Sadiq Khan promises half a million “mini-masts” to boost London’s mobile coverage

The humble lamp post. Image: Getty.

This is one for the smartphone junkies. Actually, that’s pretty much everyone – Ofcom proudly announced in 2015 that the UK is a ‘smartphone society’, with 80 per cent of adults owning a smartphone – so the vast majority of you will be thrilled to hear about the new initiative that will see half a million small cell transmitters installed around London.

These mini-masts will be attached to street furniture (that is, lampposts and so forth) and publicly-owned buildings, ensuring vastly improved network coverage among the capital’s winding streets. This big reveal follows mayor Sadiq Khan’s pledge last year to boost digital connectivity and deal with London’s ‘not-spots’.

The idea is hardly new: the private sector was launching similar projects as far back as 2006. But these initiatives have always been piecemeal, coming from individual suppliers.

This new iteration will see collaboration between city hall and local councils, allowing for much wider coverage than that afforded by the odd privately owned office or pub. Using smaller transmitters brings another advantage: they are much easier to install, and don’t require road closures or big structural changes inherent in larger cell masts.

Other public bodies in the capital have dabbled in this area. The City of London Corporation was wildly successful last year in establishing a publicly accessible free-to-use wifi across the whole of the Square Mile. Replacing the existing Sky Wifi, the new network runs off 150 wireless access points attached to the City’s street furniture. Amazingly, the whole project was delivered in just nine months. Khan is hoping to mirror this efficiency with contracts awarded for the mini-mast rollout by Summer this year.


London’s future small cell network will be all important when the next generation 5G network finally arrives. That’s due some time in the early 2020s, and telecoms company O2 reckons that, by 2026, it will add over £7bn a year to the economy. It’s sweet they think that everyone will be working hard on the buses and tube lines (yes it’s going underground as well), when really we’ll be spending our commutes streaming Netflix and sending snarky tweets.

As stoked as we should be for this technological makeover, it is long overdue. A report from the London Assembly last year found the capital’s phone coverage was abysmal. Under 75 per cent of London has 4G coverage, placing it in the bottom five of all UK cities; it ranks 30th out of 63 on high speed broadband, too. The report concluded with a warning, that its shoddy phone connections meant that, “London’s success and international competitiveness are under threat”.

These failings didn’t sneak up on us. During the 2012 Olympics, networks became overloaded through heavy use. And as Londoners use their smartphones to watch ever more Netflix these mini-mast improvements arrive in the nick of time.

Khan is also reaching out to Londoners to help form his Smart London Plan, which will look at how technology can improve life in the capital. Good to see the capital is finally joining the 21st century.

 
 
 
 

To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.