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Last Updated: Friday, 27 August, 2004, 10:22 GMT 11:22 UK
Slow demise of a very British icon
By Bill Wilson
BBC News Online business reporter

Man using mobile phone outside call box
The mobile phone has a lot to answer for

The news from BT that it plans to axe close to one-fifth of payphones in Scotland is the last phase of a rolling review that will eventually see around 10,000 payphones disappear across Britain in the coming 18 months.

In its heyday the red call box was a British icon as famous as the red double-decker bus, the red postbox, or The Beatles.

However with the rise to prominence in recent years of the mobile phone, BT says there has been "a complete culture change in communication".

In recent years too many call boxes have also become less-than-welcoming spaces - increasingly likely to be vandalised, be rigged up for scams where change is not returned, or, in parts of London, be plastered with prostitutes' calling cards.

Consideration should be given to those living in isolated areas
Durham county councillor John Shuttleworth

Over the last three years the use of public payphones has almost halved and revenue has dropped by 40%.

In 2001 BT announced it was to stop its placement of payphones, and in February 2002 began a programme of identifying and uprooting "uneconomic" kiosks, and there has already been a serious contraction in the number of call boxes since then.

Now the programme of cutbacks will continue with BT this week completing its review of existing pay phones across England, Wales, and Scotland.

'Difficult balance'

In Scotland, BT has now revealed it would like to reduce the number of public kiosks from 6,113 to 5,083, with closures in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and in most other parts of the country.

The company says it will consult with local authorities and community councils over which 1,030 phones across Scotland will be removed, and that it also intends to retain 850 loss-making boxes across the country.

"BT is proud of its payphone network and we intend to protect it for the future, but the payphones division has to stand on its own feet," says Paul Hendron, director of BT Payphones.

The public phone box
British public kiosk first in world
Introduced in 1886
Initially placed in shops
AA roadside kiosks introduced in 1912
Police boxes followed in 1920s
Iconic red box designed in 1924
Designer Giles Gilbert Scott wanted them to be silver
2,500 been given listed status
New kiosks designed in 1980s
Kiosks doubled between 1985 and 2000
Now carry billboards
Many have internet access

"Getting the balance between commercial pressures and retaining loss-making payphones that provide an essential service is difficult, but we believe we are getting it right."

Across England, Scotland and Wales, BT currently has 72,000 payphone boxes on the street, which it hopes to reduce by about 10,000 over the next 18 months.

Of the 3,500 public phone boxes in the south-west of England, BT is planning to remove about 650 of these - one in five.

And last week it announced that 678 payphone kiosks are to be axed across the north-east of England.

Earlier in the month it was revealed that more than 1,000 public phone boxes - again, one in every five - will be shut by BT in Wales.

As in Northumberland and County Durham it will be rural areas that are worst hit, with 40% of boxes in mid-Wales likely to disappear.

'Life and death'

People living in rural areas argue many kiosks earmarked for disposal are potential life-savers, especially in areas where mobile signals are unobtainable, or where elderly residents may not have mobiles.

There are concerns that if the phone box in the hamlet of Hunstanworth, on the Durham-Northumberland border is closed, then it will leave the nearest payphone at Rookhope, five miles away.

"We cannot get mobile phone signals in many parts of Weardale, but BT wants to remove phones in Hunstanworth and Ruffside, as well as several in Upper Teesdale," says Durham county councillor John Shuttleworth, who represents rural Weardale.

A red telephone box in Edinburgh
Call boxes like these in Edinburgh could be facing the chop

"I acknowledge the use of mobile phones has increased, but where these telephone kiosks are situated there is little, or indeed no coverage whatsoever, and consideration should be given to leaving these in their isolated areas.

"Also, the roads in the dales are often impassable in winter and if a motorist became stuck, or broke down in harsh conditions, payphones could mean the difference between life and death."

A spokesman for BT said the company intended to maintain 375 payphone boxes in Northumberland, including 110 loss-making ones, but wanted to remove 144 within the county. In County Durham it planned to axe 78 payphones, leaving 680 alone.

BT says it undertakes consultation with local communities before closing payphones, and also is keeping thousands in service when they are making a loss.

"BT is not allowed to subsidise its payphone business... despite this the company has pledged its commitment to the service, particularly for those people who depend on payphones," said Mr Hendron.

Broadband-enabled

In 2000 BT doubled the minimum charge for a payphone call, and again this year increased the cost from 20p to 30p.

At the turn of the decade it also started charging for calls from phone boxes to directory inquiries, and in May 2002 announced that it was ceasing production of phone cards.

Back in the 1980s architectural historian Gavin Stamp led a campaign to save the traditional red phone box and warned of "a holocaust of almost all of Britain's existing telephone boxes".

However BT says it is looking to the future with innovations such as converting 1,200 payphones to multimedia kiosks featuring internet, e-mail, and text messaging.

And it is also in the middle of a programme to install wi-fi access points in broadband-enabled payphones.




SEE ALSO:
Mobiles blamed for payphone cuts
11 Jan 04  |  Shropshire
Fears raised over phone removal
14 Nov 03  |  Cornwall
Townsfolk lament phones loss
07 Feb 03  |  England


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