Select Committee on Trade and Industry Tenth Report


The Trade and Industry Committee has agreed to the following Report:—




1. We decided to inquire into the proposed planning regime for telecoms masts in view of growing public concern, reflected in several recent parliamentary debates, Early Day Motions and legislative proposals[1] and in the formation of a national umbrella organisation, Mast Action UK, comprised of around 200 local groups; and on the basis of the concerns known to us from our own constituencies. The publication in May 2000 of the Stewart Report on Mobile Phones and Health, and its broad conclusion that masts are unlikely to present any health risk, has not allayed public concerns. Given the recent history of reliability of scientific advice given to Government and the public on safety issues, and the inconclusive contents of the Report, that is hardly surprising.

2. We have also been conscious of the concerns of operators at the proposal made in that Report, and originally supported by Ministers, that all masts should be subject to planning permission, at a time when further infrastructure is being rolled out for Third Generation (3G) mobile networks. All five 3G networks have to cover 80% of the population by 2007; a substantial number of new sites will be required. The rapidly growing volumes of traffic carried on existing mobile networks calls for filling in blackspots for reception. Radio Fixed Access (RFA) broadband operators, whose equipment needs line of right to premises served, will also require infrastructure to provide new services. A new digital radio service for the emergency services, Airwave, is also being rolled out. There is some feeling that further masts would be unnecessary if operators were more prepared to share sites or masts. In the course of our June 2000 visit to Finland, we had learned from our briefing at Nokia, a leading global telecoms company, of the emergence of miniaturised technology, based on a network of small street-level boxes containing microcells or picocells. These could make antennae mounted on masts or tall buildings redundant, particularly in built-up areas. There is already a trend towards installing microcells in residential areas.[2] BT Cellnet told us of trials of microcells in the roofs of some BT payphones.[3]

3. There is a genuine national interest in the successful development of mobile telephony, both in terms of improving existing coverage and rolling out 3G. Electronic commerce has been a frequent theme of our Reports this Parliament, most recently in our Report on UK Online published on 23 March 2001.[4] E-commerce will be increasingly transacted on the move — "m-commerce". Mobile telephony is intensely popular in the UK. 70% of the population own mobile phones. There are 41 million mobile phones connected in the UK. Mobiles account for 20% of total minutes of use of telecoms.[5] The mobile telecommunications industry employs directly and indirectly tens of thousands of people. Regulatory problems and public hostility over masts could conceivably constitute a threat to one of the Government's key goals, to make the UK the best electronic marketplace in the world, and to the competitiveness of a significant industry.

Future requirement

4. The scale of the estimated future demand for new masts is uncertain. The operators told us that 80% of existing sites would be able to serve as base stations for 3G. There are now around 22,500 sites. A net total of around 27,000 installations are said to be required.[6] Many of the additional sites will not be ground-based, but will use existing structures or buildings. New ground-based masts will often be shared. Working from an estimate of 6,000 ground-based masts now, the best estimate we were given was of an additional 3,000 ground-based masts over the next three years.[7] Subject to site and mast sharing, it may be fewer.[8] We were also told that over 90% of new masts go through without problem.[9] Miniaturisation is agreed to be likely to lead to more but smaller base stations with less visual impact.[10] The prospect of tens of thousands of new metal masts on every street corner is not a realistic one; but there will be thousands of new sites required for ground-based telecoms masts over the next few years.


5. We heard evidence on 13 March 2001 from Sir William Stewart, Chairman of the Independent Expert Working Group on Mobile Phones set up in 1999 by the Minister of Health; Mast Action UK, a recently formed umbrella group for those protesting against masts; the Royal Town Planning Institute; the Local Government Association; and the Federation of the Electronic Industry, with representatives of the 5 operators. On 25 January 2001 we held an informal meeting with two planning consultants who act for operators, who provided us with a very useful practical insight into the subject. We also received some written evidence.

16 March 2001 announcement

6. Three days after our oral evidence, on 16 March 2001, the Minister for Housing, Planning and Construction announced the broad outlines of DETR's proposed way ahead on the planning regime, following the department's July 2000 Consultation Paper.[11] Although we were not able to get the reactions of the principal stakeholders to these specific proposals, we had put some of them as possible outcomes to witnesses for their comments. It seems likely that the DETR will want to put forward the necessary secondary legislation before the House early in the new Parliament. We have therefore thought it helpful, at the risk of omitting some matters, to set out our conclusions and recommendations.

1  Eg HC Deb, 6 December 2000, cols 113-120: 24 January 2001, cols 1034-1042: Siting of Telecommunications Masts Bill, introduced 28 February 2001, cols 908-911 Back

2  Eg Q 114 Back

3  Ev, p 47  Back

4  Eighth Report, HC 66 of session 2000-01 Back

5  Q 167 Back

6  Q 155; Ev, p 83 Back

7  Qq 153-4, 158 Back

8  Qq 178-9 Back

9  Q 184 Back

10  Qq 155, 157 Back

11  HC Deb, 16 March 2001, cols 748-751w Back

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