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Hansard 18 Jan: Column 680 ...
Hansard 18 Jan: Column 680

The government has come under pressure in the commons to change planning requirements and health assessments to provide more rigorous controls on telecommunications masts.

Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, initiated an adjournment debate in which he said some of his constituents had laid siege to prevent Orange Communications plc erecting a new mast.

'They were protesting not simply about a mast that spoils their environment, although that is precisely what it does, but about a planning system and public health system that had let them down', he said.

Mr Willis, who was supported by Labour as well as Lib-Dem MPs, said permission for the mast had been gained using permitted development rights. There was no site notice, no public consultation, and not even consultation with locally elected councillors. The first residents knew something was to happen was when a bulldozer ripped out a listed hedgerow and began work on the site. It was not an isolated experience, but one which had been replicated throughout the UK, including Northern Ireland.

Andrew Reed, Labour MP for Loughborough, who said in his constituency a telecommunications mast was only 25 metres away from a series of properties. Even if there is no proven case either way, the perception at this stage - fear of the long-term implications and health fears - need to be taken into account in legislation.

Mr Willis said if the World Health Authority was taking seriously the possible effects of mobile telephone masts, so should parliament. In the USA, 39 states had stopped erecting masts until the authorities have greater confidence in the technology.

He added: 'I am not suggesting that the government should order every mobile telephone mast to be pulled down tomorrow, or that the telecommunications industry should stop applying to erect new masts. What I am suggesting, and what the WHO is suggesting, is a cautionary approach'.

To support this approach, Mr Willis asked environment minister Nick raynsford to consider five proposals:

He said, 'First,PPG8 should be amended to restore the balance aginst the industry and in favour of the general public. According to section (5) of PPG8:'The government's general policy on telecommunications is to facilitate the growth of new and existing systems'.

'That advice is probably the most heavily weighted government guidance to local planning authorities. That probably explains why, even when planning authorities refuse applications, 47% of them are granted at appeal by the secretary of state, compared with only 33% of all other planning applications. It is no use the minister saying that planning authorities have the opportunity to exerciuse control over the individual siting of mast developments. They do not. Given the public concerns about health and the environment, such policy objective imbalance is surely unacceptable.

'The second proposal is to remove permitted development rights for all applications for new masts. Already one company, One2One, has agreed to give up its permitted development rights. If that company can do so and continue to operate in the market, surely others can, too. Such a measure would immediately restore public confidence in the justice of the planning system. It would enable local residents and elected members adequately to consider the merits of each application, give operators greater incentive to negotiate with local communities and the planning authority, and still allow operators a right of appeal to the secretary of state.

'My third proposal would make mandatory the requirement for local planning authorities to have as part of their development plan a detailed telecommunications policy. Currently, PPG8 recommends such inclusions without making them obligatory. Local authorities should be obliged to maintain on the plan details of all current installations, including their power, frequency and coverage. That would give added protection against the cumulative effects of multi-installations using a single mast and pave the way for assessing need.

'My fourth proposal would be an essential part of the development control process. All applications should be subject to an independent assessment of need before determination. At present, the operator can justify need without any external verification. Few, if any,local authorities carry specialists who are able to assess a case of need. Why can Cellnet achieve 99% coverage across the United Kingdom using 2,400 masts, while one of its competitors needs more than 4,000? An independent assessment financed by the operator as part and parcel of the planning application would show the public applications should be subject to an independent assessment'.

Mr Willis concluded:'My fifth proposal is the most crucial. Each application should be accompanied by a health risk assessment financed by the applicant and produced by the National Radiological Protection Board...The NRPB's role is to assess risk. Although it is reassessing its guidance in the light of public concern, I believe that an assessment by it would give added security to local communities'.

Replying to the debate, Mr Raynsford said the government's policy was to strike a balance between the provision of a competitive telecommunications network and the protection of the environment and residential areas. That was reflected in PPG8.

On permitted development rights, the minister said: 'Some development permitted in this way, such as the erection of a mast up to 15 metres in height, is however, subject to a condition that requires the operator to satisfy a prior approval procedure. Under that procedure, the local planning authority has the opportunity to say whether it wishes to approve, within 28 days, details of the installation's siting and apprearance. The authority is able to refuse approval if it considers that the development will pose a serious threat to amenity'.

He commended the code of best practice on telecommuication prior approval procedures, published by the DETR and prepared by a joint working party of local authority repreentatives and the principal telecommunications code system operators.

Mr Raynsford added:'It is important that local authorities understand the constraints within which telecom companies operate, and assist them in finding pragmatic solutions. The planning authorities' local knowledge is vital in that process. The control of development, such as telecommunications masts, does not rely simply on responding to planning applications. PPG8 sets out a number of positive steps that local planning authorities can take to help shape telecommunications development in their area'.

Although not a statutory requirement, the department encouraged publicity for prior approval applications so that people likely to be affected could make their views known to the authority. The government intend to extend the prior approvale notice period to 42 days for ground-based masts and to place a statutory obligation on operators to erect a site notice to publicise the proposed development. That would make local people aware and enable them to make their views known to the local authority, which would be able to take any representations into account when considering whether to grant or refuse approval of the mast's siting and apprearance.

Mr Raynsford said guidance being drawn up would cover the local authority's role in bringing mast applications to the attention of interested parties, and undertaking additional publicity to achieve that. The government was keen to discuss with the telecommunications industry to reduce adverse environmental impact by, among other things, furthering the policy of mast-sharing.

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