Work to replace a transmitter which provides television signals for much of northern England looks set to start in the coming days after plans for a less obtrusive structure at the “country’s most environmentally sensitive site” have been given the go-ahead.
However, it has emerged residents whose television reception remains affected or limited since a fire wrecked Arqiva’s 300-metre high mast at Bilsdale in the North York Moors National Park last August face a 19-month wait before the complex construction project is completed.
According to the mast’s owners Arqiva, when a new interim transmitter is launched on Wednesday, it will mean more reliable signals in bad weather for households across swathes of northern England and more than 98 per cent of homes across the region will have had some of their TV services restored.
Along with two mines and RAF Fylingdales, the Bilsdale transmitter is one of four big developments in the national park that are given consent due to a recognised “national need” to be there.
The transmitter’s site on moorland at about 2,500ft is needed to get coverage right across northern England to get deep into the Yorkshire Dales, over the Pennines, to Durham and Northumberland and parts of North Yorkshire.
Nevertheless, the site is highly protected as it is within a national park and defined in the Local Plan as a “core remote area” where hardly any development should take place.
In addition, it is within internationally designated areas of special conservation and protection to safeguard heathland and important bird species, part of a Site of Special Scientific Interest and inside a International Dark Nights Skies Reserve.
North York Moors National Park Authority director of planning Chris France said: “This is a huge project, a whopping piece of development, in what is probably the most sensitive and protected spot in the entire country. Managing that has been incredibly challenging.”
He said the new mast would lead to environmental improvements at the site, including the eradication of seven hectares of bracken and its replacement with heather habitats for highly protected species such as golden plover and merlin on Easterside Hill, near the mast.
Although the new mast structure, work on which needs to start in the next fortnight before the bird nesting season starts, will remain visible from many miles around, it has been a agreed it should be a see-through lattice rather than the former steel pole to reduce its “bulk”.
While nothing could be done to reduce the night skies pollution impact of the red warning lights for aircraft on the mast, the firm is providing funding to lessen light pollution and impacts on landscapes elsewhere in the park.
Mr France said: “We have worked very closely and well with the company in getting a number of permissions out, including two temporary masts and the demolition of the main mast, that have all had to go through the Habitats Regulations Assessments.
“The national park has obviously been conscious of the national significance of getting those masts back, not only just for TV coverage, but also of security issues and national communications during a time of pandemic. Imagine if the media couldn’t talk to people with an impending storm coming.
Mr France said due to the complexity of the site’s protections and a recognition of the transmitter’s national importance, the authority had faced “incredibly challenging timescales” to approve plans for it.
He said: “It has been a long haul since October. It has tied up a little team of ecologists, planners and legal experts to go through incredibly complex processes with Arqiva and their planning consultants. That process has also involved discussions with government ministers and high-level discussions with Natural England about mitigating the impacts of the development.”
Arqiva said the decision it meant work on the permanent structure can begin in the next few weeks.
The new Bilsdale Mast will be over 300 metres tall, just under the height of The Shard in London, making it one of the UK’s tallest structures.
Next week, a new, 80-metre high interim mast at Bilsdale is expected to be switched on, which will improve services for more than 100,000 homes and be more robust in bad weather.
Some residents will need to retune their TVs as a result of the switchover. A smaller number of homes, mainly in east County Durham, are likely to lose their Freeview services, and engineers will repoint their TV aerials free of charge.
Adrian Twyning, director of operations at Arqiva, said: “We’re very pleased that planning permission has been granted, and grateful to those who have worked so hard to make it happen. We have worked closely with the North York Moors National Park to provide and process a high amount of detailed information and assessment to be able to facilitate the permission being issued within a record time of ten weeks. We extend thanks to all those involved in supporting us in the urgent need to replace broadcast coverage levels to the north of England.
“Building the permanent, replacement mast will restore full services to homes across the region and is an enormous investment. While construction is happening, we will continue to deliver fixes for residents in a variety of ways, including interim masts and relay sites. We are sorry for the disruption which the fire has caused, but we are making progress, as today’s announcement shows.”
Residents who lose their service or who need help or advice can call a dedicated freephone helpline on 0800 121 4828 or go to bilsdalemast.co.uk.