Select Committee on Trade and Industry Tenth Report


Science and Technology Committee Report

22. In the first half of 1999, the Science and Technology Committee decided to inquire into scientific advice on mobile phones and health. Following oral evidence in June 1999 it published a Report in September 1999,[17] calling for further research, and recommending among other things that the Government adopt the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) recommended guideline limits for microwave exposure. The Government's Response was published in December 1999.[18] Whilst welcoming the Report, the Government said it supported "the NRPB's view that there is no scientific basis for exposure limits for radiofrequency radiation to be reduced to those levels proposed by the ICNIRP".[19]

Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones

23. Meanwhile, in response to growing public concern at the possible health effects of mobile phones, the Minister of Public Health, Tessa Jowell, had decided in April 1999 to seek the advice of an independent group as to the safety of mobile telecommunications technology. She asked the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) to establish an Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP). This was established in June 1999 under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart, the former Chief Scientific Adviser, together with eleven other distinguished scientific members. Its Report was published on 11 May 2000.

24. The Report's findings were cautious. The Report stated that the balance of evidence to date suggested that exposure to radio frequency (RF) radiation below existing guidelines did not cause adverse health effects to the general population, but that it was not possible to say that such exposure was "totally without potential adverse health effects", thus requiring a " precautionary approach".

25. We invited Sir William Stewart to give oral evidence to us to help us understand the background to the Report and its recommendations. From his evidence it seems that —

  • ill-effects might not apply to the population in general but to specific groups, on the pattern of individual reactions to antibiotics or of allergies;[21]

  • the "well-being" of people might be affected by their fears over RF radiation; " if you talk about health you also talk about well-being".[22]

He also set out candidly the impact of the BSE saga—

" Never again will any scientific committee say that there is no risk"

—and the lessons drawn from the way in which it had taken half a century for science to appreciate the need for lower levels of maximum exposure to ionising radiation.[23]

26. The Report recommended adoption of the 1998 ICNIRP guidelines for exposure. These are set 5 times lower for the general public than the UK's NRPB guidelines dating from 1993, which were intended for occupational health and so shorter exposure times. The ICNIRP guidelines had already been recommended by the EU. The Government accepted the recommendation.

27. The Report's recommendations on masts were largely concerned with planning controls. Its principle recommendation was that all base station developments should be subject to standard planning permission procedures. The Group had not been asked by the Minister of Health to look at such issues; had not taken evidence from planners; and had no expertise in planning law on the group. The proposals seem to have arisen from the sense of unfairness the Group had found among those attending public meetings, to the extent that "the resultant frustration has negative effects on people's health and well-being".[24] The Report considered the current planning process as "unacceptable".[25] Sir William told us of his view, for example, that changing the height of a proposed mast by 50 cms to bring it within a different planning regime could not be right.[26]

28. The Government announced at the time of publication of the Report that it supported the "precautionary approach", and it was "minded to introduce a requirement for full planning permission for all new telecommunications masts, as public consultation is an integral part of the planning process."[27] It stated that it would consult widely before doing so.

29. The Science and Technology Committee has recently published its Report on the Scientific Advisory System. It records that "there has been a loss of public confidence in the scientific advisory system" and its conclusion that "the public is well able to understand uncertainties, if they are clearly presented".[28] It is indeed clear that the public has little confidence in scientific advice to Government.[29] Whether the Stewart Report helped in the process of helping public understanding of risk and uncertainty by going outside its health remit is open to question. The IEGMP should have had access to expertise in planning law and practice, once it became evident that it would be making detailed recommendations on the subject. The connection between the precautionary principle and its recommendations on planning law could have been more thought out. We remain to be convinced that this focus on changing the planning regime to be applied to telecoms developments represented the most useful way of dealing with the issues raised of public perceptions of a health risk and the inherent element of uncertainty.

After the Stewart Report

30. On 29 June 2000 the Minister for Planning wrote to local authorities to remind them how they should treat applications prior to any changes in the planning regime being made, and in particular to establish that it should not be necessary for a planning authority to consider health effects further if the ICNIRP guidelines were met.

31. On 31 July 2000 DETR published its Telecommunications Mast Development Consultation Paper, seeking replies to 10 specific Questions by 31 October 2000. The paper included a draft of a revised PPG 8, intended in due course to replace the 1992 edition and circular 4/99, and detailed responses to some of the Stewart Report's related recommendations.

