/ Home & Energy, Technology

Should public phone boxes be removed?

Remote red phone box

For some of us, the memory of using a public phone box is a fairly distant one. With the rise of mobile phone usage over the past 20 years or so, there’s been a rapid decline in demand for phone boxes. But as guest author, Duncan, explains, for some communities, phone boxes are a lifeline.

In its wisdom, BT has decided to accelerate the decommissioning of phone boxes in areas where it deems they aren’t making much profit and where over 90% less usage has occurred in the past decade.

Surely the most hard hit in this drive will be those living in remote rural areas; particularly in the Scottish Highlands, mid Wales and many English country areas, where there are black spots for mobile phone coverage?

Rural phone boxes

In many rural areas, phone boxes are a lifeline when out and about as many residents either can’t get a signal or some may not be able to afford to own a mobile phone.

It must also be taken into consideration that many of those outlying areas are in mountainous regions where emergency services aren’t always within easy reach. Ofcom rules require BT to provide an ‘adequate provision of public call boxes to meet the reasonable needs of end users’. If BT choose to remove a phone box they must gain permission from the local council first, unless there’s another within 400 metres.

However, what would the reaction be if there’s a fatality on a mountain and a lack of a phone box meant no one was able to telephone emergency services? Campaigners in Wales have been fighting to save a red phone box in the Cambrian Mountains, the phone hasn’t worked for 18 months but is currently used as a shelter for ramblers. According to campaigners, mobile phone signal in the area is poor. So with only a few houses in the area and not another phone box for seven miles, this phone box is considered a lifeline.

But, it isn’t just mountainous areas where this could be a problem – you also have to rely on a phone box in flat moorland parts of England as often there is next to no mobile phone signal.

Future of phone boxes

In recent years, the government has pushed for more mobile phone coverage by private companies in areas where there is little or no signal, but progress has been pretty slow.

This coincides with BT’s seemingly accelerated programme to reduce Britain’s reliance on public communications. For example, under BT’s plans, Scotland would be left with around 3,300 phone boxes. While that sounds like a lot, just bear in mind the area they would have to cover – those without mobile phones or coverage would have to travel miles just to use the public phone.

And because a good proportion of those boxes set for decommission are the iconic red K series designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott from 1924, some people are arguing that BT is stripping the UK of its heritage.

Of course, where this is happening, BT is offering communities the opportunity to adopt their red phone box for £1, and many now house coffee machines, defibrillators and even a book exchange.

Even so, BT’s drive to decommission phone boxes has rightly caused great upset in local communities all over the UK, with local councillors complaining vigorously about it and determined to fight it.

Do you live in a remote area where a phone box is about to be decommissioned? Will you miss using a public pay phone, or do you no longer see the need for them?

This is a guest contribution by Which? Conversation Community Member, Duncan Lucas. All views expressed here are Duncan’s own and not necessarily those shared by Which?.

Comments
Member

Congratulations on your convo Duncan, very well written. 😊

I agree a public telephone could be a lifeline in many situations especially where there is no mobile signal.

There are also a lot of older folks who don’t own or use mobile phones. What are they supposed to do in an emergency? ☎️

Member

Thanks Alfa I did get help from Which staff , although I dont mind publicity I do get a bit embarrassed at anybody praising me as I have not been used to it in my life.

Member

Great work @duncan-lucas, I really enjoyed the read and great to see you as a published author on here 🙂

Red phone boxes are iconic and it’s sad to see them dying out, though some of the creative uses sound fun!

Member

Thank you Patrick I am lost for words as my life hasnt exactly been a happy one.

Member

Improvements in mobile phone networks have meant that there are fewer black spots for coverage, but each year I find some when exploring the countryside when on holiday, even though I generally travel in a group that has phones which cover all of the networks. This has generally been a nuisance, but at the end of June I was stranded with a group of people in a rural area and was asked to call the emergency services. The connection kept dropping. A nearby phone box would have been very useful, though I don’t believe that there was ever one nearby.

I do not know the answers, but I suggest that there should be national standards about the provision of phone boxes and not just leave this to pressure from those who shout loudest.

Thanks for a thought provoking Convo, Duncan.

Member

Thanks Wavechange.

Member

I’d back keeping phone boxes, duncan. It is not just about whether we have a mobile phone signal. We may not have a mobile, or not on us at the time, or a flat battery. A phone box is a service and if it does not make a profit then the local authority perhaps should subsidise it – it does benefit their community. Please make sure they take coins though.

Do we know what it costs to service a phone box? Seems a useful bit of information to make a rational decision.

Member

According to the BBC malcolm its costs quote- ” a bit over £1000 but councils can pay an annual fee of £500 to keep a working phone inside “-end quote.

