 11:41
A phone box near Sheffield Hallam University's city centre campus

Mobile phones appeared to have consigned the kiosks to history's scrapheap, and most people had grown used to these once-ubiquitous features gradually vanishing from our streets.

But these relics of a bygone era are back in vogue, it appears, with more than 80 applications made last year alone to install new phone boxes in and around Sheffield city centre.

Paramedics attend to a man who is believed to have taken the drug spice inside a phone box at Devonshire Green

The surge in demand is coming not from phone companies, but from advertising firms spying an opportunity to use them as lucrative display boards.

This trend - mirrored in other cities - has seen them dubbed 'Trojan' phone boxes by critics, who claim they threaten to clutter up and blemish high streets.

Planning permission is not required to erect a new phone box, but firms must apply to local authorities for what is known as 'prior approval'.

Councils can refuse to grant this if the appearance or proposed location are considered unacceptable, but the applicant is free to appeal to the Planning Inspectorate, with whom the final decision lies.

Paramedics attend to a man who is believed to have taken the drug spice inside a phone box at Devonshire Green

In Sheffield, a whopping 84 applications for solar-powered telephone kiosks were made last year, all of which were submitted between May and July. There was not a single application in 2016.

The vast majority of last year's applications were rejected by the council, and the Planning Inspectorate has upheld those decisions in many cases but has yet to rule on others.

A council report about one application, for a kiosk outside Sheffield Town Hall, on Pinstone Street, suggested it would impede the flow of pedestrians on what is a busy footpath and its 'utilitarian' design would clash with listed buildings in the conservation area.

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In dismissing an appeal about a cluster of other applications for new phone boxes within the city centre, a planning inspector recently upheld these as grounds for refusal.

Rob Murfin, Sheffield Council's chief planning officer, said: "These are called 'Trojan' phone boxes because companies are using planning acts to get advertising in where we would never normally allow it.

"People don't use phone boxes nowadays to the extent they once did, and where they have been built they are often poorly maintained and end up being vandalised and becoming associated with anti-social behaviour.

"We're working really hard to improve the physical environment in the city centre and make it more welcoming. We think having these kind of structures go up would be counterproductive to that, and we see no reason why we should support these applications."

Peter Sephton, chairman of Sheffield City Centre Residents' Action Group, said: "Phone boxes provide a haven these days for nefarious activities, ranging from passing across drugs to taking them and collapsing on the floor, to the concern of passers-by.

"More phone kiosks simply provide more places for these people to hide. Since the council is instructing Amey to cut down all bushes that can hide rough sleepers and drug users, what is the point of adding more hiding places for drugaholics to partake? And as most folk have mobiles these days, why do we need phone boxes?"

The Local Government Association, which represents councils across England and Wales, revealed how the number of applications for new phone boxes had rocketed by more than 900 per cent in selected areas between 2015 and 2017.

Birmingham, Liverpool and Newcastle councils each received more than 90 applications last year, despite none having received more than 10 two years ago.

The LGA is calling for permitted development rights, which make planning permission unnecessary, to be withdrawn for telephone kiosks.

It says the existing legislation was made for a pre-digital era, before most people had mobile phones, and needs to be changed.

As well as being an 'eyesore' in themselves, it says the kiosks are magnets for anti-social behaviour, fly-posting and graffifi, and that when the phones stop working councils are powerless to remove them.