32. In response to that Consultation Paper and developments in constituent parts of the UK, the Federation of the Electronics Industry (FEI), representing the operators, put forward a 10 point plan, with a commitment to have introduced a number of procedural improvements by 31 March 2001, regardless of the outcome of the consultative process.[30]

33. On Friday 16 March 2001 a Written Answer from the Minister of Housing, Planning and Construction set out the Government's conclusions following the July 2000 Consultation Paper.[31] Rather than introducing a requirement for planning permission for all new telecommunications masts, it is proposed to replace the two-tier prior approval system with a single reformed prior approval system for all masts below 15 metres, giving authorities 56 days in which to decide, after which permission is deemed to have been given. Public consultation is to be exactly the same as for planning permission. School governors must be consulted on proposals for new masts on or near schools or colleges.

34. The necessary secondary legislation has not been made. There is to be a new edition of PPG 8, and a new Code of Practice. Those involved are therefore obliged to continue for some further time to operate under a largely discredited system, using guidance which does not reflect either national policy or the understanding many people have of the implications of recent planning appeal decisions.[32] The Minister can only write to local authorities as he did in June 2000 to ask them to soldier on. Urgent steps must now be taken to introduce some greater certainty and clarity into the planning regime for telecoms masts, so that the new regime is in place by the end of May 2001, a year after publication of the Stewart Report.

United Kingdom


  35. The developments described above refer almost exclusively to England. The IEGMP held hearings in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as England, and its findings were evidently intended to have UK-wide application. Each constituent part of the UK has however followed its own course.


  36. Wales has in the past very closely shadowed the English planning system, including the changes in the prior approval system. The Welsh Assembly accepted the precautionary approach recommended in the Stewart Report, and the Assembly Secretary for Environment accepted that all new telecommunications masts should be subject to full planning control. A consultation document on telecommunications planning was published on 8 November 2000. The consultation closed on 5 January 2001. No decision has yet been published.

Northern Ireland

  37. The Northern Ireland system has generally followed the English system. Following the Stewart Report, the Minster for the Environment of the Northern Ireland Executive indicated that he was "minded to introduce a requirement for applications for planning permission for all new telecommunications masts".[33] A consultation paper was produced in November 2000 with a closing date of 15 January 2001. The Assembly heard oral evidence on the subject in mid-March, the week before our oral evidence, and is we understand due to give its opinions very shortly.


  38. In Scotland, there is no system of prior approval. The view was taken that the requirements of the DTI licence and other restrictions placed on permitted development rights were sufficient. In May 1998 the Scottish Office issued a consultation paper on the siting and appearance of masts. The DETR consultation on planning controls prompted a second paper on additional controls in Scotland in November 1998. Both these papers proposed the introduction of a prior approval system for ground based masts eligible for permitted development rights, that is, those under 15 metres high. The Scottish Parliament's Transport and Environment Committee undertook a major inquiry into the subject in the autumn of 1999 and published its Report in March 2000.[34] It concluded that the benefits of the introduction of full planning outweighed the potential disadvantages. On 24 November 2000, a further consultation package was issued by the Executive, proposing that all new ground masts and associated development should be subject to full planning control. The Transport and Environment Committee's response to the consultation has stated the proposals "do not go far enough".[35] No decision has yet been made.


  39. The operators feel that "it would be a real shame if there was a regional divide because of regional planning legislation".[36] BT Cellnet suggested that if each country adopted a different approach, it might lead to higher costs for suppliers and higher prices for consumers.[37] The operators would obviously have an easier life if everybody was singing from the same hymn-sheet. It is the nature of devolution that they are not necessarily going to have that situation. There may indeed be advantage in jurisdictions having differing systems for dealing with telecoms permissions so that some objective analysis can be made of the effects of each. Any operator who discriminated against one part of the United Kingdom in rolling out a network because of the application of a more stringent planning system should expect to be called in by OFTEL.

17  Scientific Advisory System: Mobile Phones and Health, Science and Technology Committee, Third Report, Session 1998-99, HC 489-I Back

18  Cm 4551 Back

19  Cm 4551, p2 Back

20  Eg Q 8 Back

21  Eg Q 1 Back

22  Q 2; also Q 43 Back

23  Q 22 etc; see also Qq 47, 99 etc and Q 34 on power lines  Back

24  6.45 Back

25  6.55 Back

26  Q 2 Back

27  Back

28  HC 257, paras 47,55 Back

29  Eg Qq 39, 99 Back

30  See Ev,pp 45 and 50 for plan Back

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

32  Qq 116, 144 Back

33  Consultation Paper on Telecommunications: Proposals to amend Part 17 of Schedule 1 to the Planning (General Development) Order (Northern Ireland) 1993; Consultation Draft Planning Policy Statement 10 Telecommunications Development, November 2000 Back

34  SP Paper 90, session 1 (2000) Back

35  Letter from Andrew Kerr to Sam Galbraith, press notice, 15 February 2001  Back

36  Q 156 Back

37  Ev, p 48, para 6 (i) Back

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