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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 28 June 2017

Agenda: Phone Boxes, Portfolio Question Time, Education Governance, Code of Conduct for MSPs and Written Statement Revision, Business Motions , Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Charter of Rights for People with Dementia and their Carers


Contents


Phone Boxes

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Linda Fabiani)

Good afternoon, everyone. The first item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-05217, in the name of Kenneth Gibson, on BT to remove one in five phone boxes in Scotland. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament is concerned by the reported decision by BT to close 947 payphones across Scotland within the next three years, including 24 phone boxes in North Ayrshire; understands that this move will leave just 3,840 working phone boxes in Scotland and only 35 in North Ayrshire; considers that these phone boxes represent a lifeline for many people in Scotland, especially for those in rural communities with poor mobile phone coverage; understands that, while payphone usage has inevitably dropped in recent years due to the prevalence of smart phones, the closure of these phone boxes could potentially pose serious problems in the case of an emergency; encourages the continued promotion of BT’s Adopt a Kiosk scheme, which offers councils and charities the opportunity to adopt their local phone box for just £1 and transform it into an asset for the community as an alternative to removal, and notes the calls for BT to continue consulting with the people of Scotland to prevent the unnecessary withdrawal of payphones in the communities that need them most.

13:15  

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

I begin by thanking those colleagues who supported my motion on the removal of phone boxes across Scotland. I thank Brian Whittle and Jamie Greene for being present in the chamber today to discuss an issue that affects a great number of people in a variety of tangible ways. I also thank Mark Dames and Mark Johnson of BT for taking the time to discuss the issue a fortnight ago, before the debate had even been scheduled.

When I was first informed of BT’s decision to remove 947 payphone boxes across Scotland, including 24 boxes in North Ayrshire, I was immediately concerned about the impact that it would have on my constituents. Although significant efforts have been made to improve mobile infrastructure across the United Kingdom, many areas in Scotland still receive only a partial mobile phone signal that is both unreliable and inconsistent. Not only are those so-called “not spots” frustrating for someone who is trying to send a text or make a call; they can prove dangerous in an emergency.

That concern is particularly relevant to those who live on Scotland’s islands, such as Arran and Cumbrae in my constituency, where mobile coverage can be extremely poor. That increases isolation for island residents, as well as affecting the many tourists who visit our islands each year and who are consistently surprised by just how sporadic signal provision can be. As a result of those concerns, I considered it a priority to meet BT to discuss the reasoning behind the decision and to understand fully the impact that it would have on the people of Scotland. I am grateful to BT for engaging with MSPs on the issue, and I would like to share some of what we discussed today.

First, it is undeniable that our telephone usage and our relationship with technology have been dramatically transformed in recent times. Ninety-three per cent of all adults now own a mobile phone and, as a result, payphone usage across the UK has declined by 90 per cent over the past decade. In fact, not one call was made from more than 700 BT kiosks over the past year, which demonstrates just how little used they are in some locations. I am not surprised that, when we have access to devices that allow us to make calls, send texts, check emails, browse the internet and even play games, call boxes are no longer used in the way they once were.

In the light of that, our focus now should perhaps be on increasing mobile coverage and reliability, in particular in remote and rural areas that currently do not enjoy the same connectivity as the rest of Scotland. I hope to see more initiatives such as the pilot scheme that was launched in 2016 by the then Minister for Transport and Islands, Derek Mackay, which offered non-domestic rates relief on new mobile masts in two locations on Arran and one in the Cairngorm national park to encourage the provision of mobile services and further investment in those areas. Such projects would mean that phone boxes would no longer be a necessity, and those living in Scotland’s rural areas would be able to enjoy the full range of mobile services.

It is worth noting that, prior to the decision, BT entered into consultation with local authorities across Scotland, with 1,500 payphones originally earmarked for removal by 2020. Following the consultation, which allowed communities to voice their concerns over the removal of essential payphones, BT agreed to drop the number to 947. That means that we will see the removal of some 433 boxes across Scotland, with a further 111 being taken over by the adopt a kiosk initiative, rather than the loss of a third of all current payphones as was initially proposed. That demonstrates BT’s willingness to engage with those who rely on payphone services most and to protect services where they are deemed vital.

