THOUSANDS of telephone kiosks could be removed to save money.

The announcement that government watchdog Oftel is to relax requirements for public phone boxes in urban areas is worrying the Women's Institute.

Oftel claims the income from kiosks has fallen by 40pc because of vandalism and the increased use of mobile phones.

The move is likely to be seen as another threat to rural communities and poor inner cities, echoing the decline of sub-post offices and small bank branches.

This could be the thin end of the wedge, reports Mrs Janet Wright, chairman of the North Yorkshire East federation of WIs.

From WI House in Norby, Thirsk, Mrs Wright said: "It is not yet clear what the official position of Oftel is with regard to rural areas. We are deeply concerned that the action announced for urban areas may be the beginning of a slippery slope, with telephone boxes in rural areas next in line for removal.

"Oftel should ensure that its decision is based on hard evidence, and it should take into account those people, who, by its action may be excluded from life-saving emergency services.

"As usual, it is the poor and the elderly in rural areas who will be hardest hit," says Mrs Wright.

"A significant number of rural inhabitants do not have access to mobile phones. Many can't use them because they live in areas of poor reception. Others are afraid to use mobiles because of the well-publicised health risks linked to them, such as brain tumours."

Director general of Oftel, Mr David Edmonds, said people who relied on payphones would continue to have access to them.

But Oftel admitted the effect of the proposals would be to relax controls on BT and cut the overall number of payphones.

It said: "Oftel recognises that payphone needs have changed, largely as a result of the growth in mobile phone ownership. Oftel therefore proposes that in future it should be easier for companies to remove payphones from multiple sites, provided that at least one payphone remains."