Select Committee on Trade and Industry Tenth Report

Health and Safety

Existing base stations

  53. The possibility was advanced in the Stewart Report that some older base stations might not comply with ICNIRP guidelines on emissions; as the Report and Government document of July 2000 put it, "most base stations already meet the ICNIRP guidelines...". The operators are committed to take "immediate remedial action if any base station is found to be exceeding exposure guidelines".[53] The FEI have now promised to have assessed all radio base stations by 31 March 2001 for compliance with these standards, and to have produced a programme for compliance of all base stations with these standards. One 2 One wrote that they had ensured that all their stations complied.[54] BT Cellnet state that they have audited ICMIRP compliance " both through predictive computer modelling and validating field measurements".[55] Local planning authorities and local people need to be sure that all equipment already in operation is safe, as defined by its compliance with ICNIRP guidelines.

54. The Stewart Committee recommended an independent, random, ongoing audit of all base stations, with particular attention paid initially to the auditing of base stations near to "schools and other sensitive sites".[56] In evidence to us, Sir William explained this proposal as a confidence-building measure, and because of awareness that power levels can be increased.[57] In July 2000 the Government stated that it would be taking forward this audit, beginning with schools as a priority. The audit has indeed proceeded.

55. It was suggested to us that this process of audit of existing base stations would benefit from greater publicity.[58] Those in the industry seem to know the results so far, but there has been little public information. Schools were apparently asked if they wished to register; all those registering by the deadline in November 2000 will be monitored in the first tranche, and others will in due course. The details on the Radiocommunications Agency (RCA) website show that the plan is to visit 100 sites as a first tranche and then review the work.[59] Non-school sites will not be considered at this stage, although they can get a survey done "privately" for around £1000. The Written Answer of 16 March 2001 revealed that the first 11 audits had indicated levels of exposure at a fraction of the guidelines level. The RCA website shows the "worst" cases at around one six thousandth. The detailed readings are published for each site measured at each school. We recommend a more proactive approach to publicising the results of the audits of schools undertaken so far, which have confirmed that levels of exposure are a tiny fraction of those in the latest and most stringent guidelines, and that the media be invited to record the process of audit.

New base stations

  56. There needs to be general confidence in the compliance of new installations with the guidelines. A lack of certainty about compliance with the guidelines can lead to trouble. The Inspector in the much quoted Stanmore appeal put some weight on the absence of any evidence of compliance with the guidelines in the operators representations, which might have been taken to allay the fears of neighbouring residents. Local authority representatives suggested that some sort of independent evidence that the proposed base station did meet requirements, equivalent to the Environment Agency's guidance on incinerators and the like, would be a help.[60] It is suggested by the FEI that a certificate of compliance with ICNIRP public exposure guidelines should accompany all planning applications. We understand this to mean all applications to the local authority. This is a minimum measure. What is required is something closer to the independent type approval or independent certification referred to in evidence to us by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and the Local Government Association (LGA), so that there would be no doubt that the equipment would be safe in operation.[61] If a system of strong independent certification that a proposed base station met the guidelines on emissions were in place, the Government's repeated view, that it "should not be necessary for a local planning authority, in processing an application, to consider the health aspects further", would be more persuasive.

Consultation with health authorities

  57. The Stewart Report recommended that the robust planning template he sought should include "an input by health authorities/health boards". The Government expressed the view that "no useful purpose would be served" by such input.[62] Those who gave evidence to us were divided.[63] Planning authorities are agreed not to be well placed to make decisions based on an assessment of health risks. That is for central Government and its agencies.

Radiation levels

  58. The Report also recommended that planning authorities should have power to ensure that RF fields should be kept to the "lowest practical levels that will be commensurate with the telecommunications system operating effectively".[64] This seems to owe something to the "as low as reasonably practicable" or ALARP principle applied in some environmental regulation. The Government rejected this recommendation, stating that it would "expect an efficient mobile network operator to ensure that this recommendation is met already".[65] The operators told us that they would for commercial reasons use as little power as possible.[66]

59. It is by no means obvious to us that RF fields are kept as low as possible. Operators are bound only to observe the ICNIRP guidelines and thereafter to follow their best commercial interests. A "precautionary principle" seems to us to have more to do with reducing emissions around which there is doubt, than with tinkering with the regulatory framework. The operators told us that they were happy to share the necessary technical information with authorities and, through the local and national databases, with the public. Local authorities and those they represent are entitled to some assurance that RF fields are being kept as low as possible. We consider that operators should make a declaration that the RF fields likely to be produced by a new base station are as low as reasonably practicable, and that local authorities should be entitled to seek proof of this in some form to be established in the new Code of Practice.

