Second Standing Committee
on Delegated Legislation
Wednesday 21 November 2001
[Mr Alan Hurst in the Chair]
Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (England) Order 2001
The Building (Amendment) Regulations 2001
The Chairman: Is it the Committee's wish that we take the two orders together?
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I object, Mr. Hurst.
The Chairman: Then I call the hon. Gentleman to move the first order.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (England) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 2718).
I am grateful to you, Mr. Hurst, for allowing us to consider the two statutory instruments separately. I understand that we have an hour and a half to debate each. I hope that it will not be necessary, certainly on the second instrument, to detain the Committee for an hour and a half. Occasionally in this House one picks up a document and suddenly realises how important it is and how wide the implication to the general public outside this place. That is the case with this innocently sounding statutory instrument.
The order amends the planning guidelines relating to telecommunications masts. I am sure that there cannot be a single hon. Member who has not had considerable communications from constituents about planning guidelines relating to telecommunications masts. While we welcome the statutory instrument we do not believe that it goes far enough. A number of points need exploring in Committee, which is why I asked for the order to be taken separately.
This is an important issue because it involves a multibillion pound industry that is undergoing structural change. It is changing from analogue to new generation mobile phones. The new digital phones apparently have a problem of effectiveness and another 100,000 masts will be needed to deal with that. If we are not careful, our countryside will have a much larger number of masts than at present. We must probe to see how the Government envisage that the roll-out of masts should take place. We have a number of proposals.
Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): On a point of order, Mr Hurst. I do not appear to have a copy of the amendment that the hon. Member is speaking to.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: I did not mention an amendment.
Ms Walley: I understood that the hon. Gentleman was speaking to an amendment and I do not see one on the Table. I should be grateful for some clarification.
The Chairman: It may be helpful if the hon. Gentleman can explain whether he has an amendment. I anticipate that he does not. If he does, it should be available.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: You will know, Mr. Hurst, and the hon. Lady ought to know, as she has been in the House long enough, that if I had tabled an amendment it would be available on the Floor of the Committee. I have not tabled an amendment and so one is not available. The hon. Lady can read the statutory instrument, which is available on the Table. There is an explanatory note at the end if she gets that far. She will then begin to know what I am talking about.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Because of the slight interruption, Mr. Hurst, with your permission I should like to start again. I also want to apologise to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley); I seem to have scared her off and I am sorry that she is not here.
The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (England) Order 2001 is important because it relates to a £6 billion industry providing services to 24 million mobile phone users. We are worried that the new networks could result in up to 100,000 new masts across the countryside. Although we welcome the order, giving local authorities increased powers over the siting and building of masts, we want to press the Government on several matters, as we believe that the current regulations should be strengthened.
First, the order strengthens public consultation requirements on proposals for masts of 15 m and lower. The 15 m does not include the antennae; I have seen one or two masts very close to houses and they are pretty awesome when the antennae are included, as they can be several metres on top of the masts. There should be some control on the size of antennae, too.
Secondly, the order increases the time for authorities to deal with planning approval up to 56 days. Although that is welcome, there are best-value proposals where local authorities have to deal with planning applications within eight weeks in any case. Some local authorities will have large numbers of these applications, so we welcome that proposal.
Thirdly, the order underlines that school governors must be consulted on all proposals for new masts on or near a school or college. The Stewart report recommends a precautionary approach to building masts near public buildings, especially near schools. We believe that school governors and local authorities should pay much closer attention to masts being placed near schools, a matter to which I shall return later.
Fourthly, the order increases the fees to enable local authorities to carry out full public consultation. I understand that the fees, which are subject to a separate statutory instrument, are being increased to only £190. As that is a pretty lowly charge in relation to any other form of planning permission, I wonder whether the increase will even cover the costs of the increased consultation that the Government propose.
Fifthly, the proposal maintains in full an authority's ability to reject an application on amenity grounds. Again, I want to probe the Minister about that because I wonder how much strength it will give a local authority in wishing to turn down an application from a mobile phone company.