Member

It’s a great convo @duncan-lucas and I like Malcolm says it’s not just about mobile signal, although I have a mobile phone to keep me connected when I’m out and about, when I was in school I didn’t have such a device to enable me to call my parents. I know that a lot of children are given mobiles to use now, but that’s not the case for everyone. I used to have a BT card (I think my parents were fed up with my reverse calls from a pay phone). This card had a small amount of credit on it which I could insert into a payphone to be able to call only the numbers that had been registered to the phone. I recall those numbers being my home phone, my mum’s work phone and my grandmother. It was handy to have and there were plenty of payphones to call my parents from.

Member

Thank you Lauren , I remember when those cards first came out as BT engineers were given them to use when calling to our control desk. They now seem to be worth some money , I still have my “Buzby ” mug and tin badge .

Member

There is a sophisticated public telephone point with four payphones on Norwich station and the other day I saw someone going round checking the cash return trays on each one to see if there was any money left behind. No luck on that occasion – and since the installation is almost surrounded by a florist’s stall I expect she clears it every time it’s used. I suppose there are occasional rewards and it’s better than begging. City type – smart suit, collar and tie, polished shoes; works in banking or insurance I expect.

Member

(Put your coins in the slot and dial the number. When the other party answers, press Button A. If there is no answer, press Button B to get your money back.)

I have noticed that although the AA and RAC have removed their roadside patrol boxes which had an emergency telephone cabinet accessible from the outside, there seem to be a number of modern emergency phones in lay-by’s on major roads and, of course along motorways. But there is no such facility on the miles of rural roads. Near where we live there is an extensive military training area with a weak or non-existent mobile signal coverage across most of it, and also in some of the river valleys there are problems of intermittent reception, so it’s not just the moors and mountains where a life-line might be necessary. Almost every village used to have a phone box [usually outside the pub] – I must start observing and see how many are left.

There seem to be hardly any phone boxes at railway and Underground stations these days – presumably the rule of ‘use it or lose it’ applies. I think the withdrawal of phone boxes should not be allowed in any area until it has comprehensive mobile coverage on all networks [by signal-sharing if necessary]. Perhaps in-car satellite navigation systems could have an emergency call function built-in to alert the emergency services at the press of a button as the map reference can also be transmitted [perhaps they already do – I don’t know, as we don’t have satnav]. On the roads, in the event of an emergency, flagging down a passing vehicle or going to the nearest property with a landline might be a way of getting assistance.

Unfortunately not many people carry an aldis lamp or know their semaphore codes these days so those methods of communication are not available, so I don’t think we should put the telephone box in Room 101.

I am glad you mentioned the 1924 ‘K’ type boxes, Duncan, which do truly justify the description ‘iconic’ as they are a defining characteristic of both the urban and rural landscape in the UK [as well as in Eire, although repainted green, and in some commonwealth countries; Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands keep theirs in tip-top condition]. I believe that in England all of the remaining ‘K’ type boxes are on the official list of buildings of architectural or historic interest at Grade 2 and cannot be removed or altered without listed buildings consent from the local planning authority. That should at least preserve their contribution to the popular image of English towns and countryside for a further period.

Old phone boxes sell for considerable sums depending on condition, and delivery & installation can be expensive. I once thought of getting one to keep the garden tools in but somebody down the road got one first and I didn’t want to appear to be a copy-cat.

Member

Speaking purely as one who lives on a Mountain in Wales the solitary ‘phone box sitting forlornly and unused most of the time has proved an invaluable lifeline here several times, when our home ‘phone landline has gone down. There’s no mobile coverages at all so without the box we’d be stuck.

Member

Thanks very much for the convo, Duncan.

BT’s removing of phone boxes has got b****r all (my asterisks) to do with health and safety and providing a service and everything to do with money and greed. For all the reasons stated already by everybody, we need phone boxes, we like phone boxes, we want phone boxes. The question is, how do we get BT to leave the remaining ones alone? Is the government so intent on letting privatisation take “care” of public (in the broad sense) services that it will do nothing? Do we lobby it?

Health and safety is not at stake here and it’s maybe unlikely for a wee while yet (hah?), but next we’ll hear the Royal Mail is doing away with post boxes, is proposing to sell them to the scrappies’ for pennies. Another icon gone.

Member

Sadly, Sophie, no one’s noticed
Royal Mail steals our post-its.
First they make it 9 a.m. only
Then they observe it getting lonely –
Stick a notice over the slot,
Take it away, and that’s your lot.

