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10.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Eastwood (Mr. Murphy) on securing the debate and giving the House the opportunity to discuss this important matter. He is right to point out that it concerns many people. I hope that he acknowledges that the Government have recognised that concern and are trying to respond to it.

My hon. Friend notes that the industry is modern; it is economically important and has undergone remarkable expansion over the past 15 years. It is a vital part of our economy and represents about 3 per cent. of gross domestic product. Network operators employ about 213,000 people in the UK and there are about 30 million mobile phone subscribers. The industry is significant. As my hon. Friend anticipates, that growth is expected to continue with the introduction of the third generation of mobile telecoms systems.

The Government want to encourage and facilitate the roll-out of a modern, national telecoms network. We want to ensure that the public are able to enjoy the benefits, both to business and through increased job opportunities. It has also been liberating for many people to own and carry mobile phones. That is an important social issue.

None the less, the drive to develop the telecoms network, with its attendant base stations, must clearly be balanced with the Government's commitment to the

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achievement of environmental and health and safety objectives. We attach great importance to keeping to a minimum the environmental intrusion caused by the network. The land-use planning system provides a tool for striking that necessary balance.

As my hon. Friend points out, planning controls for telecommunications development are devolved matters for Scotland, so I am unable to comment on that matter, but it might be helpful if I briefly set out some of the planning arrangements in England. I shall touch on some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend.

My hon. Friend proposed that we should consider separately mobile phones and masts, because as people choose to carry a mobile phone they can make a conscious choice based on information about the possible risks. I am sure that he will also recognise that if more people want to use mobile phones, we have a problem. However, we cannot separate the debate about masts because we need them to support the expansion of the use of mobile phones.

In England, the general planning arrangements are that the larger telecoms developments--masts more than 15 m high--will require an application for planning permission, but relatively minor development is permitted by the general permitted development order, the GPDO. That gives a range of permitted development rights for operators who are licensed under the Telecommunications Act 1984. It allows operators to carry out specified development without the need to submit an application for planning permission to the local planning authority, except in certain environmentally sensitive areas.

In England, the GPDO approach has safeguards--the main one being provided through the prior approval procedure. That mechanism is not available under the planning regime in Scotland, so that points to one of the differences between the two regimes. The prior approval procedure in England gives the local planning authority an opportunity to consider the siting and appearance of telecommunications masts. Authorities have different periods in which to consider whether they want to object to a proposal, depending on whether the application is for a ground-based mast or one on a building or structure.

My hon. Friend asked about the number of masts. I understand that there are about 9,000 mobile phone transmitter masts in the United Kingdom. Lattice masts and poles are used--the latter, of which there are about 2,000, are similar to a lamp post and are being used increasingly in preference to lattices as they are less intrusive environmentally.

I cannot tell my hon. Friend how many more masts might be required following the third generation auction of licences. That is an operational matter for the industry. Clearly, operators are fully aware of the importance that we attach to keeping the number of masts to the absolute practical minimum. One way in which that can be achieved, as my hon. Friend suggested--it is an issue of concern expressed by many Members of Parliament, members of the public and local authorities--is the extent to which we promote, and the industry uses, mast and site sharing to contain the number of masts needed.

I recognise that mast sharing is not the optimum environmental solution in every case. A couple of slim and unobtrusive masts might be better than a larger cluttered mast, at least on environmental grounds. However, we are strongly advising the industry that

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consideration of sharing needs to be the starting point when it is deciding whether further masts are needed. Indeed, conditions attached to the individual operating licences granted by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry include a requirement to investigate mast sharing before putting up a new mast.

I have outlined the existing regulatory arrangements and policy guidance to my hon. Friend. We recently conducted a consultation exercise on possible changes to planning arrangements for telecommunications masts in the UK.

The present system of prior approval is a major advantage for mobile phone operators. It gives them some certainty about the time scale within which either a decision will be made or an objection lodged. If an authority does not make a decision within the appropriate deadline, operators have an automatic right to install. The main criticism of the present system, in particular in the light of some of the issues that my hon. Friend raised, is its perceived complexity and an alleged lack of adequate consultation procedures--the voice for local communities to which he referred.

Under the prior approval procedures there is concern that there is insufficient time for a local planning authority to consult adequately all the people who are likely to be affected by a development.

As my hon. Friend made absolutely clear, the concerns about lack of consultation are related not only to anxiety about the environmental and visual aspects of mast development but to public concern about whether telecom masts have adverse health effects. Last year, in response to public concern about the possible health effects of mobile phone technology, the Government asked the National Radiological Protection Board--the Government's statutory advisers on such matters--to set up the independent expert group on mobile phones, chaired by Sir William Stewart. As my hon. Friend said, the group considered concerns about health effects from the use of mobile phones, base stations and transmitters. It reported earlier this year.

On masts, the group concluded that

However, it also said that it is not possible to say that exposure to radio frequency radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is completely without adverse health effects. It therefore recommended the adoption of a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies, comprising a series of specific measures, until more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available.

On mobile phone base stations, the group's report concluded that

Those were the group's conclusions about the evidence available on the consequences for health.

In their response to the report, which was also published in May, the Government stated that they accepted the precautionary approach advised by the group on the basis of the specific recommendations in the group's report and our response to them.

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The group's report suggests that public consultation on planning under the prior approval arrangements is not working satisfactorily. It also suggests that the lack of public consultation is a major cause of grievance to people who suffer a loss of amenity and so on when base stations are erected. For those reasons, the group recommended that changes to the planning arrangements were necessary. In the Government's response, we said that we were minded to introduce a requirement for planning applications for all new telecommunication masts, but that we would first consult widely on the principle of moving to full planning applications and the precise scope of any new arrangements.

My hon. Friend referred to concerns about siting mobile phone masts on or near schools. It is important to note that the Stewart report does not recommend that the erection of masts on or near schools should be prohibited, nor does it recommend that existing masts should be removed. However, it does recommend that the beam of greatest intensity should not fall on any part of a school's grounds or buildings without agreement from the school or parents.

The Department for Education and Employment has issued advice to local education authorities and schools about base stations in and around school premises and about the use of mobile phones by children. Where parents or schools wish to know whether the beam of

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intensity falls on school grounds or buildings, the school can contact the base station's operator. They have agreed to provide schools with information on the level of intensity of radio frequency radiation. That information will include an explanation of the way in which the intensity of the radiation falls off with distance from the antenna. If the school or parents have a major concern, they can ask the network operator to adjust the antenna, so that the way in which the intensity of the radiation falls off changes in a way that they find more satisfactory.

The Stewart group does not recommend a moratorium on the construction of mobile phone masts, and we have no plans to introduce one. The report makes some specific recommendations on a precautionary approach, which the Government have accepted. My hon. Friend asked whether we will keep up to date with national and international research. As part of our response to the group's report, the Government agreed that further research is urgently needed into the potential health effects of mobile communications equipment. We are not simply responding to what the Stewart group has said so far; we are commissioning a comprehensive programme of research, costing several million pounds, which will look for further information. So we are actively seeking--

The motion having been made at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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