MP campaigns to save telephone boxes

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25 Sep 2008
Newcastle MP Paul Farrelly has launched a campaign to safeguard the future of 15 public telephone kiosks in the Borough, including some traditional red boxes widely regarded as design icons.

The spread of mobile phones is making public phone boxes unprofitable and British Telecom says many are targets for vandalism and theft.

The company operates 13,000 pay phones across Britain and is currently carrying out consultations on its latest plans to remove loss-making kiosks, including 15 in the Newcastle area.

But many villagers say that public kiosks in isolated areas are potential life-savers, particularly for elderly people who do not have mobile phones or where mobile signals are weak.

Now Mr Farrelly has promised to support residents who want to retain their local public pay phones and has called on Newcastle Borough Council to object to the removal of all 15. The Council is co-ordinating consultations and people have until September 6th to object.

Mr Farrelly said: “Many elderly people do not have mobile phones and so rely on public phone boxes, particularly if they are located close to their homes. In some areas the presence of a phone box is a reassuring sight and a valuable public service.”

The 15 pay phones in the Borough are located in Halmer End, Loggerheads and Whitmore, Holditch, Chesterton, Westlands, Bradwell, May Bank, Madeley and Ravenscliffe.

“I realise that many kiosks make a loss and that BT has to strike a balance between subsiding them and fulfilling its commitment to provide an essential national service,” said Mr Farrelly.

“But the company has said that if there is substantial opposition to the removal of any boxes, or if the Borough Council objects, then they will remove them from the programme and look at them separately.”

In the past, many local councils have used their powers to designate phone boxes as listed buildings in their attempts to block their removal. But listed building status may not save them in the long term, said Mr Farrelly

“I will be meeting with British Telecom and will also raise the matter in Parliament to see whether more permanent solutions can be found to preserve the public service,” added Mr Farrelly, who is a member of the Commons Culture, Media and Sports Select Committee.

Among local villagers fighting the removal plans are Simon Keeling and Alistair Glover, who asked Mr Farrelly for his support after learning that their kiosk in Leycett Road, Scot Hay is on the closure list.

Simon said: “As well as providing a vital service, red phone boxes are cultural icons and are important to our tourism industry. It may be that in future they could become adapted to provide multi-media information points for visitors.”

Opponents of the closure plans nationally include English Heritage, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England and the tourist organisation VisitBritain.

In recent years, BT has carried out a rolling programme of closures but still operates 13,000 across the country, of which around 4,500 could be axed in the current round. Many will go for certain if they are located within 400 metres of another kiosk.

Apart from representing a cut in public service, the demise of public pay phones, and particularly the familiar red boxes, is widely lamented as a further loss to Britain’s cultural identity.

For many people the red phone box is a powerful symbol of Britain’s heritage and is widely regarded as a classic icon of 20th century design. Designed in 1924 by Giles Gilbert Scott, the phone box was once a common sight on every street in Britain.  

With its domed roof, cast-iron casing and crown insignia, the red box has also become an important attraction for thousands of UK tourists, for whom a photo opportunity outside a kiosk is essential part of their travel plans.

Although Scott’s original design has altered in colour and style, its classic shape has remained unchanged for much of the 20th century and to many of its supporters its sturdy and robust appearance represents a comforting bulwark against changing cultural fashions.

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