Mast development should not be automatic. Planning policy on telecommunicationsPPG 8which the statutory instrument strengthens states that to encourage telecommunications development the presumption should be in favour of development, such that the technological constraints may outweigh the environmental concerns.
That is the fifth plank of the proposal on which I want to comment. As I said, Britain now has a more developed network of masts and the mobile telecommunication industry has matured, yet a far greater number of masts have been constructed than was originally anticipated. As I said, up to 100,000 more masts could be installed to service the next generation of mobile phones. These masts pose a far more serious threat to the environment now than when planning policy was originally drafted. That is why we welcome the Government amendments, but they do not go far enough.
Planning guidance should now be redrafted to provide a better balance between the environment and commercial concerns. Operators should have to justify the need for a new mast when environmental, health or safety concerns are raised. We advocate consulting local authorities, environmental groups and the telecommunications industry about the revised guidelines.
We welcome the increased protection for sensitive areas. Masts are now erected in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Under the statutory instrument, sites of special scientific interest are to be included in areas requiring full planning permission. We welcome that, but full planning should also be required in other areas, such as on sensitive greenbelt land.
Public health should be protected further. Local communities should be allowed to question mast developments near schools, hospitals and residential buildings. Mobile phone base stations emit electromagnetic fields and both send and receive microwave radiations. The Stewart report did not find this, but concerns have been raised about the greater risk to children under 12, whose still developing bodies provide less protection from radiation. Such children can absorb four times as much radiation as adults.
The Minister will quote the code back at me and declare that the masts have to meet international compliance criteria set by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection. As always, the scientific evidence remains open on these questions. If any harm were to be scientifically demonstrated, we should adopt the Stewart report in full and take a precautionary approach to masts near schools.
Proper consultation with local communities is crucial. Local authorities must be better informed about future mast sitings in order to encourage more co-ordinated developments. Operators should have to prove to local authorities that they have explored mast-sharing options before being allowed to erect a new mast. I feel strongly about this issue. Although we want to maintain a competitive industry, we should be able to co-ordinate the five current networks to a much greater degree. In several places I have seen two mobile phone masts erected within 100 m of each other. That may be for good technical reasons, but I suspect that it is more likely to be the result of commercial organisations failing to co-operate, which is unacceptable.
We should establish a national database, which should be available to all local authorities so that they know the current number of applications and masts and the number of applications likely to be required in the next year or two. All the mobile phone companies should be contacted to establish whether the masts could be shared. As I said, there will be too many masts, simply because the older generation of technologies do not have as long a transmission distance as the current ones. Under those circumstances, we must reflect much more carefully on the problem. We would enforce mast sharing and reduce the demand for new masts.
PPG 8 and the DETR circular 4/99 require operators to provide evidence that they have exhausted all proper possibilities of sharing an existing mast in their areas, and the Telecommunications Act 1984 requires operations to investigate existing masts or erect new masts for joint use. In practice, mobile phone operators have little incentive to share masts. The same applies to surveyors, of whom I am one and therefore declare an interest.
There is supposed to be a shared database of masts among operators, and it is recommended that local authorities keep one, but in fact there is little record of how many masts are shared. That is unacceptable. According to a written answer of 2 December 1999, only a third of existing masts are shared. Therefore, greater steps should be taken to ensure mast sharing. That is technologically viable, but to ensure that a change is not unfairly retrospective and does not result in higher costs, we would phase in such arrangements. The Minister may say something definite about how she expects more sharing to take place.
We believe that when new masts are proposed, planning regulations should be clarified so that new permission is conditional on other operators being allowed access to the completed phone mast, either at the time of construction or in future. When a new mast is proposed, there is no reason why all existing masts should not be examined to see whether it is technologically feasible for those masts to be shared.
On fixed-line telecommunications, BT's local loop is accessible to many of its competitors. The principle of common carriage should be used to encourage operators to share masts. I apologise for speaking at length, Mr. Hurst, but it is important to place all these points on the record.
