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

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Is the hon. Lady aware that in Scotland and Northern Ireland all masts have to receive full planning permission?

Ms Walley: That is an important point to bring to our attention while planning arrangements are being considered. I shall finish because I want to leave the Minister enough time to reply.

5.57 pm

Ms Keeble: I hope that I can deal with all the issues raised. The hon. Member for Torbay said that we had failed to take environmental and health concerns into account, but that is not the case. PPG 8 is packed with concerns about environmental issues and clearly sets out the approach that planning authorities should take. It also deals extensively with public health concerns. It was produced in August, so it is still quite new. I recognise that some hon. Members are particularly concerned about environmental and health issues.

Mr. Matthew Green (Ludlow): Will the Minister give way?

Ms Keeble: Let me get on a bit: I need time to reply to all the questions.

It is absolutely wrong to say that we have ignored health issues. Indeed, they were the reason for setting up the Stewart report. I also cannot agree with the hon. Member for Torbay that we have ignored the report's conclusions. The Government funded the research and continue to do so with respect to a whole range of issues connected with the technology.

I may have misheard the hon. Gentleman, but I believe I heard him say that he would ban masts from schools. That was not recommended by the Stewart report. He talked about the need for full planning permission, and I have dealt with that. Our proposals will do the same as would be achieved under a full planning process, and local people can object. This is not a case of big business influencing policy.

6 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

6.35 pm

On resuming—

Ms Keeble: In view of the time constraints I just want to deal with a couple of substantial issues that hon. Members have raised.

First, a code of practice is expected in the spring and is to be drawn up by a tripartite group, involving local government, the operators and the Government. Secondly, health issues caused most concern. Quite a number of hon. Members asked about the local authority's ability to take health into consideration. Health matters and public concern can, in principle, be material considerations in determining applications for planning permission in prior approval. In most cases it will be for the local authority to determine what weight to attach to such considerations. There is obviously local discretion on the view that is reached. The Government believe that if a proposed development meets the ICNIRP guidelines, as recommended by Stewart, it should not be necessary for a planning authority to consider the health effects further.

I now want to return to the precautionary approach, what it means and how we have implemented it. The precautionary approach is carefully worked out and set out in the Stewart report. One of its main recommendations concerns the safety levels that are accepted for emissions from these masts. Stewart recommends that the ICNIRP guidelines for public exposure be adopted for use in the United Kingdom. That has been done. That is one of the basic protections provided. There is then a whole set of recommendations about how the precautionary approach would be put into effect. Quite a few of those obviously relate to different Departments and issues. We are considering planning issues here and the way that applications should be handled and planning approval given.

Matthew Green: May I raise a point about the notification for aerodromes in paragraph A.3(2)? Does an aerodrome cover private airstrips and helicopter landing grounds? I am concerned about the use of hospitals where air ambulances come into land. Are they automatically notified according to this rule?

Ms Keeble: I am not sure exactly what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. If it is in a rule it would obviously apply. If he would like to give me the details I will write to him with a word perfect reply. There are problems if the wrong advice is given when planning issues are being considered. Flagged up very clearly in the Stewart report is the conclusion that the balance of evidence should be that there is no general risk. However, there might an indirect adverse effect. That was based on a fine point about the intrusiveness of the masts and the anxieties that they cause.

Other recommendations include paragraph 1.36 about the normal planning process; our procedure is only slight different and similar in its effect. We are currently drawing up a template of protocols and complying with the recommendation on the robust planning template, although it will be slightly outside the 12-month time limit. We are complying with recommendations on the national database, on schools and on the proposals for an audit; the recommendation on base stations is not for the proposal to deal with.

Our initial response to the siting of base stations was that such decisions were not for the Government to take. However, the decision is covered in PPG 8, so we have taken the precautionary approach to the planning process set out in the Stewart report, which is being implemented. Some of the recommendations have already been carried out.

I understand hon. Members' anxieties about health, as this is a difficult, sensitive issue for the public. All Members of Parliament have had letters from constituents lobbying about mobile phone masts. The Government are aware of continuing concern about the development of technology, which is why research programmes are in place, including a £7 million project on mobile phone masts. We have taken careful account of the worries about health and have a robust, precautionary approach to the planning process, as recommended by the Stewart report. The regulations in the order are part of that approach; they are not the final word on what happens to the technology but an important step forward that will provide additional safeguards for the public.

6.42 pm

Mr. Clifton-Brown: We have had an interesting debate. The Minister tried hard to respond to hon. Members' anxieties, but she did not deal with several

matters as definitively as we would have liked. I asked her about the height of masts and antennae in an intervention, and especially the Government's wish for more mast sharing, but she did not come back to me on those matters. I did not get the impression that the Government would strongly urge the telecommunications companies to share masts.

Finally, and most importantly, hon. Members on both sides of the Committee were worried about the precautionary principle advocated in the Stewart report, especially in relation to masts being near schools, hospitals and homes for the elderly. Whether or not there is scientific evidence, people are fearful of masts near those buildings. In answer to my question why, if there were no other grounds, the local planning authority could turn down planning permission for a mast adjacent to or very near a school having not given it prior approval, she could not give me a clear answer. In summing up, she said that health issues in principle could be material considerations. A few sentences later, she said that it should not be necessary for the planning authority to consider health effects further. That is the same sort of ministerial speak that we have heard before and it is in the PPG notes. If the matter went from a local planning authority to appeal and eventually to judicial review in the High Court, I am not clear how that court would find. It is not satisfactory to have the Committee consider an order that still leaves the position so open and unclear. The five operators agreed a 10-point plan, which has not been mentioned. Two points in it deal with this matter and are helpful. If the Minister could push them, that would go some way towards helping the situation.

A Library brief states that one commitment is to

    ``assess all radio base stations for international (ICNIRP) compliance for public exposure, and produce a programme for ICNIRP compliance for all radio base stations as recommended by the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones''.

That relates to the Stewart report. Another commitment is to

    ``provide, as part of planning applications for radio base stations, a certification of compliance with ICNIRP public exposure guidelines''.

When my local authority recently considered a mobile phone mast, it asked questions of the mobile phone company, but was given very little information. The information that it did receive was in so scientific a form that one almost needed a PhD in radio waves to understand it. We could legitimately ask the Minister to press mobile phone operators on this matter. When local planning authorities ask for information on radiation emission, it should be fully and openly given and in a form that the average planner can understand.

In the spirit of understanding that has developed across the Committee, we should ask the Minister to take the order away and strengthen its precautionary element relating to health issues. Many people will be listening to the debate and reading the record of it tomorrow and they will want to know how their representatives voted on mobile phone masts. I ask all Back Benchers to join me in voting against the order if the Minister will not withdraw it.

The Chairman: Order. I do not think that it is in the Minister's power so to do.

Ms Keeble: If the order were not in place, we would not have the necessary controls to deal with these important matters. Far from having an improved framework, we would be left in a worse position as regards dealing with planning approval and ensuring that local people are consulted and views on health taken on board. The order presents a way forward. The hon. Gentleman is right about the agreements provided by the operators. I dealt with them when I talked about the precautionary principle.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 7, Noes 5.

Division No. 1]

Clark, Paul
Hopkins, Mr. Kelvin
Jackson, Glenda
Keeble, Ms Sally
Pollard, Mr. Kerry
Walley, Joan
Woolas, Mr. Phil

Barker, Mr. Gregory
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Field, Mr. Mark
Green, Matthew
Sanders, Mr. Adrian

Question accordingly agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (England) Order 2001 (S.I. 2001, No. 2718.)


6.50 pm

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