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

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The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman has been good about keeping in order, but he is now straying well beyond the subject.

Mr. Foster: I am grateful, Mr. Butterfill, but my point is that requests for information will come to the local authority, which has been instructed that it must not deal with the matter. Nevertheless, it will have to reply to the people in the area, which will place a financial burden on it.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is ingenious in his attempts to introduce health to the debate, but that is not in order.

Mr. Foster: I accept your strictures, Mr. Butterfill. However, the cost will not be covered by the £190.

I hope that I have argued cogently that the sum proposed will be woefully inadequate, and that it would be wrong for the Minister to leave us with the impression that a generous settlement has been made to help local authorities. The issue is extremely emotive, as I am sure that members of the Committee are well aware. I hope that we can take to heart what the Minister said about the wider Ove Arup review. Is she prepared to have further urgent discussions with Ove Arup to ensure that the issue is part of the review, so that she can soon argue for a further increase in the charge? That will enable local authorities to do the job required of them, so that they do not disappoint the many people who are worried about masts.

5 pm

Ms Keeble: I welcome the support of the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham for the principle of the regulations. He is right to highlight the public concerns that have been raised with all hon. Members. The new regulations—we are considering only those dealing with fees—will resolve those concerns. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a possible 100,000 new masts. There are currently 25,000 base stations, 67 per cent. of which are on existing structures. That figure is expected to rise to 40,000 by 2003. The exact nature of each mast is hard to judge at this stage, but those are the figures.

Tim Loughton: Can the Minister tally those figures with her regulatory impact assessment, which gave the figure of 3,000 masts annually, whereas she says that there will be 15,000 more masts by 2003, some lower and some higher than 15 m?

Ms Keeble: Those are ball-park figures. The nature of each case, and what procedure it will have to go through, is hard to predetermine. If the hon. Gentleman requires a detailed breakdown of the figures—which will include a great deal of cross-tabulation about heights, types and functions—we shall be happy to provide him with it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned £465,000 in costs across the country. However, instead of the global figure, the fee that we should consider is the £190 per application to a local planning authority, which was mentioned both by him and by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). That fee covers the cost of notifying the neighbours or putting a notice on the site. School governors must be informed because, as Committee members know, many of the worries that are voiced concern schools.

The time for objections has been increased to 56 days. That is important, as it allows the public to be properly involved and consulted. It gives people time to look at the notices, read the letters, talk to each other and respond. There is also provision for additional consultation, as the planning authority thinks necessary.

Tim Loughton: Can the Minister give us a ball-park figure for how much it costs an average council to process such a mobile phone application? Is the average council now making a loss on £190? If so, what is the shortfall, against which must be set the increased consultation for which it is supposedly paying?

Ms Keeble: The Local Government Association was involved in discussions about the new regulations. To answer the hon. Gentleman's question about the cost to local authorities, although the LGA would have preferred a full planning application system, it did not query the fee. In the consultation, it queried not the point about the fee level, but the process.

Tim Loughton: That is not good enough. The Minister asked us to make an assumption. The fee increase is major, and her document tells us that it will lead to increased notification and consultation. Simply because the LGA did not query the actual fee—it wanted the whole law changed, so that everyone was subject to the full planning process—does not mean that it or local authorities are happy with the fee as it stands and with the increase. Surely she must have more detailed information on whether a loss is being made, or how much less the loss will be after the increase.

Ms Keeble: No. As has been stated frequently this afternoon, the extent to which local authorities consult varies from one to another. Obviously, they will partly determine how they handle the matter. They are given extra guidelines by the prior approval procedure. If the LGA is consulted on its views and does not raise an objection about the fee level, one must assume that local authorities are happy with that level. It provides absolute parity between the two procedures. As has been said, the matter is under review. When determining the fee level, it is important that we consider parity with fees already charged by local authorities.

I shall give way to the hon. Member for Bath, then I must deal with other points.

Mr. Don Foster: I consulted my local authority this morning, and it advised me that it would cost roughly £250 to £300 to carry out the consultation in its normal way. Given that the Minister argued that the consultation is important, does she believe that good practice would involve advertisements in newspapers, letters to people living in the immediate vicinity of the proposed masts, and the holding of public meetings? In answering that, she must acknowledge whether local authorities have the right to follow that good practice.

