HC Deb 01 March 1996 vol 272 cc1179-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. MacKay]

2.32 pm
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the important subject of planning controls over telecommunication masts. My interest has been stimulated by the concern surrounding proposals in my constituency, but my inquiries lead me to believe that the problem is widespread.

Telecommunication masts can be erected up to a height of 15 m, or 50 ft, without any need for planning permission to be obtained. Given the growth of the telecommunications industry, which I broadly welcome and which the Department for Trade and Industry is actively encouraging, there is a danger that masts will proliferate in a visually intrusive and environmentally damaging manner.

I understand that it is the Government's policy to facilitate the growth of telecommunication systems because of the benefits they can bring. No doubt my hon. Friend the Minister of State will confirm that. However, there are plenty of other industries besides telecommunications that confer benefits, but which are not allowed to put up buildings at will without going through the normal planning process. Indeed, I find it extraordinary that an industry which is clearly expanding rapidly on the basis of growing demand and also achieving attractive financial returns, should now be singled out for privileged treatment.

I am all in favour of keeping the planning process as simple as possible and trying to help planning authorities, applicants for planning permission and objectors by enabling decisions to be taken swiftly, and uncertainty to be resolved as quickly as possible. However, the importance of keeping regulation to a minimum does not have to mean that one form of development—and a potentially unattractive one at that—should be given a fast track through the normal system of controls.

The present arrangements allow unacceptable outcomes to slip through too often and too easily. There are plenty of other industries, many of which create jobs, attract investment to rural areas and improve service to their customers, which would dearly love to have a similar privileged position. Furthermore, individual householders, who have struggled for years to obtain approval for apparently inoffensive and modest alterations to their own properties, are understandably outraged that historic and cherished landscapes can suddenly be destroyed virtually without warning.

I recognise that a determined local authority, even under present regulations, has the power to block an especially offensive telecommunications mast, if it is minded to do so, but I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Minister of State would be able to tell me how many times that power has been used. I suspect that the answer is that the power has been used very infrequently.

The present regulations, which classify masts of less than 15 m in height as permitted development, are deficient in two respects. First, there is no obligation on either the telecommunications operators or the local planning authority to publicise any proposals to erect such masts. In practice, therefore, the first that some people— who may be directly affected by the construction of such masts—know about the development is when they see the completed masts.

Given that the sites chosen for the masts are often, for operational reasons, visually prominent, the number of people affected can be great and may not be confined to those living in immediately adjacent property. I consider it entirely unsatisfactory that members of the public may find themselves confronted by a fait accompli, as a result of development about which they knew nothing until it was too late, and on which they had no opportunity to comment.

My second concern about the present procedure is the grossly inadequate timetable allowed to local planning authorities. During a space of only 28 days, the authorities must undertake consultation with the public, hold negotiations when appropriate with the operator, and reach a final decision on the merits of individual proposals. That 28-day period commences on the date on which the application from the telecommunications operator was received by the authority.

Those of us who have struggled to assist constituents over the years to overcome the seemingly endless bureaucracy and inordinate delays involved in the planning process are astonished that, apparently for the convenience of one already highly successful industry, an impossibly short deadline is imposed on local planning authorities.

I am quite unable to understand why the normal protection offered to the environment for the benefit of residents in urban and, more especially, in rural areas is not available in those cases. There is no reason whatever why such development should not be subject to normal planning controls when smaller and intrinsically less offensive development is still subject to them.

I therefore urge my hon. Friend the Minister to respond to the widespread and growing concern which is felt, not just by me, but by many other hon. Members, by the Council for the Protection of Rural England and by the Countryside Movement, whose chairman—the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel)—has written to me to express his support.

The ideal response would be to bring all such developments within the ambit of normal planning controls. That would have immediate and considerable benefits and would be widely supported. Failing that, and perhaps as interim measures, my hon. Friend could take two other steps.

The first would be to introduce a requirement for telecommunications operators and local planning authorities to publicise proposals for telecommunications masts, in the same way that other planning proposals are publicised. Although even that measure could not guarantee that all those affected would be made aware of the proposed developments in advance, it would still represent a huge step forward from the present completely unsatisfactory position. Many more people would be alerted to the possibility of a mast in their neighbourhood, and would have the opportunity to express their views about it.

Secondly, the very limited 28-day period now available to local planning authorities to consult, negotiate and decide should be extended to at least eight weeks. I do not believe that that extension would significantly disadvantage the industry. It would make it much more likely, however, that local opinion would be properly consulted and that sensible negotiations were carried out to minimise the environmental impact of telecommunications masts that were deemed acceptable. In extreme cases, local authorities would have sufficient time to give a considered refusal to proposals which were simply unacceptable, and where negotiations had failed to produce an agreement.