Under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1998, licences are being prepared for the third generation of mobile phones, the so-called universal mobile telecommunications system. There is an obligation for licence-holders to roll out the network, covering 80 per cent. of the population by 2007. New licences for the next generation of mobile phones will be granted only on the condition that their operators are prepared to share masts. How many of the 100,000 masts does the Minister think should be shared?
On new technology, the code of best practice urges operators to replace old masts with less intrusive new technology, but there are no measures in this statutory instrument to enforce that. Targets should be set for phasing out old-style masts and replacing them with new-style technology as it is developed, as a condition of the new generation of licences. We have all seen huge ugly masts with God knows how many antennas, looking like something from outer space.
We would investigate the viability of cross-network roaming within the United Kingdom, reducing the demand for new masts in sparsely populated areas. There is nothing in the statutory instrument about that. When mobile phones are used abroad, they roam on the networks of other operators. Agreements between phone companies mean that the cost of such network sharing is calculated and a charge passed on to the phone user. However, within the UK, apart from on emergency calls, there is no requirement for networks to provide roaming access to other networks' subscribers. Roaming among UK networks, obviously subject to personal communications network and global system for mobile communicationPCN and GSMdifferences, would mean that network capacity in sparsely populated areas could be used more efficiently.
Those of us who represent rural constituencies will know what a pest mobile phone failure is. When one makes a rural journey regularly, one knows that at a particular spot, the phone will fail. I know that from travelling from my constituency to London. Every time I reach Northolt airfield, my phone fails. By using modern technology, we might be able to eliminate some of those problems and improve the environment at the same time by reducing the ugly masts. That would reduce the provision of masts in areas where high network capacity is not required, which are often unspoiled areas of environmental importance. I have mentioned my constituency, 80 per cent. of which is an area of outstanding natural beauty.
By using the technology, customers would benefit, as the instances of phone users being unable to use their phones because of poor coverage would be reduced. Roam calls would be more expensive than normal calls, but consumers could decide whether to activate their phone to receive a roam call or not.
Perhaps most important, we would aim to protect the visual environment better a point which we have touched on throughout the debate. We would issue new guidelines on acceptable means of blending masts into the local environment. We have all seen some imaginative mast building. There is a particularly good one along the M40 that is tucked into an area of woodland and, unless one looks carefully, it is almost impossible to see. Again, the regulations make no mention of good siting. It is possible to site masts so that they are far less intrusive on our beautiful and diminishing countryside, so I hope that the Minister will comment on that. We would redraft planning policy guidance 8 to detail requirements for camouflaging masks and what is acceptable in local environments. We would give local authorities greater say over what forms of camouflage are acceptable for their environment.
I have covered a lot of issues this afternoon, but I want to say a little more before I sit down. Perhaps the instrument will clarify this, but a number of planning appeal decisions have recently been made and then overturned by the courts because of health concerns. Will the Minister comment on that? There were two important cases in which planning inspectors upheld the rejection of planning permission by local authorities on grounds of local residents' fears. Those two decisions have endorsed decisions by planning authorities to refuse phone masts on the grounds of public fears about health hazards. It is the first time that inspectors have ruled that anxiety about the possible adverse health effects of masts is a material consideration. An inspector who upheld the London borough of Harrow's refusal to permit an Orange phone mast in a residential area in Stanmore said that
``there is justification for the council's view that residents' anxiety about the health effects of the appeal installations materially contributes to the general loss of amenity''.
I hope that the Minister will be able to respond. She is nodding, and I am grateful, because the legal matter must be cleared up. There was a case in Thurrock in which a planning inspector upheld an appeal that was then overturned by the courts. We know that in January 2001 Kent county council banned mobile phone masts from all its property. If we get that sort of confusion, it will affect considerably the roll-out of new generation phones. Conservatives want to see that roll-out, but only with tight and careful control over where the 100,000 masts will be sited.
With that quick canter over a lot of material, I will let the Minister reply and see where we get.