I am pleased to highlight that, after reviewing the consultation responses, the decision was made not to remove any payphones on any Scottish island. That will guarantee the safety of island residents and visitors, as those phone boxes can act as a lifeline in an emergency.

Payphones have also been protected where the consultation identified a social need for the box, such as accident black spots, suicide hot spots and coastal sites, where connectivity might prove to be life saving.

Other boxes were protected when meeting all the following criteria: being the only payphone within 800m; being used to make at least 12 calls within a 12-month period; and being located where the local population is not fewer than 500 households within 1km of the payphone.

I want to draw attention to BT’s adopt a kiosk scheme, which was introduced in 2008 and offers local authorities, charities and local communities the opportunity to adopt a local phone box for just £1 and transform it into an asset for the community as an alternative to removal.

Following the consultation, 111 phone boxes are currently being considered for adoption. There is an exciting and eclectic mix of transformed kiosks already in use across Scotland, and there are some 3,000 such kiosks across the UK. Some boxes are fitted with life-saving defibrillators, tiny libraries or miniature art galleries that have been maintained by local communities in Scotland and, in England, even mini coffee shops and meditation spaces have been created. There is a wealth of opportunity and inspiration for transforming poorly maintained and unused phone boxes into a unique and creative community solution.

That is exactly the kind of community empowerment—albeit on a modest scale—that I would like to see more of in my constituency of Cunninghame North, and I encourage everyone watching this debate to consider whether a phone box in their locale could become something eye catching, essential or just a bit of good fun. What is interesting is that, of those 111 boxes, 28 are in Angus, 18 are in Fife but none are in 18 local authorities, including North Ayrshire Council, in my constituency. That is something that I will pursue personally.

When we are fighting to retain call boxes, we should remember that BT currently loses £20 million a year by maintaining them. Further, although it is important that they be retained in rural areas, some urban areas—I emphasise that it is only some—are not so keen to retain them, because of the concerns that those call boxes cause in some communities, and BT is very much aware of that.

In closing, I call on everyone present today to remember that connectivity is not just a matter of economic necessity but a vital part of guaranteeing the safety of our constituents. By retaining phone boxes where they are essential, as well as looking for creative and effective solutions to signal coverage issues in rural and remote areas, we can ensure that everyone has access to telephone services wherever and whenever they need them most.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Jamie Greene to be followed by Brian Whittle—or Brian Whittle to be followed by Jamie Greene, however you would like it.

13:22  

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

We could toss a coin.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

You are on your feet now, Jamie.

Jamie Greene

I thank Kenny Gibson for bringing this issue to this less than packed chamber. I have no doubt that many people will be watching the debate from afar and paying close interest to BT’s plans.

Like Kenny Gibson, I have engaged with BT to get some background about its plans and to get a better understanding of why it is doing what it is doing.

It is important that any changes to payphone provision are not to the detriment of community needs, such as access to emergency services, particularly in areas where there is no other means of contacting people, such as those where there is poor mobile coverage.

Kenny Gibson’s motion states a fair point, which is that, although people still use payphones, the adoption of smartphones has dramatically increased in recent years. In the past decade, payphone use has dropped by more than 90 per cent, which is no small figure. In fact, some call boxes are used by fewer than a dozen people a year and, anecdotally, some phone boxes are used by no one at all. However, as is often the case, we do not miss something until it is gone. I have no doubt that usage therefore has an important part to play in the decision-making process.

BT says that, after the removal of 24 payphones in North Ayrshire, there will be 84 remaining in the area, which is slightly more than the figure of 35 that is stated in the motion. Nevertheless, there will still be a loss of payphones in that part of the world. I should declare that I live in North Ayrshire and, on occasion, have been known to use a phone box when my mobile is out of battery or has no coverage. Unfortunately, that still happens too often.

BT has said that it will not remove payphones that have been identified as social need payphones, and it has set some clear criteria for that. Mr Gibson outlined the criteria to do with location and usage. If those criteria are met, a kiosk cannot be removed. I think that that is right. It is also worth pointing out that BT consults local authorities on proposed removals, and if a local authority is against a proposed removal, that will be taken into account. That second level of scrutiny is important as well.