I strongly urge my hon. Friend the Minister to make the changes that I have suggested applicable to all new proposals for telecommunications masts, regardless of how low or how acceptable their positions may be.

A further concern affects my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), as a result of applications for telecommunications masts to be sited in Dedham Vale, an area of outstanding natural beauty. Having lived on the edge of the vale for the past 13 years, I am especially sensitive to the historic, unspoiled and beautiful nature of the landscape. It is inconceivable that a Government who have demonstrated so thoroughly their concern for a wide range of environmental issues should be willing to countenance the threatened destruction of some of the most famous and attractive views in the whole of East Anglia.

Fortunately, the three most recent proposals for masts have had to go through the normal planning process, because they are too high to be approved under the permitted development regulations to which I have referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester, North and I have been contacted by many people who are extremely worried about the proposals to place communications masts. They hope that action can be taken before permanent damage is done.

I understand that one of the applications has already been turned down by Colchester borough council, but there is much concern over the remaining applications, not least because the decisions are likely to be influenced by the terms of planning policy guidance note 8. That guidance instructs local planning authorities to respond positively to telecommunications development proposals and to be alive to the special needs and technical problems of telecommunications development. Its general tone is sympathetic to the industry. Some people fear that, as a result, considerations of environmental protection may not be given sufficient weight.

Anything that my hon. Friend can say about the possibility of amending the guidance so as to require planning authorities to attach greater weight to environmental protection, especially in areas of outstanding natural beauty, will be welcome. His words on that subject, and on the masts for which planning permission is not at present needed, will be closely scrutinised by everyone who is interested in the rural environment.

2.44 pm
The Minister for Construction, Planning and Energy Efficiency (Mr. Robert B. Jones)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) and for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin), who have been concerned about this issue for some time, and have raised it in the House in their different ways—and, I suspect, from opposite sides of any possible telecommunications mast. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk on securing this opportunity to flesh out those concerns.

My hon. Friend has urged me to tighten the controls over telecommunications masts. I have listened carefully to the debate, and I recognise the strength of feeling that has been expressed. Indeed, I share that concern, and am watching the position carefully. Perhaps it would be helpful if I explained the present legislation in this area and the guidance issued by my Department.

Following the privatisation of British Telecom, one of our policy objectives has been to open up the public telecommunications market to wider competition. That has been a tremendous success. Britain has become a world leader in this area of new technology, and consumers have benefited from lower prices and continuously improving products and services in a highly competitive market.

Success, however, brings with it new problems. We are very aware that this rapidly developing industry needs to be subject to controls, some of which are embodied in the system of licensing introduced by the Telecommunications Act 1984. That regime is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, and covers a much wider range of telecommunications operations than we are concerned with in this debate. Our interest today is in the licences under which the four mobile telephone networks are introducing their services—or, in the technical jargon, they are being rolled out.

The two original cellular operators, Cellnet and Vodafone, have already rolled out networks covering more than 98 per cent. of the UK population. The Government have also awarded licences under the Telecommunications Act for what are called personal communication networks. These offer a service similar to that offered by the cellular operators, and provide direct competition. The two PCN operators are Mercury One-2-One and Orange. PCN uses digital rather than analogue technology, and Vodafone and Cellnet are also now rolling out digital stations.

The four mobile telecommunications operators are required by their licences to meet target dates for providing services to a specified percentage of the UK population. Cellnet and Vodafone were required to meet a target of 90 per cent. by 1989, and have achieved that. One-2-One and Orange are required to meet a target of 90 per cent. by December 1999. The Government's policy is not to allow the mobile operators to pick and choose where they provide coverage, but to ensure that they provide a widespread service to the bulk of the population. That is to ensure both competition and consumer choice.

The mobile telephone is already a feature of everyday life for millions of people, and will become so for millions more over the next decade. However irritating they may sometimes seem, mobile telephones are helping to improve the efficiency of British industry by enabling staff to maintain contact both with their offices and with their customers. Not surprisingly, therefore, users want to be able to use their telephones as widely as possible, and we believe that it is right that they should be able to do so. It is important, however, that provision is made in a sensitive way.

Licences issued under the 1984 Act give telecommunications companies special rights to install equipment on private land with the agreement of the owner. With these rights come various obligations, imposed through conditions in the licence. One purpose of these is to protect the amenity of the area in which an installation is proposed.

For example, the operators have to notify the local planning authority before installing any apparatus. They must give 28 days' notice to allow the planning authority time to raise any objections. In protected areas, such as conservation areas, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty, 40 days' notice is required. That is complementary to and separate from the planning controls, which I shall deal with in a minute.

