The Irish Times recently reported on the problem of abandoned and derelict phone boxes in Dublin. Dublin City Council, however, says it has no powers to remove old phone boxes.
The article dealt only with Smart Telecom’s phone boxes but it raises a wider problem. There are a great many boxes owned by other telecom operators in disrepair or abandoned across the city. These boxes, with broken phones and vandalised windows, have become little more than an obstruction on the pavement and an eyesore.
Several local business owners have told me that these boxes are a real problem. But in some areas of Dublin, as Olivia Kelly reported, their presence disqualified villages from enjoying Tidy Towns status.
The Council says it has no power to remove the boxes. But this thinking is wrong in two respects. First, the law does empower the Council to take action. Second, by doing so the Council can provide a benefit to the public beyond removing a public eyesore.
The 1990 Act
The Council has a variety of powers under the Derelict Sites Act, 1990 [link], which defines a derelict site as one which
“detracts, or is likely to detract, to a material degree from the amenity, character or appearance of land in the neighbourhood of the land in question”.
The Council can argue that this threshold has been reached.
Not only this, but the Act, in Section 11, lays out precisely what the Council should do in this situation:
they shall serve a notice in writing on any person who appears to them to be the owner or occupier of the said land.
(2) A notice under this section shall—
(a) specify the measures which the local authority or the Minister, as the case may be, consider to be necessary in order to prevent the land from becoming or continuing to be a derelict site,
(b) direct the person on whom the notice is being served to take such measures as may be specified in the notice, and
(c) specify a period (being not less than one month) within which such measures are to be taken;
(5) Where a person on whom a notice under this section has been served does not, within the period specified in the notice or in the notice as amended, as the case may be, comply with the requirements of the notice, the local authority who served the notice may take such steps (including entry on land by authorised persons in accordance with section 30 ) as they consider reasonable and necessary to give effect to the terms of the notice or the notice as amended, as the case may be, and may recover any expense thereby incurred from the person on whom the notice or the notice as amended, as the case may be, was served and who is the owner or occupier as a simple contract debt in any court of competent jurisdiction.
Failure to comply on the part of the owner of the derelict site is an offense under the act for which the owner can be made subject to fines (see detail at http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/1990/en/act/pub/0014/sec0028.html#sec28). In other words, the Council can take action in the case of the derelict phone boxes, and is invested with extensive powers to do so. But it chooses not to.
But beyond merely requiring that telco operators clean up their phone boxes, Section 14 of the 1990 Act gives the Council the power to
“acquire by agreement or compulsorily any derelict site situated within their functional area”
Therefore if the telco operators fail to clean up their act the Council can take over the boxes itself. And herein lies an interesting prospect. The Council could use these sites to expand the Free WiFi scheme across Dublin City. At present the Scheme operates at a limited number of locations (see map below).
The Council must step up to the telco operators and demand better behaviour. If they do refuse to comply then it should take action under the 1990 Act, potentially taking over these sites and blanketing the City with free WiFi for the public. Far better to enable every citizen to access the Internet everywhere than continue to allow phone boxes to be left to rot.