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

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Glenda Jackson: The hon. Member for Cotswold gave a somewhat surly, not to say churlish, response to the entirely innocent, if misguided, question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North, although, to give him credit, he had the grace to apologise. However, I agreed with much of his contribution, and it will have struck an appreciative chord with most of my constituents who have suffered over the past 18 months to two years as a result of what seemed, at one time, to be a veritable torrent of applications for such masts—to steal a word from the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field).

I am still somewhat confused, however, about what constitutes the grounds on which a local authority may turn down an application if, as my hon. Friend the Minister says, it must be based on planning procedures. That procedure seems to exercise Camden, my local authority, when it approaches such planning applications, especially with regard to the siting of such masts anywhere near a school or a hospital, or where a large group of children will be gathered, because the Stewart report expressed the view that the precautionary principle could, and should, be exercised.

However, my real question concerns changes to part 24, which states:

    ``Development by or on behalf of a telecommunications code system operator...on, over or under land controlled by that operator''.

Further on, the statutory instrument states that

    ```land controlled by the operator' means land occupied by the operator in right of a freehold interest or a leasehold interest under a lease granted for a term of not less than 10 years''.

Does that mean that none of the restrictions can be applied to land that is owned by a local authority? How will the order protect some of my constituents who are leaseholders in a privately owned block on which a mast has already been erected? They perceive a danger that another mast will be erected, because the owner of the property has clearly come to some sort of financial arrangement with the telecommunications operator and there seems little or nothing that my constituents can do to protect themselves, or that my local authority can do to protect them from a plethora of such masts being erected on their residence.

I will give the Minister an example of an application that was made in my constituency. A telecommunications operator had the idea of erecting masts on streetlights. Its argument was that the masts would be almost invisible and would offer no particular environmental visual damage. I made the point to my local authority on behalf of my constituents that many of the lampposts were as high as children's bedrooms in a street where it was proposed to erect the masts. Does the statutory instrument afford protection to the constituents whom I have cited in my examples, and will the Government reconsider the issue? There is not a Member in the House who has not received a sizeable postbag containing letters that express genuine and deeply felt concerns on those issues.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) said—I am paraphrasing; I am sure that he will forgive me—that he had no particular scientific knowledge. I share his ignorance, but I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that those who have comprehensive scientific knowledge argue strongly that the masts should not be erected or, at least, local authorities should consider the possible danger to human health—particularly of children and vulnerable, elderly people—if planning permission is requested for such a mast.

I sincerely hope that the statutory instrument will not foreclose further consideration of the issue. My experience is that the concerns of the public have not gone away. I understand the need to erect such masts—as other hon. Members said, there has been an explosion in the use of mobile telephones—but the balance has yet to be struck. Certain aspects of the statutory instrument help to achieve balance, but not completely.

I am not happy about the requirement on operators to alert the general public to their proposals. They can meet that requirement by something as simple as a notice in a local newspaper—that is in the statutory instrument—which, in my experience, tends to be in small print, buried at the back among many other such notices. No one is any the wiser until they suddenly see the development taking place.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister understands that the concerns expressed by the Committee stem directly from the genuine, deeply felt concerns of our constituents. Surely it is our responsibility to take such concerns on board and, if possible, to alleviate them.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. Hon. Members will be aware that the debate is strictly time limited. Several hon. Members wish to catch my eye, and I am sure that hon. Members will be mindful of that when they speak.

5.47 pm

Mr. Barker: I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate and thoroughly concur with a great deal of what she said so eloquently. Although I represent a constituency that is very different from her urban, London seat, many of my constituents have forcefully expressed similar concerns. Anyone who has a genuine concern for the environment, for protecting our increasingly threatened countryside or for the health of our children will welcome the instrument. However, many people will share my concerns, and those of my Conservative colleagues and many hon. Members from all parties that the instrument simply does not go far enough. I wish to address two specific issues: first, the environmental, visual effect of masts; and secondly, the health aspect.

