Draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Foster: Has the hon. Gentleman taken into account the third generation telecommunications developments that will be with us relatively soon, and the number of additional masts that they might bring?

Tim Loughton: That is precisely my point. A conservative estimate of the number of new mobile phone masts required—largely because of the third generation licences, from which the Government have raked in a sum approaching £22 billion—suggests that 3,000 a year is on the low side. To put that into perspective, the additional take of £465,000 from the mobile phone companies that has been estimated in the regulatory impact assessment is rather small beer compared with the £22 billion that has already been taken. What does the Minister think will be gained from £465,000 per year, spread across all of England's authorities—subject to their having mobile phone masts—in terms of promoting increased notification and consultation, as she puts it? Such a sum, spread across the whole of England, will not buy very much.

One criticism made by my constituents—I have taken up many mobile phone mast cases—is that the first notice that they receive of such a mast going up is an article in a newspaper, which appears because someone has latched on to the fact that a rather soggy and small A4-size notice has appeared on a lamp post. In some local authorities, that is the extent of the consultation exercise. If somebody is not fortunate enough to remark on that notice, the next thing that residents know is that a hole is being dug in the verge or at the back of somebody's garden, and the mast appears. What does the Minister think will be improved for the sum of £465,000 spread across the many local authorities of England?

There is an enormous divergence in the approaches by local planning authorities to the notification of residents. Some local authorities will automatically send a circular letter to all residents in a certain radius of the proposed site for which the planning application has been made. That does not just happen for proposed mobile phone masts, but for extensions to private homes or public buildings and so on. Other local authorities will do the absolute minimum—the sign on the lamp post—because statutorily they can get away with that. Are any recommendations going out with this enormous increase in fees to ensure that people are better consulted and notified, making use of the rather modest £465,000 throughout the country?

The Stewart report is excellent, and the Government were right to commission it. However, the Minister quoted very selectively from it. One of its major recommendations—in paragraph 1.36 on page 5—is that

    ``all base stations, including those with masts under 15 m, permitted development rights for their erection be revoked and that the sighting of all new base stations should be subject to the normal planning process.''

The Government have—

The Chairman: Order. I have been very tolerant of the hon. Gentleman going somewhat wide of the purposes of the regulations. He is now clearly discussing the merits or demerits of the Government's response to the Stewart report and I cannot allow that.

Tim Loughton: I take your advice, Mr. Butterfill. The point that I am trying to make concerns what people—the mobile phone companies—will get for their money after the fees have been increased by 540 per cent.

The Chairman: That far I would be prepared to tolerate.

Tim Loughton: More importantly, my point concerns what better consultation residents may receive. The major point made by the Stewart report, which the Minister failed to quote in support of her case, is that people should get a full planning investigation—

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is repeating the fault for which I have just reprimanded him. He is not permitted to discuss the merits of the Government's responses to the Stewart report in the context of the regulations.

Tim Loughton: Thank you, Mr. Butterfill. I was simply seeking to justify my straying from the lines set out for discussion.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Tim Loughton: Will the Minister answer those points concerning value for money and what better consultation residents may expect to receive? Will she also say how the measure impacts on fees concerning mast sharing? That is an important issue, because it would be of great advantage to many people if there were fewer masts. One way of achieving that would be to group them together. Are any dispensations or financial, fee-based incentives—I think that that is in order, Mr. Butterfill—being granted to mobile phone companies to promote mast sharing? That practice has been gravely absent, which is absurd. In my part of the world, the south downs are a major victim of mobile phone eyesores. One sees two, three or four masts erected by different mobile phone companies within a few hundred yards of each other.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Clearly, we want to encourage mast sharing. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good idea, perhaps through an order, to establish that no fee will be charged for applications that involve mast sharing?