Health as a material consideration


  60. If new and existing base stations can be shown to be not only within national guidelines but also producing as few RF emissions as practicable, there may be less anxiety in the community. It would make the job of the local planning authorities easier. But it will not of course bring to an end local adverse reaction to new base stations proposed, any more than it does with other installations which may be said by the authorities to be safe, but which local people oppose. It will not lessen the pressure on local authorities to resist these applications, under whatever system they are made. There is no alternative known to us to locally elected members of local planning authorities deciding on the balance between need for telecommunications infrastructure which a growing proportion of the country uses, and the local effect of a base station, whether in terms of visual impact or the effect on amenity of anxiety about health. Local authorities would be assisted by clearer guidance as to the balance to be struck, and explicit reassurance that, while they cannot consider the objective facts on health beyond compliance with ICNIRP guidelines, they can and should weigh up the evidence on local anxiety, whether substantiated or not. What weight can and will be given to the genuine health fears of residents, substantiated or not, by local authorities, by the Planning Inspectorate in determining appeals, and ultimately by the Courts?

61. The guidance contained in the draft PPG 8 is delphic on the weight to be given to concerns about the health effects of a proposed development. We can understand why. We can see no case for local planning authorities to start investigating the extent to which such fears are either real or justified. But the authorities do need some more explicit guidance as to what weight to give to such anxieties.

Recent cases

  62. Two recent cases decided in the High Court — the Newport case of 1998 and the Tandridge case of 2000— have been cited to us as indicating that genuine public concern can be a material factor in deciding planning permission.[67] Evidence to us, notably from Mr Meyer, the Legal Adviser to Mast Action UK, but also from local authority representatives, put much weight on two recently decided appeals against refusal of prior approval by local authorities, suggesting that they showed that health fears could be the dominant reason for refusal of permission or prior approval.[68]

63. The two Thurrock (South Ockendon and Aveley) appeals arose from the refusal in May 2000 of "prior approval" for Orange to erect an 8m high pole and ancillary equipment. It was accepted that appearance was not an issue: "these artefacts would look like customary and accepted street furniture". The Inspector set out his view that he had to decide "whether the degree of need for the development which may have been established outweighs any recognition I can and should give to such concerns on health grounds as might be felt by people who would be living in proximity to the facilities in question". The Inspector accepted explicitly that "any objection on health grounds has to be regarded as not founded on an accurate understanding of scientific fact". He found evidence lacking of any "real attempt to explore alternatives" to the two proposed microcells, or to respond adequately to alternative sitings suggested by the Council. The amenities of those living nearby would be "significantly and adversely affected" by proximity to installations which they believed might present a health risk to them. On balance, he rejected the appeal.

64. The Stanmore (LB Harrow) appeal also arose from the refusal in May 2000 of prior approval for Orange to erect an 8m high pole and ancillary equipment. The Inspector, as in the Thurrock cases, balanced the need for the development against amenity, in terms of both visual impact and "residents' perception of harm to human health". Unlike the Thurrock poles, the Inspector considered that it would be "an unusual feature" and would result in "a serious loss of visual amenity" for the occupants of one nearby property. In view of absence of evidence of compliance with ICNIRP guidelines, the Inspector considered that anxiety about the health effects materially contributed to the loss of amenity.

Test of necessity

  65. In the time available we have not been able to gain an authoritative view of the significance of these decisions. They may in any event be subject to appeal. It is clear that the expressed anxieties about the health effects of these masts was regarded in both cases as a cause of a loss of amenity. What seems to have been regarded as of equal importance was the absence of any evidence of necessity for the masts to be sited as proposed. Filling in small gaps in coverage may not be regarded as sufficiently necessary in balance against loss of amenity, be it visual intrusion or health fears. That view may in turn spring from an interpretation of the Human Rights Act.[69]

66. There is a general sense in the evidence we have received that alternatives to sites being proposed have either not been explored or if suggested are summarily dismissed. We were told by one of the joint Co-ordinators of Mast Action UK that "where there has been controversy, it is because the cheapest and best option for the phone company has been chosen above all other options."[70] The guidance to be prepared and the new Code of Practice must be tested against the Human Rights Act, and should be certified by Ministers as being compliant. Operators should be prepared to demonstrate that a proposed installation is necessary in the proposed site.