Ms Keeble: No, I would not want to be prescriptive about good practice. The regulations set out the steps that local authorities should follow. We are now dealing with fees. The fee level proposed will make for parity between the procedures in a way that has been considered by the LGA. It is right that we consult the LGA, as it provides the collective view of local government.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: With great respect, I do not think that it is good enough for the Minister to turn up this afternoon, put a statutory instrument before the Committee and say that the proposal must be all right simply because the LGA has not objected to it. The Government have their own organisation, the Audit Commission. Have they consulted the Audit Commission or any other financial audit organisation as to whether the quantum of the fee is correct? What work have they done to establish whether the level is correct?

Ms Keeble: I have set out the procedures. To say that we should not consult the consultative body of local government is a contradiction in terms.

On mast sharing, the fee is per application. If different operators apply at the same time, there is one fee. However, that does not usually happen.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: The Minister misrepresented me. I did not say that the Government should not consult the LGA; it is eminently sensible for them to do so. However, simply because the LGA has not objected to the fees does not mean that every local authority in the country is happy with them. In this country, we have a habit of loading responsibilities on to local authorities without funding them properly, the net result of which is that the council tax has to go up. [Hon. Members: ``That did not start in 1997.''] Of course not.

I repeat my question: what work have the Government done to establish that the level of fee is correct? Have they just plucked it out of mid-air? If so, the Committee is entitled to know.

Ms Keeble: The hon. Gentleman says that the Government have loaded extra responsibilities on local government without giving it proper financial support, but he should recall the record of his party when it was in government.

As for the comments of the hon. Member for Bath, the figures are the same as the amount for the planning application that provides parity, which is important. I come now to the queries about health. I assume that you, Mr Butterfill, intervened because—

The Chairman: Order. I prefer the hon. Lady not to be tempted to take that line of argument, given that the question itself was out of order.

Ms Keeble: I shall not do that, other than to say that such a matter is not one for planning committees.

Clearly, people want mobile phones. Indeed, 43 million people in the United Kingdom already have them. Mobile phones will not work without masts, but it is essential that the masts are designed and sited sensitively, with existing masts and sites being shared as much as possible. Naturally, there are concerns about health regulations and procedures. Public consultation is taking place, but there is also an interest in mobile phones functioning well.

The changes that were announced on 16 March strengthened considerably the current planning arrangements for telecom masts. The changes that we have introduced, along with the supporting fee structure that we shall agree today, will ensure that all parties to the debate are thoroughly satisfied. I do not know whether the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham wants to make a further contribution to the debate or whether he is satisfied.

5.12 pm

Tim Loughton: I certainly want to make a further point. I came to the Committee feeling relatively neutral about what seemed to be a harmless statutory instrument. However, the more the new Minister went into detail about it—or shunned going into detail about it, when we asked her questions—the more sceptical I became about the measure. To put it mildly, it is unacceptable and sloppy that the hon. Lady is unable to answer a simple question and tell us the cost to the average local authority of an average application for a mobile phone mast. Surely that must be based on the figures for the regulatory impact assessment. Are the Government satisfied with simply raising the existing fee for 15 m mobile telephone masts to the existing fee for mobile telephone masts of more than 15 m? That major question goes to the heart of the fee that is so essential to the statutory instrument, as the Minister has reminded me on more than one occasion. She was blatantly unable to answer that simple question.

The Minister was also unable to answer my prime question about what the punters are receiving for their money. The fact is that residents are concerned about the erection of mobile phone masts. That is at the basis of the statutory instrument, both in terms of the fee and the provision of better guidance to planning authorities about where the structures are erected. She will have to admit that, as a result of paying a 540 per cent. increase in the fee that is chargeable to mobile phone companies, residents may be subject to a less thorough consultation and notification process. If it is the current practice of a local authority to attach only two notices to lamp posts as the bare minimum, because it cannot afford to increase the number, it could now rake in more money and have only to attach one notice to a lamp post. The Minister is allowing such a scenario to pass. The more likely position is that a local authority will not have to do anything extra, but use the 540 per cent. increase as a way of lessening a loss-leading exercise.

The statutory instrument gives absolutely no guarantee that our constituents who are concerned about the siting of mobile phone masts will get any extra consultation, other than an increase in the period during which that consultation may take place. They will certainly not receive extra notification. The Minister has not mentioned a single example in which extra notification will take place. Apparently, the statutory instrument makes no recommendation for best practice, or for how local authorities will achieve the statutory instrument's aim of better consultation and notification, and there is certainly no indication that the statutory instrument will be used to encourage better practice from the mobile phone companies, as in mast sharing—the Minister was not able to take that on board—and various other best practices.

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