Monday, 9 April 2012

Planning Permission / Neighbours

We are not experts in this field but we recently ran into a few problems with our neighbours who were convinced that our FM5 (receive only) aerials were causing interference to their digital TV. They submitted a complaint to the local housing association who then demanded that we take down our aerials. We didn't have planning permission and they even said that this would not have happened had they not received any complaints. They were clearly aware that the aerials had been there for more than a year. This was a great disappointment, not to mention a complete surprise as our neighbours had always been fine with our radio hobby. Suddenly, we felt that we had lost our life-long hobby, so we hurriedly put in an official application for permission to re-erect the aerials. Thankfully, this was granted in under two weeks! The whole experience has taught us a lot about some of the 'dos and donts' of planning permission relating to aerials. 

To fill you in with the basics, our accommodation is rented from a housing association. My partner is disabled and we live in a disable-adapted bungalow. We are in the fortunate position of living right on the edge of town, our garden facing the sun and overlooking miles of flat, open countryside in the Fenland region of England. We only have neighbours on one side and, as mentioned above, they never had any problems with the erection of the various aerials we have used over the last 18 months or so. 

It is well-known that we live in a poor signal area and there is an ongoing campaign to get a low power digital TV relay for the Skegness area. Loft tiles are notorious for reducing signal levels at VHF frequencies and higher. While our FM5 aerials are receive-only, you can understand how the less technically informed would make an incorrect assumption that our strange-looking aerials and rotators might be a source of interference. 

For more than a year, we had two Triax FM5 beams, fitted with Fringe Electronics) pre-amps (which really made the difference to very weak signals, often dragging them out of the noise where they would not have been audible without them!). We also had two other masts for amateur radio use. One had two nine element beams (horizontal and vertical, just as the FM5s) while the other had a three metre beam for 6m. We also used various other aerials from time to time, including a Sandpiper MV10 and a vertical whip for 10m. I never dare bring out the beast - my four element 10m beam. Now THAT would have been a potent aerial for this sunspot cycle. All the aerials used rotators so the neighbours would have been aware that these aerials would turn around from time to time. 

During the beginning of the summer E season we were suddenly made aware that our immediate neighbours were getting breakthrough on their home cinema system (not on the TV itself) when using 2m FM! Even when we used one watt of power! We checked the connections and the SWR across the bands and everything was in order. Coax cables were mostly buried underground. Without wishing to sound discourteous, it is generally accepted that most interference issues result from the person who is receiving the interference as opposed to the ham who is transmitting. For the benefit of any reader who is not a radio ham, all hams have to study and pass a series of technical exams which focus on subjects such as aerial theory, operating procedures, circuitry relating to amateur radio which includes basic electronics and transmitter interference - ensuring that they fully understand how to avoid causing interference. Fact: transmitting in the amateur radio bands should not cause interference to other services if it is installed correctly. Most of the time the problems are caused by broken cables in the neighbour's properties, poorly screened television equipment or just cables which are so long that they resonate and act as receiving aerials. 

So back to planning matters: Our housing association describe themselves as "very strict but very fair" and they clearly did not have a problem with our aerials. They have known about them ever since we moved here 18 months ago and actually told us they would not have asked us to remove them had there not been a complaint, so they are then forced to investigate and act accordingly. They agreed that we weren't causing a nuisance. They had been doing their research however and knew we were radio hams and even knew our callsigns. 

Because of the complaint we were ordered to remove the mast and all aerials and told to apply for planning permission. They said that the aerials would never be allowed on the garden again and that all aerial structures are strictly to be attached to the property, should permission be granted. They must be erected by a CAI approved installer. We later found that a CAI-qualified installer was 'preferred' but not absolutely necessary. It's all about safety which is completely understandable. The installation should be 'safe' and would be inspected after installation. 

Now, please note that our housing association is classed as a private landlord. Had this been a council house matter things would have been different and, as we understand it, councils may appear to be more lenient when it comes to granting permission for amateur radio structures. Local councils have to stick to set rules and guidelines. The procedure is longer and can be costly. The private landlord are legally able to make up their own rules and enforce them. Obtaining permission from a housing association may involve a simple phone call or a written letter with detailed photographs and product information, etc. No fees are involved. Permission is usually granted in a month or so (the first application took less than two weeks to be approved) and is given in writing, detailing the relevant conditions. 

It is possible to go directly to the council to ask for planning permission even if you live in housing association accommodation. But even if the council grant permission, the housing association can still refuse permissions as they have the final say. 

Most hams and radio enthusiasts I know have never applied for any kind of planning permission. It may be more trouble than it is worth if you are only intending to erect a simple aerial or two. Basically, just stick them up and hope that nobody complains. You SHOULD be OK, providing you aren't intending to erect something the size of Belmont. Consider the relevant safety aspects, etc. 

It is highly unlikely that permission to erect a general FM band 2 aerial will be refused. This is almost considered as a basic human right since you are paying your licence fees and have the right to be able to receive clear reception of BBC services, etc. It would be unreasonable for a private landlord to refuse this. 

Another key point in getting written permission for a rooftop aerial is "start small" and then apply for something bigger. I have now spoken to several planning officers, private and commercial and they all agree on this. Some amateurs suggested to us that we should go straight to the top and ask for a tower system with several aerials, assuming that permission would be granted to use at least 'some' of them. This is not a good idea. The planning officers themselves have told us this. 

Our housing association have told us that, should neighbours complain about our aerials, they would ask us to take them down immediately. I explained that this was unfair and that this would result in me having to remove the aerials should one neighbour lodge a complaint. They could not possibly cause interference. I pointed out that it was the job of OFCOM to investigate interference issues and not the housing association. Thankfully, they took this on board and added a clause to their permissions letter explaining certain complaints in the future would need to be passed to OFCOM. 

An interesting point to conclude: As many hams know, while private landlords and housing associations can tell you to remove your aerials, only one person has the right to actually demand that you cease your amateur radio transmissions. The housing association cannot do this. Your local council cannot do this. Not even the police can do this. Legally, only a representative from OFCOM has the power to force you to cease transmissions.