With the adopt a kiosk scheme, I note that what we are really talking about is finding alternative uses for things that have been made redundant. There are not many red phone boxes left, but those that we have are certainly worth preserving. I did a quick internet search to find out some of the uses for adopted kiosks, and I was quite bemused by the images. I encourage members to have a look at what people have done and the sheer ingenuity and creativity that they have shown in adapting old phone boxes, which have been put to an amazing array of uses. In addition to the purposes that have been mentioned, I saw coffee shops, automated coffee vending machines, salad bars, bookshops and people selling a wide range of cottage industry products and services from phone boxes. It is hard to believe how much can be fitted into a phone box.

In essence, I support the motion. We should be careful not to take away vital access to telecommunications points, especially from people in rural communities, but we should also think about the fact that not everyone owns a mobile phone. Mobile phones can be prohibitively expensive for people. We will probably hear about the ambitious plans that the Scottish Government has to ensure that we have full connectivity in Scotland, but even if coverage is available, a mobile phone, like internet access, is still unaffordable to many. The simple phone box is a cheap alternative solution that allows people to make calls, and many people still use and rely on phone boxes for calling people.

Any removals that are done should follow the strict processes that BT has put in place, and any phone boxes that are removed should be ones that have been identified as simply not being used by the public. I encourage people to engage in consultations on the matter. The old adage “use it or lose it” is important, and I encourage people who have a phone box to make use of it; otherwise, it may be too late. I also urge people in Ayrshire to think about the adopt a kiosk scheme and the creative things that they could do with any phone boxes that are decommissioned. I look forward to seeing the results of that.

13:27  

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

I thank Kenny Gibson for bringing this debate to the chamber.

The technology that we use to communicate continues to evolve at an incredible speed. Hard though it may be to believe, the first mobile phone call was made in 1973. Admittedly, for some of us in the chamber, that may feel like last week, but it highlights just how many people today have grown up in a world where a physical connection to a phone line is not needed to make a call.

Although some of us can recall the days of police call boxes, they are increasingly known to people only as Doctor Who’s preferred mode of transport or as a local landmark where they can pick up a coffee on their way to work.

More recently, we have seen the trend of phone boxes and public payphones being removed due to lack of use. Today, Superman would not be changing in a phone box. He would be using an app to book a short stay in a nearby room for let. That may be an advance in technology, but I am not convinced that it has quite the same drama.

I recognise and agree with many of the points that Kenny Gibson highlights in his motion. The payphone may be a less popular mode of communication today, but that does not inherently make it unnecessary. We can quite reasonably argue that people who continue to use phone boxes are the ones who have no suitable alternative, and the very people on whom the removal of the boxes could have the biggest impact.

BT seems to be making significant efforts to minimise the impact that the closures will have. As has been mentioned, it is consulting widely on the removal of each phone box and it changes its plans when it receives an objection from the local authority. That being said, I note that one of its criteria for keeping a box in place, even if it is not used regularly, is a lack of any mobile phone signal. An emergency call can be placed from any mobile phone anywhere with a signal, even if that signal is not from the mobile’s network provider, but I am concerned that that is of no benefit in an emergency when a person’s mobile phone has no charge. I wonder whether BT has given any consideration to providing an emergency charging facility in some of the more isolated phone boxes, perhaps by using solar power.

I have recently been involved in discussions between the Royal Bank of Scotland, Age Scotland and others about the impact of branch closures in South Scotland. The issue at the core of that discussion is not very different from what we are discussing today. Technology is changing the way that many of us perform tasks, whether that is banking or making a phone call, but there is a concern that those who are not in a position to change will be left isolated and disadvantaged.

While companies such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and BT will always have commercial considerations to take into account when making decisions about closing branches or removing phone boxes, it is important that they also take account of the wider impact on the communities for whom those services can be a lifeline. That seems to have improved in recent years, and it is clear from the efforts that BT has made in its consultation that it wishes to minimise the impact of those removals.

I have reservations about the removal of phone boxes in rural areas, which are broadly the same as the concerns that I have about the loss of other services. Put simply, do the areas that are losing traditional service provision have the infrastructure to support the modern alternative? Be it broadband speed or mobile phone signal, rural areas in particular still experience very real issues with coverage and reliability of digital communications.