Tim Loughton: My hon. Friend makes my point for me. An order on fees could be used to provide a financial incentive for better practice. That improved practice could mean more sensitively placed masts, better grouping of masts or lighter regulation on adjacency to sensitive areas such as hospitals and schools, which was recommended by the Stewart report but on which I will not touch. This statutory instrument is one way, in the absence of the proper planning scrutiny that we would like, of encouraging better practice through the fees system. Will the Minister say how that might work, or explain why, on the face of it, the Government have missed a trick? To ensure that I do not again require your guidance, Mr. Butterfill, I will stop my questioning. However, I reserve my right to respond later to the Minister's comments.

4.50 pm

Mr. Don Foster: I take your strictures seriously, Mr. Butterfill. However, I would like to place on record that I agree with many of the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) about the Government's failure fully to implement the Stewart report.

The Minister said clearly that we were having today's debate because of the concern expressed in the Stewart report that lack of public consultation was a major grievance. As a result, we have before us a proposal to increase the amount of money available to local authorities to enable them to conduct broader consultation. However, that is not the public's major concern. Their major concern is one to which the Minister also referred—people feel disempowered. If there is more consultation without increased power to act on it, people will feel even more disempowered.

Local authorities are being placed in a difficult position. They will be required to carry out more detailed consultation, and will take the criticism when they find that, despite additional money spent on consultation, they have no choice but to go ahead with an agreement to prior approval. The question before us is whether the sum that is proposed by the Government is sufficient for local authorities to be able to carry out the more extensive consultation that is to be required of them.

I note with considerable interest the Minister's explanation for the fee set by the regulations: it was proposed by the mobile phone companies. There is no evidence that the fee has been set as a result of any consultation with local authorities on what they felt would be necessary to carry out such consultation. The Minister's answer to my intervention acknowledged that the amount may not be enough, because, as she told us, it forms part of the much wider-ranging and welcome consultation that is being carried out by Ove Arup on behalf of the Government, and which is due to report as early as October 2001.

The proposals before us are in the interest not of local authorities but of producers. That is wrong, and almost certainly, in a few short months, we will have before us another set of regulations in order to change the figure. The question, therefore, is whether the sum proposed is right. The Minister rightly says that the increase is significant—a 540 per cent. increase. She went so far as to suggest that some people might think the increase excessive, yet local authorities lead me to believe that the sum is wholly inadequate for them to carry out the level of consultation envisaged by the Government.

I know that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham has other pressing engagements shortly, so he will not want me to repeat all his points. However, I must say that £190 will be woefully inadequate if there is to be proper advertising of the applications, an opportunity for members of the public to respond to them, and time devoted to analysing the responses and producing recommendations for the appropriate local authority committee.

For example, my local authority receives an average of 25 to 30 applications every year. As I suggested in an intervention, the figure is likely to increase significantly over the next few years as third generation mobile phone systems come into operation. From the examples received, my local authority suggested that it would probably have to respond in depth to about 70 detailed letters from members of the public during the consultation.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does the hon. Gentleman know whether the Government have done any qualitative work on the quantum of the fee? Have they consulted the district auditor and asked him to do spot audits under the best value initiative, to find out whether the fee is realistic? If he does not know, I will ask the Minister.

Mr. Foster: I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman asked the Minister. However, I suspect that she will say that the Government did not need to do so because the matter is part of the big Ove Arup consultation currently taking place. Incidentally, I hope that that consultation will take account of several wider issues than those that we are debating. I am sure that you would rule me out of order, Mr. Butterfill, were I to talk about issues relating, for instance, to the fees not charged on listed properties.

I argue strenuously that £190 is woefully inadequate to cover advertisements in local newspapers, notices in the vicinity of the masts, delivery of letters to people in the adjacent areas, public meetings, responses to many inquiries from members of the public, analysis of all the returns produced and the development of a response for the committee to consider.

Many of the questions from the public will relate to two matters. First, they will focus on health considerations, yet the relevant guidance to local authorities makes it absolutely clear that they are not expected to consider them. So long as the mobile phone company can provide a response that specifically demonstrates that it has met the industry standards, the local authority can have no say on health matters.

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Prepared 9 July 2001