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

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Ms Keeble: The implementation of the Stewart report has frequently been raised. The procedures that the Government have put in place have the same effect as those in the Stewart report so, although the procedures are slightly different, the net effect is the same. The protection given to the environment is the same.

Glenda Jackson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her reply, but I understood from her reply to the issue that the hon. Member for Cotswold raised about the health concerns of proposed sitings of such masts near schools and hospitals, that a local authority could make a decision based on planning procedures only. I reiterate my understanding that the Stewart report argues for the exercise of the precautionary principle, particularly over the siting of such masts near to where children will be gathered, and that the Government have encouraged local authorities to exercise that principle, if not directly, certainly in a slightly angled way.

Ms Keeble: The point about the interrelationship between protection on health grounds and the planning system is important. The Stewart report concluded—this is why I went through it in some detail—that

    ``the balance of evidence indicates that there is no general risk''

to people's health, but that

    ``there can be indirect adverse effects''.

Mr. Barker rose—

Ms Keeble: I am sorry, I will not give way because I am already replying to an intervention.

The report then commented that planning arrangements and the resultant frustration can have a negative effect on people's health and well-being. That is how the consideration was put. However, the planning process does not, in itself, deal with health issues. If there are risks to public health, the Government must take direct action to ensure that there is protection.

Ms Walley: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Ms Keeble: Yes, but then I must make progress.

Ms Walley: I am grateful for the movement towards clarification, but when there is an application for a mast on a school building in my constituency, the planning authority still feels unable to refuse it on the basis of health grounds and on the precautionary approach. Does the precautionary approach give grounds to a local authority to refuse a planning application on a school, or is that not open to it?

Ms Keeble: It would be wrong to give a conclusion here about what the planning authority can do in a specific case, such as that to which my hon. Friend refers. The provisions in the statutory instrument and in the planning policy guidance give all the tools needed for the local planning authority to make its decision, but it has to be taken on the merits of the individual case.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Keeble: I will continue a little and then I will happily take some interventions.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will the Minister give way on this very subject?

Ms Keeble: No, I already have several points from the hon. Gentleman to deal with.

Mr. Clifton-Brown rose—

Ms Keeble: The hon. Gentleman has already put various points and I am sure that other people want to come in as well. I will make some progress and then give way again.

Under the previous prior approval arrangements, local planning authorities had 42 days to determine applications for ground-based masts and 28 days to determine applications for masts on buildings and other structures. Our new regulation increased this period to a uniform 56 days to allow sufficient time for public consultation. I understand that there will be a code of practice on certain consultation issues such as the siting of masts near schools.

If a local planning authority has not made a decision within 56 days, approval will be deemed to have been granted. That discipline is needed because many local authorities are failing to meet their best value target of determining 80 per cent. of planning applications in eight weeks, and delay cannot be justified.

The changes represent a considerable strengthening of the present arrangements. As I have said, I believe that the improvements to the planning arrangements meet the concerns of the Stewart group and others about public consultation on masts. They strike the right balance between giving people a better opportunity to voice their views, and not hindering development—where such a decision is taken—of a modern telecommunications network.

We shall of course keep the entire issue of mobile phone technology under review. In fact, a £7 million research programme is under way.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I want to touch on a point relating to planning authorities that arose before the torrent of interventions. The Minister may be aware that this is not only a rural issue but the cause of concern in built-up areas, as the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Glenda Jackson) will confirm. I take on board concerns about the failure to deliver on best value, but planning fees are also an issue. My local authority has expressed the worry that there is insufficient discretion in relation to fees. As the Minister said, such fees have risen from about £35 to £190. Of course, in built-up areas such as city centres, proper public consultation may well require getting in touch with many hundreds of people, and it would surely be wrong for the fee issue to wag the dog. Has the Minister anything to say on that?

Ms Keeble: Yes, we had an extensive debate on fees some time ago, along exactly the lines that the hon. Gentleman has outlined. The fees that we are discussing are in line with current fees for planning applications. Given that the procedures are broadly similar, that seemed an appropriate level at which to peg them. Otherwise, they would be out of kilter with fees charged for other types of development. I stress again that the debate was extensive and conducted exactly as the hon. Gentleman suggested, and it is clear that the matter is one about which people feel strongly.

The hon. Member for Cotswold raised some points about new masts. The 10th report of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry on mobile phone masts, which was published in March, states that operators have reported that 80 per cent. of existing sites could serve as base stations for third-generation mobile phones. There are about 22,500 sites and a net total of some 27,000 installations, which include all the varying types that are said to be required. Many additional sites will not be ground-based but will be positioned on existing structures or buildings. New ground-based masts will often be shared, and I shall deal with the questions that were asked about mast sharing in a moment. Working from a current total of some 6,000 ground-based masts, the Select Committee's best estimate was an extra 3,000 ground-based masts over the next three years.

There has been extensive discussion on mast sharing. The Government's policy is firmly to encourage mast sharing where that is the best solution in a given circumstance. The conditions attached to individual operating licences granted by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry include a requirement to investigate mast sharing before seeking to put up any new masts.

