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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 our guest author 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 a Which? Conversation Community Member, . All views expressed here are their own and not necessarily those shared by Which?.

Comments

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? ☎️

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Great work @user-66219, 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!

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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.

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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.

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It’s a great convo @user-66219 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.

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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.

(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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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

How shocking, John, how sad.

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.

. . . 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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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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.

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

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.

America’s vastness and remoteness in some parts perhaps make for scarier cinematic thrillers. In Big Sky Country, only the cows can hear you scream…

🙂

In America, most roadside establishments like motels, truck stops and gas stations have a payphone available for public use. Perhaps BT expect UK businesses to provide a payphone. Before mobile phones took off in this country most pubs had a payphone but they have largely disappeared. I wonder how much longer hotels will find it worthwhile to provide a phone except for housekeeping and room service calls.

Sophie – if cows are grazing there will be some sort of habitation nearby as they must be milked. Perhaps they are heifers or steers which can graze without much attention.

Many places in the UK have payphones but, unlike public call boxes, they are not open 24/7 which is what is needed.

That’s right Malcolm, and not only that the payphone owner can set the calling charge at a much higher level than the standard public phone box charges.

Unlike America, this is a small country and it is not unreasonable to expect that anybody, anywhere, at any time, should be able to make an emergency call whether by mobile signal or accessible landline phone.

The amazing thing is that most of our public telephone kiosks in remote areas were installed in the years before the Second World War when, in relative terms, the cost of bringing an electricity supply and a telephone line to them was enormous. That infrastructure is still available for use and to abandon it would seem like folly just to save a relatively small annual maintenance expenditure.

I have seen a number of dramas where the inability to get a mobile signal or find a working telephone box have been essential features of the plot. In the interests of more creative writing and better viewing it’s time this was brought to an end as quickly as possible.

Hi john,

One popular example where the inability to find a working telephone box kicks off the whole plot is The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

PS – If we get rid of all our phone boxes, how will Superman cope with this ?

Superman can overcome any difficulty.

The escorts, masseuses and other private service providers will be more put out as they will lose their advertising sites.

Here is a definitive list of post boxes that existed in 2008: https://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/374/response/1164/attach/2/PO%20Boxes%20A%20Z.pdf

It was supplied by Royal Mail in response to a Freedom of Information request. I think it is disgraceful that companies were exempted from Freedom of Information requests, so we may not be able to get official information about the locations of post boxes or public payphones.

Thanks for that Wavechange. I obtained a list of post boxes three years ago when I was pressing the Post Office to provide more in areas that had experienced new residential developments. I found it on-line but cannot remember the source.

Ofcom must have a list of phone boxes. They could be made to make it accessible under the FoI Act surely.

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Perhaps we could ask BT and Royal Mail to maintain a current list of public phones and post boxes on their websites. A database searchable by postcode or place name would be better. A request from Which? would carry more weight.

I found that there is a post box beside the nearest bus stop but now I will try to find out where the nearest phone box is.

wavechange, now you can post a letter to BT and ask them 🙂

Very good, Malcolm, but I was hoping that Which? might take this on.

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It’s not just in rural areas that need the phone boxes,they are also needed in towns, as there are plenty of older people (me included) that dont have or want a mobile phone. But they might need a phone in an emergency (999),also supposing your mobiles battery is flat, this could be a matter of life or death.

Lynda Jane says:
1 October 2016

We have never had a mobile ‘phone: we make very few calls so, when they were first introduced and were just ‘phones, we didn’t see the point of one. We have a tablet, laptop and desktop for Internet use, so still don’t need one but, occasionally, we need to make a call when away from home and so a payphone of some sort is invaluable – even the inflated prices charged for the odd calls from hotels is cheaper than a mobile contract. From experience here in Swaledale (and, no doubt, other Yorkshire and Durham dales), we know that mobile reception can be very poor. A friend, who lived until recently out in Swaledale, had to travel to the nearest small town to get mobile reception, and plumbers, electricians etc in the area carry two ‘phones, from two different networks, so they have the best chance of reception.

Lynda, I use my mobile very little but at times it is invaluable. For £30 for a basic phone plus £10 for pay-as-you-go calls I’d recommend one for those just-in-case moments.

We certainly need a lot more telephone boxes in rural areas. I see there is quite a queue to use the one in the picture at the top of this Conversation.