Before I do so, it is important that we understand the technical constraints under which the operators have to work. The frequency ranges available to operators are limited, and can be used for calls only by a certain number of subscribers at any one time. Networks depend on the re-use of frequencies in separate areas, known as cells, and each cell needs a base station. It will include an antenna for receiving or transmitting signals.

Transmission of those signals is basically on a line-of-sight basis, as they have a very limited ability to pass through solid objects. That means that antennae have to be in an elevated position, usually mounted on a building or a mast.

Operators also have to be careful to avoid interference between one cell and another. Customers do not want other callers using the same frequency in another cell to pick up their calls. Mobile phone networks are therefore rather akin to a jigsaw puzzle. Each cell has to fit in with all the others to create a national network.

Against that background, I turn now to the planning controls over telecom masts. They apply equally, as do the licensing requirements, to fixed-link, wireless local loop operators, such as Ionica and Liberty. As has already been said, the main legislation in the area is the general permitted development order. The order sets out various categories of minor development that can go ahead without the need for a planning application to be submitted. Its purpose is to save both applicants and local planning authorities from undertaking a great deal of work on a range of minor developments.

The order gives mobile phone and other telecom operators a general right to erect masts up to 15 m high. That is, however, subject to two important caveats. First, we have recognised the need for much more detailed planning consideration to be given to proposals to erect masts in areas of particular landscape quality. The permitted development rights do not apply, therefore, to masts in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and conservation areas. Masts in those areas require full planning permission from the local planning authority, as do all masts, wherever they are located, that exceed 15 m in height.

Secondly, even where operators wish to exercise their permitted development rights, they must go through what is called the prior approval procedure. That means that they must give the local planning authority the opportunity to say whether it wishes to approve the details of the siting and appearance of the installation.

The authority then has 28 days in which to give—or in some cases refuse—its approval. The period of 28 days is designed to give planning authorities sufficient time to consider prior approval applications, while not obstructing operators unnecessarily in the complex business of laying out their networks. In an interlocking network, operators need to know fairly quickly if they cannot rely on one of the components, as that will have consequences for other parts of the system.

There are those who say that a mast 15 m in height is too tall, and makes too big an impact on the skyline. I assure the House that the threshold was chosen most carefully. There is an important balance to be struck between the height and the number of masts needed to deliver efficient communications. The House should know that if, for example, the limit was reduced to 10 m, there could be an increase of more than a third in the number of masts.

We are concerned that the planning procedures should operate as smoothly as possible, that operators and local planning authorities should build up good working relationships, and that the prior approval procedure should work to best effect. We already issue policy guidance on telecommunications in our planning policy guidance note 8, and on the permitted development order in circular 9/95.

PPG8 draws attention to our policies for protecting the countryside, and encourages the inclusion in development plans of telecom policies which take account of the need to protect the best and most sensitive environments. It also advises that local planning authorities should reasonably expect applicants for large masts to show evidence that they have explored the possibility of erecting antennae on an existing building, mast or other structure.

To supplement that advice, we set up a working party last year to draw up a code of practice on the handling of prior approval applications. The working party was made up of representatives of the local authority associations, operators and other interested Government Departments. They have worked together in a very positive and constructive way, and I can now announce to the House that the result is an agreed code, which we intend to publish at the beginning of April.

The code will specify the information that operators should provide to local planning authorities before they roll out their networks, and when making individual applications. It will give model application forms for local authorities to use in making decisions, and guidance on how to deal with applications speedily. There will be guidance for operators on the sensitive areas they should avoid if possible when erecting masts. Finally, there will be a technical annexe on the technology of mobile and other systems.

My task in the Department of the Environment is to provide the planning framework that can accommodate the continuing growth in telecommunications, while minimising any adverse effects on amenity and the environment. Our present framework of control has been devised to achieve those twin objectives. I am grateful to the operators and local authority associations for their work in drawing up the new code of practice. I hope that it will help to iron out the kind of problems we have heard about in today's debate.

However, I fully recognise the concerns that have been expressed, and I shall watch the situation very carefully. I have therefore asked the members of the working group to monitor the operation of the code over its first six his constituents and many colleagues in the House. I shall months, and then to reconvene to discuss any problems therefore continue to keep a careful watch on the position. that have arisen. I believe that the best way forward is for the parties to maintain a constructive dialogue, and I hope that the efforts of the working party have laid a firm basis that

My hon Friend has raised some interesting points on which I shall reflect. His concern is shared by many of his constituents and many colleagues in the Hose. I shall therefore continue to keep a careful watch on the position.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Three o 'clock.