Current situation

  67. Operators are already obliged by the terms of their licences to explore the possibility of sharing existing masts or using existing structures before applying for new base stations. Most sites are shared. One 2 One stated that "approximately two-thirds of the company's base stations [are] shared or on existing structures". BT Cellnet stated that around 70% of current sites were either shared or on existing structures. Vodafone wrote that 25% of its lattice masts were shared, and 32% of its macro base stations were on third party towers or masts.[71] The figures are hard to assess as currently presented. A shared roof-top belonging to a third party may or may not count. We welcome the commitment of the industry to introducing an agreed and comprehensible means of demonstrating the current degree of mast and site sharing.

68. Local authorities have not had the means, or perhaps the will, to explore whether all sharing options have been explored. There has been little incentive to share sites except in as much as operators may do one another nicely balanced mutual favours. Some operators agents may find it easier and more profitable to find and develop new sites than latch onto old ones. We were told that in one case different agents of the same operator in adjoining areas were not in touch. The fifth operator naturally has a particular interest in using existing sites and is poorly placed to bargain, having little to offer in return.[72]

69. Sharing is not a panacea. Several lower masts may be less of an eyesore than one socking great mast or a water tower groaning with antennae.[73] Some of the least visually obtrusive structures, such as the lamp-post types, flagpoles, crosses on church steeples or indeed artificial trees, are inherently incapable of being shared. The move towards microcells militates against sharing.[74] More antennae can mean greater height or more metalwork. The total emissions from a clustered site may have effects beyond the sum of their parts.[75] The land owner may not want to have his site shared.

New rules

  70. The draft new PPG 8 states that local authorities "may reasonably expect applicants for new masts to show evidence that they have explored the possibility of erecting antennas on an existing building, mast or other structure".[76] It is for the authority to satisfy itself as to whether the information provided is satisfactory. It may also consider making permission for a new site dependent on its being subsequently shared.[77]

71. We would go further than this. It should be for the applicant operator to show that the possibility has been explored. We would expect the Code to include an agreed format for such a statement and a clear indication of the level of evidence required. Local databases should make it easier to question why a particular site or mast is not being shared. The operators told us that "some level of proof" would form part of a standard application.[78] This must go beyond unsupported assertion. Local planning authorities are entitled to be given proof positive that mast or site sharing has been not only considered but discussed with potential partners.

72. There are a number of possibilities for using existing masts beyond those of current telecoms operators. [79]

  • The National Grid told us that they had set up a subsidiary company, GridCom, to take forward telecoms antennae on their network of 22,000 steel transmission towers. They already have around 200 installations, with another 900 being processed. The company suggested that given the very limited additional visual impact of an antenna on a pylon which had already received consent, further permission should not be necessary.

  • The operators told us that they were keen to work with the Highways Agency.[80] The highways infrastructure clutter of direction signs, gantries, lamp columns and so on must offer a promising set of possible sites for base stations which would not create new eyesores.

  • Railtrack and Transco are both understood to be in the market for offering their existing infrastructure to operators.

  • BT are keen to see the use of some of their 4000 sites owned by Crown Castle.

There may be unnecessary obstacles to the greater use of existing sites and masts, whether for telecoms or other purposes. We were told that if over three operators wish to use a site it requires full planning permission.[81] That restriction may not serve any useful purpose. We recommend that the DETR and DTI together examine deregulatory and other means of freeing up a range of existing structures for use as a support for telecoms antennae.


73. The first stirrings of resistance to base stations seem to have come from those objecting to their being erected on or near school buildings, because of general fears that they might be damaging to childrens health. Mast Action UK, the umbrella group representing local protest groups was originally formed in 1995 as Mast-Free Schools.[82] Several hundred schools are reported to have masts. Local authority policies vary. [83]

74. The Stewart Report paid particular attention to school sites, calling for some form of explicit agreement by a "school and parents" to the beam of greatest intensity from a mast on or near a school site falling on any part of its grounds or buildings; and that the random audit should pay particular attention to base stations near schools. The Report did also note that —

"a macrocell base station located near to a school may cause higher exposure to pupils than if it were placed on the roof of the school building".[84]

The draft PPG 8 suggests that pre-application discussions should be held with parents and schools on the siting of base stations "on or near schools". The July 2000 paper does not go as far as to give schools or parents a right to have a beam altered, but does suggest that if "there is major concern from the school or parents, they could ask the network operator to adjust the antenna".[85] They are of course free to do that anyway; the operator is under no onus to agree, other than the threat of bad publicity. The March 2001 proposals states that new guidance will make clear that "governing bodies must be consulted on all proposals to site masts on or near schools and colleges".

75. The anxiety about exposing children to RF radiation is twofold:[86]

  • the younger the child the more the energy absorbed per kilogram of body weight;
  • the younger the person the longer they will have to accumulate exposure over a lifetime, and the longer they will have for any delayed effects to develop.

