Farmers are accusing telecoms companies of abusing a code of practice to force down rents paid to Welsh landowners to site mobile phone masts on their land.

Since 2017, the Electronic Communications Code has given telecoms companies and infrastructure providers the framework to force rent reductions of up to 90 per cent, says campaign group Protect & Connect.

Welsh hill farmer Edmund Bailey was offered just £3.50 a year in rent for a mast despite earlier agreeing £5,500 with a telecoms company.

Farmers like Mr Bailey have disputed rent reductions and this has resulted in drawn out and acrimonious contract negotiations, says Protect & Connect.

There are around 33,000 mobile phone masts in the UK and many more are contracted to be built but the group says the code isn’t working for farmers, nor for telecoms companies either as rent disputes are holding up the installation of new infrastructure and slowing 5G rollout.

“Our campaign wants to get back to a market that works for both sides – and for the country,’’ says a spokesperson for the group.

“The UK’s digital future should not be fought and decided in the courts.’’

The group wants to strengthen the industry code of practice to safeguard landowners against ‘harassment or intimidation’ from companies implementing it.

Former MP Anna Turley, who chairs the group, said that while the UK needed high speed digital connectivity it was wrong to expect landowners and other property owners to foot the bill.

“Telecoms companies are hugely profitable and have recently been handed generous state subsidies to roll out high speed networks, particularly in rural areas,’’ she said.

“The individuals and organisations that have been forced to accept rental reductions of up to 90 per cent include farming families, amateur sports clubs, small business and parish councils.

“We will campaign tirelessly on their behalf to expose the tactics employed by telecoms operators and their agents and ensure property owners get a fair deal.”

A UK government consultation into the code closed on March 24.

Mr Bailey, a beef and sheep farmer, farms at Llanbedr, Gwynedd, where he and his two children and their partners run several diversified businesses, including holiday accommodation and an energy installation.

The family was keen to improve the mobile phone signal in that area and in October 2017 struck up an agreement with an operator, on a subject to contract basis, for a 10-year lease of a greenfield site at a rent of £5,500 per year with reviews.

Six months later, the company insisted on a code agreement at a rent £3.50 a year for 10 years.

Mr Bailey’s son and daughter-in-law, Ed and Helen Bailey, run a chartered surveying practice from the farm and had managed the negotiations with the operator on behalf of the farm business.

Ed said the actions and behaviour of the company slowed down the process of getting digital connectivity in the area and that a threat of a land tribunal hearing had caused great stress to him and his family.

“Operators feel the code puts them beyond the requirement for negotiation and they default far too quickly and easily to the code, it destroys any trust between the parties,’’ he said.

The Baileys have since negotiated an alternative approach to getting a mast erected on the land, by entering into a form of joint venture with an infrastructure provider.

The farm business is paying for a proportion of the ground work and infrastructure and its return on investment will be an annual fee.

“It is unfortunate that farmers, planning officers and agents are often cited as an impediment to connectivity but the truth is that progress can be made by people working together in a more innovative way,’’ said Ed.