Fourth Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation
Monday 9 July 2001
[Mr. John Butterfill in the Chair]
Town & Country Planning
The Chairman: I call the Minister to move the motion, and in so doing I congratulate her on her appointment to the Front Bench.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2001.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Butterfillalthough it may sound a little presumptuous of me to do so. What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship for the first time as a Minister.
The draft regulations are intended to increase the fees payable to local planning authorities for applications for prior approval for telecommunications developments. It may help if I summarise the present position and identify the reasons for the increase.
The Government's general policy on telecommunications development is to encourage and facilitate the roll-out of a modern national telecommunications network while protecting the environment. We want to ensure that the public can enjoy the benefits that will result from a greater choice of service providers and a broader range of services. However, the drive to develop the telecoms network, with its attendant base stations, masts and antennas, must be balanced against our environmental objectives. We attach great importance to keeping to a minimum the environmental intrusion caused by telecoms network developments. The land-use planning system provides a tool that will allow us to strike the necessary balance.
At present, general planning arrangements mean that applications for planning permission are required for larger telecoms developments, such as for masts more than 15 m high, and for any mast developments in key environmentally sensitive areas such as in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and sites of special scientific interest. Relatively minor developments are permitted by general permitted development orders, which are commonly referred to as GPDOs. Such orders give a range of permitted development rights for telecommunications code system operators who are licensed under the Telecommunications Act 1984. They allow operators to carry out specified developments without the need to submit applications for planning permission to the local planning authority.
The GPDO approach nevertheless incorporates environmental safeguards. The main safeguard is provided through what is known as the prior approval procedure. That gives the local planning authority the opportunity to consider the siting and appearance of telecoms masts. If the local authority considers that a proposed development would have a detrimental effect on a local amenity, it is able to refuse approval. The arrangements distinguish between ground-based masts and masts on buildings and other structures, and authorities have 42 rather than 28 days to consider the former.
In 1999, in response to growing public concern about the possible health implications of mobile telephone masts, the Government asked the statutory adviser, the National Radiological Protection Board, to set up an independent expert group on mobile telephones. Under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart, that group considered worries about the health effects of the use of mobile phones, base stations and transmitters. It conducted a rigorous and comprehensive assessment of research, and gathered a wide range of views. The group published its report on 11 May 2000.
The Stewart group concluded that
``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''.
It recommended that we take a precautionary approach to the use of mobile telephone technologies, comprising a series of specific measures, until we have more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects.
The Stewart group's report suggested that public consultation under the prior approval arrangements did not work satisfactorily, and that lack of public consultation was a major grievance for people who suffered loss of amenities when base stations were erected. According to the report, many felt excluded and disempowered by the planning arrangements, and the resulting frustration could have a negative effect on people's health and well-being. For those reasons, the group recommended that changes to the planning arrangements were necessary.
Last summer, my Department consulted on possible changes to the planning rules for telecommunications development, in light of the recommendation in the Stewart report. Following that consultation, on 16 March this year, the then Minister for Housing and Planning, my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford), announced a series of important changes to the planning system on the siting of mobile phone masts. He announced that the Government would change the planning rules and guidance for telecommunications development in order to achieve several aims.
We aim to strengthen public consultation requirements on telecommunications proposals that require an application for prior approval, so that they are exactly the same as for those that require an application for planning permission. We want to increase the time in which an authority has to deal with prior approval applications to 56 days, and to underline the fact that school governors must be consulted on all proposals for new masts on or near a school or college. Also, we aim to extend the prior approval arrangements to cover antennas on roofs when the height of the antenna would exceed 4 m, and to increase fees to enable authorities to carry out full public consultation.
In recognition of the extra demands that improved consultation will make of authorities, the regulations will increase from £35 to £190 the fee payable by developers for prior approval applications on telecommunications development. The five mobile phone operators for which the increase would be the most significant recommended in their response to our consultation last year that the fees should be increased by that sum to ensure that local planning authorities had sufficient resources to deal with the additional consultation arrangements.
Although the increase from £35 to £190 might seem excessive, £190 is in fact the normal fee payable for an application for planning permission for a mast over
15 m in height. As local planning authorities will need to carry out the same public consultation for telecommunications development under the prior approval procedure as they would if they had received an application for planning permission, a comparable fee is clearly required.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Butterfill.
Will the Minister tell us whether the proposed fee of £190 will be subject to the Ove Arup investigation into all current planning application fees and those that are expected to come into effect by the end of the year? Will the fee go up again in the near future? If so, will a further statutory instrument be required to bring it into effect?
Ms Keeble: The fee has been included in the study to which the hon. Gentleman referred. What happens subsequently depends on the results.
I recommend the regulations, and will try to answer any questions.
The Chairman: Before we have a general discussion, I should say that the Minister's explanation for the change in fees was wide ranging and referred in some detail to the Stewart report. I do not consider that it would be in order for us to get involved in the merits or demerits of that report, as the regulations are precisely about the increase of fees.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): I welcome the Minister to the Front Bench, and I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Butterfill. I hope that your ruling will allow me to touch on a few parts of the Stewart report that the Minister mentioned, without straying beyond that. We have been reminded that the regulations are about fees. The Minister's explanation covered those in only a few sentences, but the issue extends slightly further than that.
The Conservative party welcomes anything that makes the process of erecting mobile phone masts slightly more tricky, especially if it requires more consultation with local people. The recent proliferation of such masts, which is likely to accelerate in the next few years as the next generation is introduced, causes enormous concern to all hon. Members and their constituents. It is particularly worrying, as the Minister mentioned, because people feel powerless to do anything about it. Often, they are not alerted to the fact that a mobile phone mastwhether higher or lower than 15 mis about to be plonked close to their back gardens, their children's school or the local hospital.
We support the general thrust of the fresh regulations introduced last year by the then Minister for Housing and Planning. It is difficult to discuss the fees without discussing the amendments that were made to those regulations, following the Stewart report. That has our general support, although it does not go far enough.
It is no surprise that the Government propose a 540 per cent. increase in the fee, from £35 to £190. It is sensible practice to bring it into line with the fee charged for masts that are higher than 15 m. However, I have some questions about the value for money that the fee will give mobile phone companies. It is said that the fee has been increased in order to increase notification and consultation between local planning authorities and local residents. What does the Minister mean by ``increased notification and consultation''?
The regulatory impact assessment that goes with the statutory instrument estimates that, on the basis of 3,000 mast applications a year, additional revenue will be £465,000 a year. I query those figures. We are told that as many as 100,000 new masts could be constructed in the next few years, and many of them will be higher than 15 m. Although, as technology becomes more sophisticated, many masts will be lower than that, 3,000 applications a year seems rather a low estimate. Will the Minister comment on that?