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This Bill is not about dismantling the mobile phone industry. Mobile phones are a public good, usually. There are 60 million of them in circulation and 40,000 masts. In 1984, the Conservative Government were a little too liberal in setting up the industry by relaxing planning controls, and they have been followed by a Labour Government who have been too conservative in not putting things right.
The result is that while 40,000 masts have gone up and the majority have caused no difficulty at all, insensitive and inappropriate siting have clearly been major causes of discontent in some examples. Local residents, councils and councillors are baffled and frustrated as they cannot get their concerns taken seriously, or in many cases even considered at all.
If I wanted to put up a garage or a conservatory, I would need more permissions than if I wanted to put up a telecommunications mast. Up to the height of 15 m, which is higher than the Chamber, planning permission is not needed. There are dozens of stories of people coming home from work to find a mast that they knew nothing about at the end of their garden. One elderly person who has been in touch with me opened the curtains one morning to discover a mast that they did not know was going to be there.
The mobile phone companies say that they have to respond to demand and that this is a commercial operation. I understand that pointbut so is a supermarket or a petrol station, and they have to ask for such permission.
Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD):
My hon. Friend knows that mobile phone companies have produced
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10 commitments to allay concern, but those have not worked in any respect whatever. The concern is still there, and there is no point in those companies coming back again and again with these 10 commitments, as they simply do not answer public concerns.
The mobile phone companies are not averse to cutting the odd corner. A case in my Hazel Grove constituency involves four blocks of terraced houses that, in effect, form a courtyard with a small industrial premises in the middle. In the middle of that, a mobile phone mast was put up a year or two ago. It was claimed to be below 15 m in height and not to need any permission. There was a great deal of noise and ruction about that.
Someone measured the mast and found that it was 16 m high, and therefore needed planning permission. The borough considered it and issued a refusal, for perfectly valid planning reasons. The company appealed, and that appeal was dismissed by the inspector. So, the mast had to come down, but the mobile phone company came back and said, "It's 16 m high now, but we will take it down, cut 1 m off and put it back up at 15 m. Is that what you really want us to do?" I am afraid that in many cases the phone companies have been their own worst enemies.
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): May I assure the hon. Gentleman, who is introducing a sensible measure, that the next Conservative Government will require all phone masts, regardless of size and proposed site, to be subject to the full planning permission process? What is more, the next Conservative Government will revise planning guidance to local authorities to allow them to take
Mr. Stunell: I remind the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) that in 1984, in the spirit of laissez-faire, the Conservatives withdrew every planning control. If they had done the right thing 20 years ago, I would not have to be standing here now introducing the Bill.
I have already said that a provision in the Bill would allow owners of buildings and premises to regain control and take measures against phone companies if they did not wish masts to continue to be in place.
In the last couple of minutes available, I want to mention the health question. There is no doubt that there is a major concern for many people. I have not focused on that exclusively; there are, in any case, good planning reasons for bringing masts back into planning control. In 2000, Sir William Stewart's report established the idea of the precautionary principle, which I have embedded in my Bill. He brought to the fore the concept of a beam of greatest intensity, also
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sometimes called the main beam, and clause 1, which is based very much on the work of the hon. Member for West Suffolk, does exactly that.
A local health certificate would have to be given to a mast, and it would have to be produced if that mast were radiating towards a school, a health clinic or a home. Specific attention would then have to be paid to that particular mast's safety certificate, rather than having a national block exemption. There are six networks, many different types of mast and many different intensities. Having a national exemption is not appropriate for the many diverse situations that arise when masts are placed around the country.
My Bill would allow concerns related to a specific mast to be taken up. The fact is that if a mast failed its health test locally, there would be no mast; if it passed, there would be no grounds for a refusal. My analogy would be with road vehicles. Not all road vehicles are the same. Minis are different from
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I am grateful to have another opportunity to initiate an Adjournment debate at the end of the week. Like many such debates, it relates to a specific set of local circumstancesmy local online community websitesand larger policy issues.
My constituency is one of two in the London borough of Richmond upon Thames. We have a rare and pioneering set of entirely voluntary community networks, which are now in their eighth year of operation. They bring together community information and literally hundreds of community websites in the area within 10 different portals, each of which is organised around one of the urban villages which my constituency comprises. One tends to think of Twickenham as a London suburb and, indeed, that was how I perceived it when I went to live there. However, one gradually learns that there are distinct urban communities, or villages, within it.
I have supported the work of the online communities during the eight years of their existence. Their usage and spread is remarkable and they have generated enthusiasm throughout the local community. I have secured the debate not only to tell the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), about such pioneering work, but to make the more serious point that such community websites are under serious threat due to acts of omission and commission by local and central Government. I would especially like her to focus on those policy points.
The wider context of the debate is much bigger than the subject that I am addressing. The internet revolution is, in its way, as important as printing and broadcasting. Of course, many internet activities have little to do with the Government or, indeed, politicians, because they are transactions between companies and individuals on a vast and rapidly expanding scale. However, the situation touches on our existence in several respects. E-government is growing, and I know that the Government expect their e-government objectives to be met in all areas of national government this year. There has been rapid expansion. People who are specialists in the area tell me that the scope of e-government is increasing, with the expansion into such areas as passport ordering and university admissions meaning that it is becoming virtually universal, and that the quality of government websites is improving greatly.
