Select Committee on Trade and Industry Tenth Report



7. In 1981 the telecommunications business of the Post Office was split off as a separate company, British Telecommunications (BT). The 1984 Telecommunications Act opened up the telecommunications market to competition through a system of licensing commercial operators. Schedule 2 to that Act — known as the "Telecommunications Code" — set out the special rights and obligations of telecommunications code system operators to be licensed under the Act. In broad terms they reflected some of the special rights hitherto enjoyed by "statutory undertakers", including the Post Office as the sole provider of telecommunications services. One of the principle privileges conferred on code operators is the right to install apparatus on private land with the consent of the occupier concerned, but subject to general law. Licences granted by the DTI under the 1984 Act may contain various conditions, obligations or restrictions, for example in relation to consultation prior to installation of apparatus or to examining the possibility of sharing structures.

8. The first licensed operators to offer mobile telephony services were Vodafone and BT Cellnet. They offered what are now referred to as First Generation Mobile services, based on analogue cellular networks. The new infrastructure required of masts supporting the necessary antennae and associated ground equipment was developed in the 1980s.

9. In the early 1990s two further national network operators were licensed, One 2 One and Orange. All four operators offer digital cellular systems known as Global System for Mobile (GSM) or Second Generation Mobile (2G). Their networks cover most of the UK. They consist of a series of "radio base stations", each covering a specified area or "cell". The key equipment is a transmitter antenna several metres long, sufficiently high up to provide uninterrupted coverage of its cellular area. It may be sited on the side or top of an existing building or structure, or on a specially built structure or "mast". There is also a requirement for associated equipment of the size of a large trunk or small shed, and for power supply.


1985 Order

  10. It is not easy to plot the process of change in the planning regime for telecoms masts over the past 15 years. The 1984 Telecommunications Act continued the exemption of telecommunications developments from planning control which already existed under the terms of the 1971 Town and Country Planning Act. In July 1985 an Order added telecommunications developments as a new Class XXIV of "permitted development" within the terms of the existing schedule of such developments.[12] Permitted development rights had been given to the other utilities to enable them to enjoy what was described as "a reasonable degree of freedom from detailed planning controls over minor developments". It meant that, subject to specified exclusions, the defined class of developments were exempt from planning controls

11. The 1985 Order excluded from the benefit of permitted development rights telecoms apparatus more than 15 metres high. 15 metres seems to have been the standard limit already applied to constructions by various utilities, including water authorities, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Post Office and gas suppliers. Other limitations were applied to apparatus installed on an existing building or structure, and to the surface area of ground equipment. In August 1985, the Department of the Environment (DoE) published Circular 16/85 setting out the changes made by the two relevant 1985 Orders. This 1985 Order is the origin of the apparently arbitrary system whereby masts above 15 metres required planning permission and those below were exempt, subject only to generally phrased licence conditions on protection of visual amenity.


  12. In January 1988 the first edition of the Department of the Environment's Planning Policy Guidance Note 8 (PPG 8) on Telecommunications was issued, seeking to widen the understanding among local authorities of telecommunications developments. It was re-issued in an amended form in December 1992 to take account of the introduction of "prior approval". A draft revision of PPG 8 was included as part of the Government's July 2000 Consultation. In both its present and proposed future form, PPG 8 lays much stress on the benefits of telecommunications. It states that authorities should not question the need for the service. The CPRE told us that in the recent past only opencast mining had enjoyed a similiarly favourable development framework.[13]

1992: prior approval

  13. In October 1992 the Town and Country Planning General Development (Amendment) (No. 6) Order 1992 introduced a new procedure for permitted telecommunications developments. The operator is obliged to "apply to the local planning authority for a determination as to whether the prior approval of the authority will be required to the siting and appearance of the development". This application is to be accompanied by a written description of the development. An authority

· can indicate that prior approval is not required;

· can indicate that prior approval is required and give such approval, within 28 days;

· can refuse approval to the siting or appearance of the development, also within 28 days.

But if within 28 days it comes to no determination on whether approval is required, or fails to reach a decision on whether to approve, the operator is free to proceed.

17. The so-called "prior approval" system gave local planning authorities some power to control the siting and appearance of hitherto exempt masts and other structures, but without any provision for publicity being given to applications. There are no requirements for public consultation, although operators were "encouraged" in guidance to discuss their proposals with the local community. It is, we understand, unique to permitted telecoms developments. It bears the hallmarks of a traditional Whitehall compromise, ensuring that operators retain permitted development rights, and can be confident that their plans are not delayed, while giving local authorities some control on amenity issues.

1996: Code of Best Practice

  18. In March 1996, to assist in the operation of the prior approval system, which had been consolidated in the 1995 General Permitted Development Order, the Department of the Environment published a Telecommunications prior approval procedures as applied to mast/tower development: code of best practice. The Code provides tables of designated areas and locations of environmental sensitivity where proposals would need to be considered carefully, and lists the extra planning approval needed in such cases. In November 1997 the Code was reviewed; and again in July 1998.[14] The July 2000 Consultation Paper noted that the DETR "will revise the existing Code of Best Practice on Prior Approval Procedures separately in the light of decisions on the planning regime following this consultation exercise".[15]

1999: prior approval revised

  19. In July 1998 the DETR published a consultation paper on Telecommunications Development Control. It was largely concerned with the environmental effect of the siting of telecommunications masts; health issues were not covered. The main proposal was "for the introduction of a new two-stage prior approval procedure in respect of applications for ground based masts in sensitive locations in order to allow for greater public consultation over their siting and appearance". A number of respondents expressed concern over the complexity of the procedure proposed and over the distinction between sensitive and non-sensitive sites.

20. As a result, a new single-stage prior approval procedure of 42 days for ground based masts was announced on 16 November 1998. The operator must also erect a site notice to publicise the proposed development. The Statutory Instrument implementing the changes, the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) Order 1999, came into force in July 1999.[16] A circular 4/99 was issued on 4 June 1999 to accompany the new Order.


  21. There is therefore, in very simple terms, a four-tier system —

  (i)  masts over 15 metres are not given permitted development rights, and require planning permission in the normal way;

  (ii)  ground-based masts below 15 metres and associated developments enjoy permitted development rights, subject to a prior approval regime with a 42 day default approval and a slight degree of public notification;

  (iii)  most other telecoms installations enjoy permitted development rights, subject to a prior approval regime with a 28 day default approval and no public notification requirement;

  (iv)  some installations, under the de minimis rule, enjoy permitted development rights without the need for prior approval, subject to the assessed amenity impact. We understand that little use is made by operators of this provision, since it is safer for them to go through the basic prior approval regime.

It is not surprising that all concerned are thoroughly frustrated with the complexity and arbitrariness of the planning approval system which has grown up over the past 15 years as a result of repeated tinkering at the edges with the basic concept of permitted development rights. The system has created a possibly perverse incentive for masts just below 15 metres. It has left the public feeling powerless. It is unclear. Whatever is judged the best outcome from the latest review, there is much to be said for a moratorium on any further changes for a period of years.

12  SI, 1985, No 1011 Back

13  Ev, p 87, para 6 Back

14  HC Deb, 3 November 1997 cols 70-71w; HC Deb, 29 July 1998 cols 243-4w Back

15  Para 5 Back

16  SI 1999 No. 1661coming into force 9 July 1999; see HC Deb, 18 June 1999, col 250w Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 3 April 2001