Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (England) Order 2001

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I shall take some time to go through the instrument and deal with the concerns that were raised.

The instrument will introduce significant improvements to current permitted rights for certain telecommunications development. The principal change is the introduction of a revised prior approval procedure, and it might help if I summarise why we are introducing the amendment order. Although it has not been debated in the House, there was considerable debate about the procedures when the Committee considered the fees. This is one of the subjects that sees the most letters into the Department, so it is clearly a topic of public concern.

The Government's general policy on development is to encourage and facilitate the provision of a modern national telecommunications network while providing environmental protection. The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) made half the case when he talked about the inconvenience that he experienced when he found that his mobile phone did not have reception. People are concerned about mobile phone masts, and that is the other half of the equation.

We want to ensure that the public are able to enjoy the benefits that come from a greater choice of service providers and a broader range of services. The drive to develop the telecommunications network and its attendant base stations, masts and antennae must, however, be balanced by the Government's commitment to achieving environmental objectives. The Government attach great importance to keeping to a minimum the level of intrusion caused by the development of the telecommunications network. The land-use planning system provides the tool for striking the necessary balance.

The general planning arrangements mean that an application for planning permission is required for larger telecommunications developments, such as masts more than 15 m high, and for any mast development in key environmentally sensitive areas, such as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and sites of special scientific interest.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The statutory instrument does not cover the definition of 15 m, which I raised in my opening remarks. Will the Minister undertake to consider that definition? One can see for oneself that 15 m may be acceptable, but if there is another antenna on top of that that is 3 m, 5 m or 7 m high, it becomes visually intrusive.

Ms Keeble: Perhaps I can deal with that and some points about mast sharing. The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 2001—commonly referred to as the GPDO—permits relatively minor development. The GPDO gives a range of permitted development rights for telecommunications code system operators who are licensed under the Telecommunications Act 1984. Those rights allow operators to carry out specified development without the need to submit an application for planning permission to the local planning authority.

The GPDO approach, however, incorporates environmental safeguards. The main safeguard is provided through what is known as the ``prior approval procedure.'' That gives the local planning authority an opportunity to consider the siting and appearance of certain specified apparatus: all telecommunications masts that do not require an application for planning permission to be made; antennae on a building where the antenna would exceed the height of the building by 4 m or more; radio equipment housing with a volume in excess of 2.5 cu m; and development ancillary to radio equipment housing.

Where the local authority considers that the proposed development would have a detrimental effect on local amenity, it can refuse approval. In 1999, in response to growing public concern about the possible health implications of mobile phone masts, the Government asked their statutory adviser, the National Radiological Protection Board, to set up the independent expert group on mobile phones. Under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart, the group considered concerns about health effects from the use of mobile phones, base stations and transmitters. It conducted a rigorous and comprehensive assessment of existing research and gathered a wide range of views. It published its report on 11 May 2000, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Cotswold is familiar with it.

The hon. Gentleman said that he was familiar with the group's conclusion, but I will read it out so that it is on the record for the Committee.

    ``The balance of evidence indicates that there is no general risk to the health of people living near to base stations on the basis that exposures are expected to be small fractions of the guidelines. However, there can be indirect adverse effects on their well-being in some cases.''

The Stewart group suggested that public consultation was not working satisfactorily under the prior arrangements. It also suggests that a lack of public consultation is a major cause of grievance to people who suffer from loss of amenity when base stations are erected. It suggested that many feel excluded and disempowered by the current planning arrangements, and that the resulting frustration can also have a negative effect on people's health and well-being, which is where the indirect effect comes in. For those reasons, the group recommended that changes to the planning arrangements were needed.

Last summer, in the light of the Stewart report's recommendations, the Department consulted on changes to the planning laws affecting telecommunications development. Following that consultation, my rt. hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), who was then Minister for Housing, Planning and Construction, announced on 16 March a series of important changes to the development for the siting of mobile phone masts. He announced that the Government would introduce changes to the current planning rules and guidance for telecommunications development in order to strengthen the public consultation requirement on proposals requiring an application for prior approval, to make it the same as for those requiring an application for planning permission.

Although they are different procedures, the effect is the same. The changes increase to 56 days the time allowed for an authority to deal with prior approval application, underline that school governors must be consulted on all proposals for new masts on or near a school or college—reflecting the level of concern about masts near schools—extend the prior approval arrangement to cover antennae on roofs where the height of the antennae would exceed 4 metres and increases fees from £35 to £190 to enable authorities to carry out full public consultation. Those provisions have already been discussed in Committee.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) rose—

Mr. Clifton-Brown rose—

Ms Keeble: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Cotswold.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister clarify what we are discussing this afternoon? With your indulgence, Mr. Hurst, I will quote four lines of the Library brief:

    ``In the Government's view, local planning authorities should not implement their own precautionary policies e.g. by way of imposing a ban or moratorium on new telecommunications development or insisting on minimum distances between new telecommunications development and existing development.''

Will the regulations give local authorities the opportunity to refuse a mast application for near a school or a hospital on precautionary or health grounds?

Ms Keeble: The provisions allow a local authority to refuse an application for a mast on planning grounds, whether the mast were to be on a school, a hospital or anywhere else. However, this is a planning process and the planning policy guidance clearly sets out the factors that should be taken into account. That process should be used by local authorities.

Mr. Barker: The Minister said that companies will be required to consult schools and governors. What does that mean, and what redress will schools and governors have if they feel that their consultation is a sham or just an exercise by the company's legal department?

Ms Keeble: The arrangements for consultation are set out in guidance or best practice. If people are dissatisfied, they can make representation to the local authority, but the authority is obliged to ensure that school governors are consulted, which goes further than previous legal requirements. I do not have the figures to hand, but applications for masts on schools have decreased because companies understand and have responded to public concern.

Ms Walley: Applications may have decreased because many schools have already allowed masts to be put on their buildings. PPG 8 does not explicitly explain what distance counts as ``near to'' a school. Will the Minister tell the Committee how she would define ``near to'' a school?

Ms Keeble: I shall come back later to my hon. Friend's question, with a definition, because I do not want to give one that would be wrong, bearing in mind that our proceedings can be taken as guidance in the planning process. However, I understand that the reduction in the number of applications for schools has occurred not because they already have masts, but because of the recognition of public concern. There is always public hostility to applications for masts on schools.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I agree about the reduction in the number of masts on schools. In my constituency governors have refused to give permission for such masts to be placed on their property. To return to the precautionary principle, I understood that the Government had endorsed the Stewart report in writing to local authorities. My local authority certainly exercises the precautionary principle when any such planning application is put to it. Can she clarify that for the Committee?

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