Member

Seriously, this really is happening quite a lot in rural areas. Many posting boxes have had their last collection changed to 09:00 [which means first class immediately becomes second class unless you write your letters overnight and go to the box at daybreak]. Since this leads users to drive to another postbox with a later collection the early post box attracts no mail, is declared unwanted, and is destined for removal. Again, like telephone kiosks, there is a healthy after-market in posting boxes and some people paint them a different colour and install them outside their house for incoming mail. In one Suffolk village recently a very early Victorian posting box was ripped out of a wall complete with contents.

Member

Out of interest I have been trying to find the nearest phone box to my new home, which is on a small development about a mile from a small village, where we have a Post Office a village shop, a village hall with a defibrillator, and three pubs – but no phone box. 🙁 There is a possibility that there is a post box nearer than the village but I’ve not seen one and must check.

Member

Thanks Sophie.

Member

You could try UKpayphone.com, but a search on my locality says it would cost me £26.82. Or you could go on Google Maps streetview, go for a drive and spot the red kiosk.

Duncan, BT will have a directory of public phones that they operate. Can it be accessed?

localpostbox.co.uk should help you – it shows post boxes on google maps.

Member

I will get back on that malcolm nobody has ever asked me that.

Member

First time my name’s been in a poem! A cracker! (Not because my name’s in it ;0) )

Member

How shocking, John, how sad.

Member

Shortly after my last post I did discover a phone box in my village, in the mains street and hiding under a large tree. I may never need it and locals who have lived here for years are unaware of its existence, but it is comforting to know that it is there.

Member

. . . But for how much longer? BT has just given notice of their intention to remove 56 telephone boxes across Norfolk [and plenty were closed down in a previous programme]. Their plan is out for consultation. The newspaper reporting this did not feel it incumbent upon themselves to list the affected towns and villages yet they’ll fill the front page with a story about someone’s prize-winning scarecrow.

Member

I suspect that the fact that only one mobile network works in the centre of the village may enable it to survive a little longer. We do have a local magazine, beautifully produced in glorious black & white, that covers local issues. Looking back at previous issues, available online, I found reference to the phone box because there had been plans to reposition it a few years ago, so I expect that plans for its removal would at least be advertised.

Member

John, you could ask the newspaper to run an article on them and give them reasons why they should be saved.

Your local newspaper might not actually be produced locally so they might not know about them. When my other half wrote to our local paper, they ran an article on “was this the worst road….” and a few months later we had a brand new road.

Member

The piece I read was in the Eastern Daily Press which is the regional newspaper for Norfolk and published from the centre of Norwich six days a week. The publisher also runs a stable of more local weekly papers covering market towns and surrounding villages and sometimes additional detail crops up in those. Since there are hardly any phone boxes remaining in our part of Norfolk except in the centre of small towns and the occasional village I won’t be following this up. It is sad though that people have become so reconciled to the loss of these public services that they acquiesce by default.

It occurred to me that since they have a power supply and at least one telephone line, public call boxes could surely be adapted to serve as hot spots for mobile networks in areas where signals are poor or non-existent. I can’t blame BT for closing the public payphones – it’s a classic case of use it or lose it.

We can see what’s going on around Jupiter but can’t make a phone call in Norfolk. Modern life, by Jove!

Member

According to one source: “BT’s boss has bagged £5.4million in pay and perks.” Getting rid of public phone boxes will have helped with his remuneration. In my view, no-one should be paid a tenth of that amount, especially not those in charge of companies that provide vital public services. Obviously companies have to make a profit to fund development but high salaries and lavish advertising push up prices. I wonder if the highly paid executives of energy companies spare a thought for those who can’t afford to heat their homes.

I have no problem with companies that want to maximise their profits selling non-essential goods and services as long as there is honest competition.

Member

John -You would think that if all the facilities to provide a telephone connection are there that others could carry on providing a telephone connection to a telephone box. Not according to BT regulations that are “written in stone ” ,anybody taking over the box is prohibited from using it as a means of providing telephonic communications. It can be used for any other means UNLESS the council has in writing officially communicated with BT that they will subsidies the box on a yearly basis keeping the original BT line and using BT services . If councils dont do that then that type of service is banned

Member

Duncan Lucas – You are right about the prohibition on re-installing a telephone in an adopted box. It is clause 5.5.4 in the contract. I think this clause is illegal under competition law because it is a “restraint of trade”. I reported it to Ofcom and asked them to refer it to the Competition and Markets Authority. As usual, Ofcom refused.

Member

Thanks for that information, Duncan. I am not surprised, but remain disappointed.

Member

I’ve taken a fair few road trips through America, and there are still great stretches of area in states like Montana where there’s no mobile coverage, and it’s daunting to think there’s no one but the cows to help you if you have some sort of emergency! At times like that I’ve wished for these iconic phone boxes in the US. But it would be a shame if such a valuable resource disappeared from rural areas in the UK for people in need.