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Highland Council slams BT for forcing a consultation on the removal of payphones on the local authority during the Covid pandemic

By Scott Maclennan

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The payphone in Smithton was earmarked for removal.
The payphone in Smithton was earmarked for removal.

Highland Council has hit out at BT for launching a bid to remove 107 of the 348 public payphones from across the regiom area in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

The local authority was obliged by Ofcom to run the consultation at the same time as marshalling its response to Covid-19 and continuing to deliver public services.

The frustration felt by the council was made plain when in a paper to be considered at a full meeting next week by localism & engagement coordinator Ewen McIntosh.

He noted that not only were close to half the phones already considered in the previous consultation but they broke Ofcom guidelines by seeking to ignore 84 per cent of the phones that the council already vetoed for removal.

But BT said that it had been in regular contact with the council since before the consultation was launched and was committed to listening to the communities affected.

A total of 296 representations were received from community councils, community groups, elected Members of Highland Council, and private individuals during the two phase consultation that ran from August to October.

Based on that feedback, the response proposes objecting to the removal of 65 – including 19 in the Inverness and Great Glen areas – payphones and a further three being adopted by the local community.

Mr McIntosh said: “The timing of BT’s proposals is extremely disappointing and ill-considered as it has required the council to consult with community and public sector partners who are largely preoccupied with community response and resilience work, related to Covid-19.

“This is an inappropriate use of stretched public sector resource and an added unnecessary concern for communities at a time of national crisis.

“This includes 46 payphones for which Highland Council exercised its right to a Local Veto on removal in 2019, based on community representations received. BT is therefore seeking to disregard 84 per cent of these recent vetoes on removal.

“This is in contravention of OfCom requirements that BT must first request a review of such decisions by the council and OfCom, should it wish to disregard them.”

Mr McIntosh added: “And 49 per cent of the payphones in the current consultation were considered for removal in 2019.”

A BT spokesman insisted the company had followed OfCom guidelines and was willing to listen to the results of the consultation.

He said: “BT is committed to providing a public payphone service and listening to the communities we serve.

"With usage declining by over 90 per cent in the last decade, we’ve continued to review our payphone estate.

“We’ve investigated and in this case, like in all consultations, we have followed Ofcom’s guidelines.

"We’ve gone further and had regular dialogue with Highland Council officials from before the consultation started to ensure they were aware of our proposals and rationale, as well as answering any concerns.

“We will review any feedback from communities and continue to liaise with the council. If the authority tells us that it would like to keep particular payphones, or adopt them, they will remain."

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