The hon. Member for Cotswold raised the problem of unsightly masts with clutter on them, in relation to national parks. We do not dictate mast sharing because in some instances a single slim antenna or mast would be much better than an unsightly cluttered mast or building, which can also give rise to greater local controversy. The Radiocommunications Agency has published on its website a database for all existing masts that shows where masts are shared. Some of the hon. Gentleman's points have therefore already been dealt with.

The issue of network roaming has also been raised. This can reduce the number of masts in rural and remote areas. However, in built-up areas, where the majority of masts are sited, roaming would not necessarily reduce the need for additional masts because base stations can support only a certain number of calls. The Government do not consider that a requirement for roaming is in the interests of competition, and consequently it is not in the interests of the customer. Competing network infrastructure helps to stimulate the coverage and roll-out of networks, and brings benefits that a roaming approach would not.

There were also questions about immunity grounds. Under planning permission and prior approval arrangements, local planning authorities consider the site and appearance of a mast, which includes its design in relation to the surrounding land, its positioning in relation to existing masts, structures and buildings and its relationship with residential property. The hon. Gentleman said that there was nothing about design, but there is a section about it in PPG 8. It says:

    ``In seeking to arrive at the best solution for an individual site, authorities and operators should use sympathetic design and camouflage to minimise the impact of development''.

His concerns were taken in account.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent, North and for Hampstead and Highgate referred to the decision reached by a planning inspector in Harrow. I have been careful not to say anything that would prejudge an individual case. Inspectors come to their conclusions in the light of the circumstances of an individual case, which is obviously what the inspector in Harrow did. Our new planning policy guidance makes it clear that the Government's general view is that all applications for new mobile phone masts must meet international exposure guidelines that safeguard health. I appreciate that this is an area of some controversy.

I look forward to hearing the views of other members of the Committee. I hope that I shall not take quite so long to sum up, but I shall attempt to deal with any points raised.

5.33 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay): This is an extraordinarily important issue for those affected by the positioning of mobile masts. We are discussing these orders today because Governments have failed to take account of the general public's concerns about the environmental and health impact of masts and base stations. Unless one has a scientific background, one's fears of the unknown can be greater than the actual threat. I know little about the workings of mobile phones, but I have an appreciation, as I suspect that all hon. Members do, of planning and consultation. If more information is available, more people are involved in the decision, and they can better understand the scientific issues.

We accept that the order deals with more than stand-alone transmitters. It also deals with associated installations as part of a comprehensive network. We accept the enormous social and commercial benefits of the roll-out of the first two generations of mobile telecommunications. However, it is sad that babies are born almost with mobile phones in their hands. The explosion of mobile phone sales to young people has put further pressure on the network, so more cells and masts are required.

We must strike a balance, and successive Governments have leaned over backwards to appease the industry, to the detriment of the consumer and the community. The £22.5 billion boost from the sale of third generation licences has influenced policy and has influenced this order. The order follows commitments made after publication of the Stewart report, but it does not address the concerns expressed in the report, or adopt its recommendations. I hope that the Minister has her copy.

Paragraph 1.36 recommends that all base stations, including those below 15 m, be subject to full planning. That might be inconvenient for operators, but it would be of enormous benefit to residents, yet it was not included in the order. Paragraph 1.38 of the report recommends that the consultation process should include inputs from health authorities and boards, which was also not included. Paragraphs 1.38 and 1.62 contain recommendations about Government consultative and protection processes in the siting of new masts. The Government's response was that the planning process adequately covered that, but anyone who is familiar with the system knows that it does not. A company may appeal a planning refusal, but local residents cannot appeal against a planning approval. Why does the order not contain such a procedure?

For some time, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) has argued in Adjournment debates and parliamentary questions that local authorities should be required to include a mobile communications plan as part of their local development plan, and I agree. The order should include a register of existing sites, an agreed plan for the roll-out of new sites and an inspection system for ensuring safety; the plan should be available for public inspection and scrutiny. The Government have rejected those requirements. We should avoid one-off planning decisions and make the industry responsible for planning with communities in order to have its proposals accepted by the Secretary of State.

Paragraphs 1.41 and 1.42 of the Stewart report refer to the siting of masts close to sensitive areas such as schools and hospitals. The Minister tried to clarify her position in response to the hon. Member for Cotswold, but the order does not mention hospitals or schools.

Consultation must take place prior to the planning of a mast or base station. I praise Vodafone because it has established a procedure whereby pre-planning has to be completed before an application is made. That has resulted in a high success rate for the company and greater satisfaction for residents, who felt involved in the process. The order requires the notification of landowners or tenants. Surely those people would already have been contacted to negotiate a fee; they do not need to be named in the order. However, the order does not demand notification of the neighbourhood affected.

Will the Minister amend the order to include a duty for the applicant to notify all neighbouring properties within a radius of 150 m? The order is nothing more than a token gesture, and if the Government are serious about consultation and want to involve communities in the siting of future mobile phone masts and base stations, they should read the independent expert group report that they commissioned and perhaps include more of its recommendations in the order.

5.40 pm

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