The coin-operated public phone box is the latest victim of the push to a cashless society – with communities told to fight for their survival or lose them forever. Industry regulator Ofcom is scrapping the need for telecoms giant BT to maintain the 21,000 phone boxes in Britain because of dwindling use.
Yet the phone kiosk still provides a communications lifeline for an estimated five million people who rely on using cash for day-to-day spending needs.
Three million adults also do not have a mobile phone – and for everyone, blackspots where mobile reception is patchy or non-existent, a telephone box may be the only option. It is also a potential lifesaver as 150,000 emergency calls are made from kiosks a year – averaging one from each phone every seven weeks. Some 2.3 million phone calls were made from phone boxes last year.
Lifeline: Phone boxes provide a communications service for millions, and account for 150,000 emergency calls a year
The Ofcom criteria for keeping phone boxes open – rolled out at the start of this month – is that 52 or more calls must have been made from them over the past 12 months. This means that if a phone is used once a week, it should be safe. If installed in a location where there is no mobile phone reception, a high level of accidents or suicides, or if used for making calls to helplines such as Childline, there are also grounds for a kiosk to be saved.
It takes just one phone call or email to state your case to BT – and the telecoms giant has a duty to take heed of any demand. Contact BT at [email protected] If a phone is broken, it should also be reported immediately. Call 151 from the kiosk or dial 0800 661610 and provide details of the address and phone number.
Colchester Civic Society asked BT to provide details of all the kiosks in the Essex city three years ago, only to be told this information was ‘confidential.’ Not to be put off, chairwoman Jo Edwards, along with colleagues Sheila Anderton and Bob Mercer, asked locals and paced the streets to discover 42 city phone kiosks – of which only about a quarter were still working.
Four of the 32 that have now been saved were classic red ‘K6’ models – the iconic red phone box. Sheila says: ‘All it took was one phone call to the right person and BT came out to repair the majority of the broken phone boxes. Those that were not being used were removed. Had we not contacted BT, we may have lost them all.’
Outside GreyFriars Hotel on Colchester’s main high street sits one of the red phone boxes that the community saved. Armed with a handful of coins – these days the phones only take 10p, 20p, 50p and £1 coins and require a minimum of 60p – it felt liberating to make a call without worrying about mobile reception.
It was reassuring to hear the soft burr of the dialling tone as I picked up the handset. A wave of nostalgia swept over me as I recollected nervous phone calls to girls asking them on dates, which they immediately declined. This time as I inserted the coins, they dropped into the ‘returned coins tray.’ No fancy slot for card payments or wi-fi signal options in this 1930s workhorse.
I was not deterred. A message inside the phone box told me to call 151 if there was a fault. After hearing a menu of options, I finally got through to engineer Matthew, who promised to report the problem – and get it fixed within days.
Jo says: ‘These old phones cost money to maintain and it is vital to report faults immediately. So you have done the right thing.’
Graduate Jenny Haig, 22, and her fiance, 24-year-old Eddie Matthews, a soldier in the Third Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, are proud of how locals fought to keep their phone boxes open.
Jenny says: ‘They are part of our British heritage – and we should fight for their survival as a matter of pride. We need to keep as many working as possible. A lot of people still prefer to use coins for making calls – and they should not be discriminated against. The phone boxes are also vital in an emergency. For people like me if a mobile handset gets lost, broken or stolen, then these kiosks can prove a real godsend.’
Traditional red boxes can also be adopted by communities for a nominal £1 fee. They remain where they are, but the handsets are removed. Already more than 6,000 kiosks have been bought this way – and transformed into local amenities. Examples include a mini-library, a defibrillator centre, plant shop, cafe, food bank and art gallery.
BT says: ‘We take our obligations to provide a public payphone service seriously and will in the future adhere to Ofcom guidelines relating to the removal of any phone boxes.’
The 1920s boxes that can sell for £8,500
The red telephone box is not only a lifeline for those who prefer to make their calls using cash or where there is no mobile reception. They can also prove a shrewd investment.
In the early 1990s, there were about 92,000 red phone boxes dotted across the country. They then began to be ripped out and sold for about £250. The earliest 1920 Somerville & Company design is known as a ‘K1’ and had concrete walls and a wooden door. These days, they can sell for £8,500.
They were replaced in 1924 by the Giles Gilbert Scott designed ‘K2’ that can sell for £6,000. A number of other red phone boxes were introduced in subsequent years, but it is the 1935 ‘K6’, also designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, that really captures the imagination of collectors. It was introduced to commemorate the silver jubilee of King George V and continued to be installed until the late 1950s. Fully restored, these kiosks can fetch as much as £5,000.
Those interested in investing in a red phone box should be aware that they must also budget perhaps £100 for transport costs.
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