I note that a Which? survey published earlier this week highlighted that three out of the five slowest areas for broadband in the United Kingdom are in Scotland. Indeed, Scotland has a particularly high number of regions classified as having low speeds, there are average speeds in parts of the central belt and only Dundee and North Lanarkshire have high speeds.

Changing technology means that change to how we live and work is inevitable, but we have a responsibility to ensure that no one is disadvantaged by that change. That is why, although I am disappointed by the decision to reduce the number of payphones, rather than fighting against that change I encourage members to focus their attention on ensuring that the pace of those changes is reasonable and that Scotland’s digital infrastructure is up to the standard required.

13:32  

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity (Fergus Ewing)

I thank Kenneth Gibson for bringing this unusual topic for debate. As usual, he regaled us with a series of somewhat arcane statistics about which, perhaps, many of us knew very little, but it was an interesting contribution. I am also grateful to the other two contributors.

Telecoms are an area reserved to Westminster. The provision of public call boxes falls within BT’s universal service obligations, in which the Scottish Government has no locus to intervene. However, Ofcom has informed me that, as members have said, there has been a very substantial decline in the use of telephone boxes—a 90 per cent decline over the past decade. Indeed, many of the proposed removals have not been used to make a single call in the past 12 months.

Understandably, perhaps, BT has taken action, and it has published criteria that are designed to ensure that boxes are retained where they are actively used, which is good, and where there is a social need for them, which is also good. The overriding social need criteria cover sites where there is no mobile coverage from any provider, suicide hot spots, accident black spots, and coastal locations and islands. BT has confirmed that no removals will be proposed in such areas. I welcome that approach, which one can appreciate may prove to be very advantageous in extremis, in urgent situations.

Where removals are proposed, BT will consult with the relevant local authority, which in turn can consult locally—for example, with community councils—and I encourage them so to do. Ultimately, the local authority can veto BT’s proposed removal if it can demonstrate appropriate grounds. Mr Gibson highlighted the preservation of phone boxes in the islands in his constituency—I think he mentioned Arran. He is a doughty fighter for the preservation of island telephone boxes, among a great many other things.

Not being possessed of an extraordinarily active imagination, I was not aware of all the things that can be done in phone boxes. It was not until the revelatory content of Mr Greene’s contribution that I became aware that they could be used as a coffee shop, salad bar or bookcase—I presume not all three at once. I had thought, naively, that there was not much that one can do in a phone box, but I will not go there. The imagination struggles to come up with what other activities could be carried out in a telephone box, and I hesitate to make any contributions regarding potential activities that are flitting through the cranial area just at the moment.

The telephone box is a very attractive piece of heritage. It is a nice thing to see around the place. It is a part of history. It would be very sad if they all disappeared. I can imagine, if the television programme “Antiques Roadshow” is still being screened in 100 years’ time, as well it might, that there might be a quiz featuring a telephone box—“What was this used for?”, people would ask in astonishment.

If I may, I will digress a little bit to reflect on the late Ewen Bain, whose works as a cartoonist you will have known and enjoyed, Presiding Officer. His famous character was the Hebridean Angus Og, who was the sort of person who found himself in difficult situations of his own making almost every day. At that time my mother was, if I may say so, a quite well-known defence lawyer for the criminal fraternity. In one cartoon, Angus Og found himself in a telephone box in possession of a very, very large salmon. He was on the phone, saying, “Hello, Mrs Ewing. I’m in a spot of bother.” That goes to prove that there are uses to which the telephone box can be put.

Before I digress even further from the topic, let me say that I accept that telephone boxes remain important in some locations, and their removal will not be appropriate. I am more than happy to raise members’ concerns with any local authority should they wish me to do so.

I am very pleased to have this opportunity, albeit an unexpected one, to stand up for the phone box in Holyrood.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Thank you, everyone. We were thinking, when you started to wax lyrical, Mr Ewing, that we might not need to suspend business until 2 o’clock. However, I do suspend the meeting.

13:37 Meeting suspended.  14:00 On resuming—