The concentration on schools in siting policy is understandable, but in some ways misconceived. Children are everywhere. Mast Action UK witnesses spoke with feeling of the resistance of parents to having a lamp-post mast 5 metres from a child's bedroom window.[87] Many younger children are not at school but at nurseries or other childcare institutions in a range of buildings. Even older school children spend most of their hours elsewhere than at school. Guidance to local planning authorities on siting policy should emphasise early consultation not only with governors but explicitly with parents in schools and colleges likely to be affected; cases brought to our attention suggest that local authority schools are sometimes quite happy to go ahead and reap the income from base stations without consultation with parents. Guidance should also stress the identification of other sensitive sites where young children in particular are likely to spend a significant amount of time, such as day care centres, libraries, playgrounds etc.

76. We also believe that authorities would welcome some guidance on the appropriateness of setting limits on the RF radiation falling on residential areas and the best way to express such policies, so as to avoid each authority reinventing the wheel and leaving operators facing hundreds of marginally different regimes.[88] Some local authorities have imposed blanket bans on erection of base stations on local authority land, thus driving operators to less suitable and possibly more obtrusive sites. The absence of guidance leaves the field open to moratoria, local bans, and arbitrary exclusion zones.[89] We recommend publication of outline site selection criteria to be established in partnership with the operators.


77. The Stewart Report recommended a substantial research programme under the aegis of a demonstrably independent panel, funded jointly by the Government and the operators.[90] Sir William is chairing an independent management committee on this £7.3 million programme, jointly funded by the Government and the industry. A call for research proposals went out at a meeting in February 2001. It is apparently concentrating on research on the non-thermal biological effects of RF radiation.[91] Sir William stressed the importance of examining some of those who considered that they had been the victims of ill-health as a result of such radiation, including of course from mobile phones.[92] We hope that it will also be funded to address the psychological effect of anxiety about masts, and some of the anecdotal evidence on the effects of emissions on, for example, pace makers. Those who fear that the emissions may interfere with medical devices may be wrong; but that does not reduce the effect of such fears on their lifestyles. Sir William told us that it was hoped to make some grants this year.[93] The May 2000 Government response to the Stewart Report stated that it was planned to launch the research programme by September 2000. It has taken longer than we might reasonably have expected to get a research programme going. We look forward to speedy dissemination of the results.

Existing masts

78. The precautionary principle cannot only cover new base stations; but nothing now being proposed addresses the future of existing base stations which are attracting hostility and suspicion, beyond the random audit referred to above, which is apparently restricted to schools. Mast Action UK told us of three cases known to them where masts had been removed or modified as a result of campaigning. Masts had been removed from schools in Speke, Liverpool and Tower Hamlets, East London as a result of pressure from parents and others. A mast in Essex erected under the GPDO was found to be over 15 metres and removed. [94]

79. Most of the cases drawn to our attention involve unavailing campaigns against existing masts, and apparently stubborn operators. In one case, a mast found to be over the permitted height was removed and replaced in one operation. Most have however been erected perfectly legally.[95] Legal challenges are underway to establish if the incorporation of the Human Rights Act would allow a challenge to existing mast sitings. We hope that operators might be more receptive than in the past to public concerns about specific masts. Where they are not able to resite them then they might consider a more proactive campaign of local information and consultation.

80. The Stewart Report called for an Ombudsman to deal with particularly difficult cases. We share the Government's view that this would not be appropriate inside the planning system. There are already such offices to deal with ex post facto investigations of maladministration. But we do consider that the idea has real merit in handling the handful of cases where existing masts and controversy surrounding them has led to a breakdown in relations between the operator and the communities they serve. The FEI might usefully consider, in their discussions with other stakeholders, the merits of an industry Ombudsman to act as a mediator in cases which have exhausted the normal procedures of appeals and judicial review, and especially in the handful of cases of existing masts which cause continuing controversy.

Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA)

81. In March 2000, BT announced a £2.5bn contract to roll out a national digital radio service for Britain's police forces.[96] Based on the Terrestrial Trunked Radio (TETRA) digital standard, BT's 'Airwave' service is intended to provide secure and fast radio communications network for the emergency services. BT stated at the time:

"This initiative will deliver improved efficiency and greater co-operation between the nation's emergency service teams and the wider public safety community, brought about by a modern, efficient communications service".[97]

The roll-out of the service is to be phased with completion expected by 2005. A pilot service with Lancashire Police is currently underway.[98] A recent Written Answer states that the main evaluation began on 19 March 2001 in Lancashire, with a report due in June 2001, followed by national implementation.[99] It is estimated that around 3,000 masts will be needed to provide the necessary geographic coverage and capacity.[100] BT said "in keeping with the spirit of the precautionary approach and mindful of public concern, we will commit to locate, as far as possible, new base stations that minimise their social impact on the local community".[101] Mast Action UK told us in a supplementary note that some of their members were already experiencing problems with planning applications for TETRA masts.[102]

82. TETRA is an open standard for digital private mobile radio. It is approved by the European Standards Institute (ETSI) and used by public safety organisations throughout Europe.[103] TETRA terminals utilise 17.6 Hertz, or 17.6 'pulses' per second. BT's Airwave base stations "emit a continuous tone which is not amplitude modulated".[104] Amplitude modulation is defined as the variation of the power level radiated from a radio transmitter.[105] The TETRA terminals used Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) to enable up to four users to access a single TETRA radio channel simultaneously. It is this that produces the 'burst' of energy from the terminal at the rate of 17.6 times per second.

83. BT told us that they comply fully with the guidelines on exposure to electro-magnetic fields produced by the NRPB and those of the ICNIRP and that, despite the references in the Stewart Report, "no health risks were suggested in the report and none have been identified". The Stewart Report records studies of the effects of RF fields on calcium movement in brain tissue. It was discovered 20 years ago that the efflux of calcium out of brain tissue was greatest at 16Hz. The results of subsequent studies are contradictory. The Report concluded that —

"as a precautionary measure, amplitude modulation around 16Hz should be avoided, if possible, in future developments of signal coding".[106]

Sir William told us that he was "pretty sure that it will become a major facet of any future investigation. As far as our Report was concerned, the timing was not right".[107]

84. BT have told us that "the Home Secretary has concluded that roll-out should continue as planned but that in parallel, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency and the NRPB should undertake a review of existing scientific data".[108] We welcome the evaluation of the TETRA system now underway and recommend that the results are made publicly available as soon as possible. Whilst we appreciate the importance of the system, we are very disturbed that there seems to have been no examination of the evidence on potentially adverse health effects before bringing it into service, and disregard for the conclusions of the Stewart Report published only two months after contract award, and drawing on over 20 years of research.

53  Eg 4/99, para21 Back

54  Ev,p 57  Back

55  Ev, p 50, 8; also Qq 170, 191 Back

56  6.54 Back

57  Qq 22, 28 Back

58  Eg Qq 106;148; 189 Back

59 Back

60  Q 114 Back

61  Qq 68, 92; 111, 116; Ev, p 31, 6 (a)(b) Back

62  Part 8, para 4 Back

63  Eg Q 117; Q 70 Back

64  6.61 and Q 13 Back

65  Consultation Paper, Part 8, para 8 and 11 May response Back

66  Q 170 Back

67  Eg Qq 57, 60 Back

68  Qq 43ff, 60 and Ev, pp 60-1, passim; Q 94; Qq 114,144 Back

69  Q 58 Back

70  Q 54; also Q 45 Back

71  Ev, p 57; p 48; p 65 Back

72  Ev, p 54, 4.2.5 Back

73  Q 180 and submissions on Quarndon, Derbyshire Back

74  Q 138 Back

75  Q 90 Back

76  Para 46 Back

77  Para 50 Back

78  Q 183 Back

79  Q 177, 186-7: Ev, p 65 3.9 Back

80  Q 147,188 Back

81  Q 180; Ev, p 55, 4.2.5 Back

82  Q 137 Back

83  Q 148 Back

84  6.64; also Q 51 Back

85  Part 8, para 7 Back

86  Stewart Report, para 6.63; Q 22 Back

87  Qq 38, 53, 55 Back

88  Qq 23, 38, 51, 55; Q 145 Back

89  Q 164 Back

90  5.271-2 Back

91  Qq 57, 31 Back

92  Q 32 Back

93  Q 31 Back

94  Q 65: Ev, p 20  Back

95  Q 185 Back

96  Press release 8 March 2000 Back

97  Ibid Back

98  Ev, p 90, para 1.4 Back

99  HC Deb, 21 March2001, col 221w Back

100  Ev, p 92, para 4.1 Back

101  Ev, p 92, para 4.2 Back

102  Ev, p 20 Back

103  Ev, p 93, para 5.1 Back

104  Ev, p 92, para 3.6 Back

105  Ev, p 93, para 5.3 Back

106  5.53-5.59; Qq 4-7 Back

107  Q 9 Back

108  Ev, p 89 Back

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