Denis McGeary says:
1 October 2016

BT are proposing to de-commission and remove the phone box at Seathwaite, an isolated village with no Wi-Fi in Cumbria. Many walkers and climbers use the immediate area and, when it is working, the phone is essential in case of emergency. A petition has been started.

For everyone concerned abut emergency service access, it is worth noting that your mobiles:
1) have cross network access for 999 / 112 calls – ie even if your own signal is non existent, you will be able to piggy back another network (if there is one…) without issue

2) can text to 112 / 999 as well, and often where a voice signal won’t get through, a text will. Albeit you do need to register first.

See http://www.mountainsafety.co.uk/EP-999-or-112-Which-is-Best-aspx for more details.

And to cover a point earlier in the conversation, location data is also sent to the emergency services as part of the call.

I know this doesn’t get around all the issues [of removing phone boxes], but in any event it is certainly worth knowing when dealing with a life threatening situation.

We have simple mobile phones, but these do not work in many places, including our village on Anglesey. Old fashioned phone-boxes can be a lifeline. Not everyone has a mobile phone and they don’t work everywhere, because of poor signal.

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I would have hoped Which? would have asked BT to comment duncan. Views from those directly involved are invaluable to these Convos, as we have seen in a few (rare) cases. Maybe Which? do ask, and they choose not to contribute?

I was in the Surrey Hills a couple of weeks ago and found “No network coverage” on my mobile. Not exactly in the highlands of Scotland or Wales. It’s OK though there’s a red phone box opposite. Just one snag : it’s almost dark and the sign says “This phone does not accept coins. Please use credit/debit card. There then followed a long explanation on how to use it in very small text. I admit I’m no spring chicken and I found it impossible to read. Consequence : I failed to make my call and BT failed to get revenue from me. Hopeless !

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Will they be removing road signs next on the premise that most of us have got satnavs?

Further investigation has confirmed that there is no public phone nearby, but there is a very small post box nearby, though I had forgotten about the latter. Looking at older OS maps I have come to the conclusion that there was probably no public phone within about three miles.

Maybe infrequently used phone boxes would be used more if they provided facilities to charge mobiles.

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Thanks Duncan. It’s a useful warning.

I understand the need for phone box’s in rural areas but no company should be forced to provide a loss making service. Even subsadised bus routes fail & do British gas provide gas in remote areas.
There should be some form of subsidy to help but this unlikely with all the cutbacks.

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Christopher – Are you happy with what Mr Beeching did to our railways?

Chris, I think you have a fair point there. Given that we have privatised the phone industry, expecting BT (or anyone else) to subsidise phone boxes may be unrealistic. In practice any requirement for them to provide “internal” subsidies will just result in them passing these charges on to other groups of customers.

Where call boxes are seen as important items of rural infrastructure, then it might make sense for truly local authorities, like local or parish councils to subsidise their continued presence. That might be a particularly import choice where they are needed for the purpose of contacting local mountain rescue teams, etc.

To (partly) answer Duncan’s points, anyone who cannot afford a mobile phone probably won’t be able to afford to make much use of payphones either. A basic mobile phone costs about £10 to buy – and can be cheap to run if you choose your PAYG tariff wisely. I accept that that won’t help in areas where there is no mobile signal thought 🙁

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Subsidising little used loss-making phone boxes should, in my view, be a social responsibility paid for out of taxation, not by a commercial company.

I’m not sure where Dr Beeching figures in this but there is a parallel. The rural rail routes were developed at a time when they were the only form of longer-distance transport. They superceded in some cases canals, but were themsleves superceded by roads, and the newer technology of motorised public and private transport.

Public phone boxes suffer through the newer technology of mobile phones.

We cannot preserve all old technologies when they have passed their general usefulness, without subsidy or providing other forms of assistance to those who suffer disproportionately.

Chris – Let me start by saying that I have little enthusiasm for nationalised industries but equally it would not be wise to leave the provision of important services to the commercial world. If companies were able to cherry pick customers, those living outside built-up areas might not have electricity, water and sewerage services, or postal deliveries. Cross-subsidy is essential.

I would like to see the government and local councils deciding where phone boxes are needed. Whether there is an adequate mobile signal is certainly an important factor.

Duncan – my point was simply that anyone on £71/week will struggle to either afford the use of payphone or PAYG credit for their mobile.

Nonetheless, the authorities now pretty much expect everyone to have access to a phone. If you only have a mobile, you can at least give them a number to contact you on or call you back on.

And yes, I do have experience of living on benefits. It has been several decades since I did it personally, but I have recent shared experience from people I know.