My constituency of Bexhill and Battle has seen a plethora of applications for new masts. It is a constant source of amazement to us that there is simply no sign of a coherent, national strategy for masts. We are told that at least 100,000 new antennae will be necessary in addition to the 40,000. I am amazed that a Government who invariably tend instinctively towards centralisation—or even control freakery—are happy to sit back and allow a laissez-faire policy to prevail on such a sensitive issue. Why can we not have a national grid strategy for mobile phone masts, similar to the one that we have for electricity pylons, that takes into account planning applications not only for the next few months, but for the next 10 years or more? Having too many masts is in no one's long-term interest—not the companies, nor consumers, and certainly not members of the public. Far more needs to be done to enforce a code of mast sharing. While I appreciate that, as the Minister said, there are instances where a single antennae is preferable, the proposals do not go far enough towards laying down a coherent strategy for mast sharing.

Secondly, I turn to the issue of health. The Minister quoted from the Stewart report, from which I shall also quote briefly. It said:

    ``children might be especially vulnerable to any adverse effects of RF radiation. There is evidence that at the frequencies used in mobile phone technology, children will absorb more energy per kilogram of body weight from an external electromagnetic field than adults.''

It also noted that

    ``potentially higher thermal sensitivity in certain population groups such as those who are frail or elderly, infants, young children, and people with diseases or taking medications that compromise thermal tolerance.''

It recommended a precautionary approach in such cases, but the Minister for Local Government instructed councils last year not to impose a ban on mobile phones on health grounds. The new national planning guidance issued in August 2001, PPG 8, has reaffirmed that restriction. Will the Minister confirm that councils will be able to turn down masts on health grounds, echoing the concern that so many hon. Members have expressed today?

Full planning permission should be required for all masts. More than 70 per cent. of the land area in my constituency is designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. The measures dealing with areas of outstanding natural beauty and sites of special scientific interest are welcome, but they offer no solace to those who live on the border or margin of those areas. It seems wrong that planning permission is required simply to change the use of a garden shed while a huge mobile phone mast—a monster mast—can be erected without the need for a full planning application. There is great disquiet that the Government, having trousered £22.5 billion from the industry, are now returning favours. I should be grateful for any clarity that the Minister can shed on those concerns.

5.53 pm

Ms Walley: I shall not detain the Committee long, but I wish to bring a few issues to the Minister's attention. The many hon. Members who have for many years supported constituents who object to masts in certain places and who want far more mast sharing consider that the proposals will go a good way towards bringing about some real improvements. I welcome that. However, opportunities for legislation and for statutory instruments are few and far between. They do not come round very often. I am therefore a little disappointed that we are still not grasping the precautionary principle and the issues that were flagged up in the Stewart report in respect of public health and the wider health implications not just of mobile phones but of the siting of masts. In my constituency—which I look forward to showing the Minister when she visits on Monday—we have deprived areas where many schools, working men's clubs and other buildings seek necessary extra income from masts. It is unfair that they are put in that difficult position. We must ensure that the new provisions strike the right balance regarding the precautionary principle. The current ones do not.

Will my hon. Friend the Minister reflect further on the problem in conjunction with further consideration of the Stewart report and of PPG 8? Some inconsistencies remain and if we are not careful, local authorities will be left holding the baby and unable to take proper decisions following consultation.

Will the Minister explain what exactly is meant by ``near to'' a school, which would greatly help local authorities in deciding what consultation is necessary and who to consult? It would also be helpful if, in respect of planning guidance, the provisions made reference to hospitals, old people's homes, nursery schools and schools. That would represent a material consideration.

Will the Minister also take note of the new consultation time limits? The 56 days for the new development requirements are welcome, but if a company is applying at the end of the school term before the long summer holidays and if governing bodies do not often meet, those 56 days may not be enough time for proper consultation with governors, so local authorities might not be able to take their views into account.

This remains a mish-mash that has not been properly resolved. I do not have the details to hand, but I know that the Irish Government have gone much further in placing the precautionary approach at the heart of their planning guidance. Will the Minister ensure that further consideration is given to all these matters? They will not go away. People have genuine concerns.

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