Parts of the population are poorly covered. Only one in 10 people of pensionable age use the internet for government or other purposes, and only one in six poor families use it. One of the reasons for the importance of community websites is that they reach those groups, particularly elderly people, more effectively than some other means of communication.
As the internet revolution proceeds and the Government continue to spread the reach of e-government, community websites have emerged. The interaction between community websites and e-government could be called e-democracy. That is a
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somewhat abstract concept, but those of us who see it in action can recognise it. When we talk about e-democracy in Parliament, it is usually in the context of MPs' websites, and I am one of the many MPs who have one. That is probably one of the least important applications. Much more important is the way community websites are generating vigorous local political debate on issues around planning applications, local council politics, hustings at national elections and so on.
The good news is that e-democracy is flourishing, as I can see in the communities that I represent. The bad news is that the process is under threat because of the difficulties facing community websites. For example, how does a voluntary community website sustain itself? It has many things to do. In a world of increasing complexity, where there is a growing demand for that type of activity, there is correspondence to conduct, community notice-boards to be constantly monitored and updated, the need to promote classified advertising, news to be syndicated to other sites, and content management to be undertaken. For example, in the online communities that I am discussing, each councillor is offered a website to help them communicate with their electorate, not just with each other. Since councillors, like MPs, are often not good at the technical side, a good deal of content management is necessary.
The work involved is substantial and growing, probably exponentially, and the demands that that places on a voluntary community-based system are considerable. That raises the question how such a system is to sustain itself. If it is not a state-run, publicly funded organisation, it must do so through advertising. One cannot pay as one views on the internet, so advertising is the only mechanism available. In principle, that is the way it should happen. That is partly how newspaperscertainly free newspapersand commercial radio fund themselves.
What problems are associated with advertising in the context of community websites? To some extent the online communities to which I am referring already make use of classified advertisements. A key part of the market is premium-cost public advertisements, such as local councils advertising jobs and the more important planning applications. At present, in almost all areas, including mine, local councils make use of the print media, which is often not the most efficient and sensible way to advertise.
The Department that the Minister represents, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, recently commissioned a report from Ove Arup on the best ways of advertising planning applications. The conclusion was that the traditional print media are inefficient and result in poor access. Large numbers of residents expressed their frustration with the fact that they never hear about planning applications until it is too late. I believe the Ove Arup report recommended that much more active use be made of internet-based systems, such as community websites.
What happens in practice, therefore, is imperfect. Were local councils to make more use of community websites for advertising, that would no doubt provide the websites with the income to sustain and expand their activities, but that is currently not happening. What is the role of government? I refer to local government, but
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there are two things that central Government could do. First, through their guidance to local councils, they should ensure that all media are treated equally. There should not be special protection for community websites. That would be unhealthy and is not what they seek. They simply want to be treated on an equal basis with other media.
The other requirement, which is already part of the Minister's portfolio, is to ensure best value. When the Government conduct their best value appreciation of local government, they should take into account whether councils are currently seeking and obtaining best value through their advertising. If that exercise were conducted, it would no doubt result in an appropriate allocation of advertising revenue, and community websites would have access to it.
There is however a second problem on top of advertising and it relates to Government funding. I do no know how much the Government contribute towards local community website development. A large amount of money has certainly gone into local government, but that is mostly for internal communication and the communication of councils with the public. But local councils are creating their own community websites. They are developed in-house by IT departments of local councils and they are in competition with genuine voluntary community websites. I cannot speak for all of those, but certainly the perception that I have from people in the field is that often the products of local government are not of good quality, and even if they are of good quality they have an official flavour to them. They quickly acquire a vested interest; they are a corner of local government, and local government becomes increasingly defensive and protective of its own websites, some of which appear to be supported by Government as against the independent voluntary sector.
Inevitably, a protectionist flavour is developing. Local councillors become nervous about community websites because they no longer control the news media, as they used to be able to through the original weekly news conferences. News leaks out within minutes on an internet-based system. Local council officials feel flustered when enormous interest suddenly develops in local planning applications as a result of community websites. The community websites are then seen as a problem by the local councils, which in turn promote their own system in competition with them using Government funding. As the Minister will appreciate, that is not healthy. I hope that in such circumstances the Government will try to ensure a genuine level playing field, and that if Government funding is available for community website development, independents are in a position to bid for it on exactly the same basis as local councils. That is all that is sought in this context.
The Government could probably learn quite a lot from best practice in this area. Certainly my local community online websites are of national, possibly world-class, quality. I was one of the first MPs to receive an awardit was a New Statesman awardfor my website. I did very little myself towards it, but it was done by the same team that runs the online community
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websites in my area, and its work is of extraordinarily high quality. I am sure that the Government could benefit from its creativity, and I urge them to consult it.
I sought this debate not simply to advertise the fact that something good, creative and interesting is happening in my constituency, but to point out that in this rapidly changing revolution, policy problems are beginning to arise, with conflicts of interest, particularly in the management of advertising and in the use of Government funding. Just as we have a heated debate in broadcasting about the relationship between public sector and independent broadcasters, the same type of controversy is beginning to arise in e-democracy, and it will become a big issue in years to come.
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