HC Deb 24 April 2001 vol 367 cc157-9
6. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

What recent representations he has received on the criteria for granting planning permission for the erecting of mobile telephone masts. [157186]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford)

Our Department has received a range of representations on planning arrangements for telecommunications over the past year. On 16 March, I announced a series of important changes to the planning system on the siting of mobile phone masts which significantly strengthen public consultation requirements.

Mr. Amess

Why have the Liberal-supported Labour Government not yet acted positively on the recommendations of the Stewart report? Will the Minister explain to my constituents how, in a heavily populated, tiny urban area, these monstrosities are being erected all the time? Local residents protest, the council tries to intervene, the matter goes to appeal, yet the masts stay up. Can we have some action from this rotten Liberal-supported Labour Government?

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman is carried away by the flights of his own fantasies. I can assure him that the Government have acted on the Stewart recommendations. We have acted by strengthening the public consultation arrangements, and by ensuring that all base stations meet the international exposure guidelines; we have set in train an audit of base stations, starting with schools; we have set up a national database with details of base stations; and we are launching a new £7 million joint industry-Government research programme. Those are all actions undertaken by the Government to ensure that the public interest is safeguarded while we facilitate the continued roll-out of a mobile phone network on which 40 million people in this country depend.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the changes that he mentioned with regard to strengthening public consultation will remove the anomaly whereby a proposal for a mast of 15 m in height only requires prior approval from a local authority, whereas a proposal for a 20 m mast is subject to full planning permission?

Mr. Raynsford

Under the new arrangements that we have announced, all applications for ground-based masts will be subject to a consultation period of 56 days, which is the period for all normal full planning applications. For masts under 15 m in height, there will be continuation of the prior approval procedure. Under that procedure, if the local authority does not reject the proposal within the 56 days, consent is deemed. In every other respect, the procedure will be the same as that for full planning approval.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Does the Minister accept that, although the improvement of consultation measures is welcome, it does not bring radio masts into the normal planning permission regime? People throughout the country are asking why their local councils are incapable of enforcing the views of local people and communities because of the planning regime. That may have been good enough for the get-rich-quick 90s, but it is not good enough now. When will the masts be brought under proper planning control?

Mr. Raynsford

Our procedures ensure that the public have as full an opportunity to comment on any new mobile phone mast application as that which they have under the full planning procedures, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. The only difference is that if the local authority fails to reach a decision by the end of the 56-day period, consent is deemed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would want all local authorities to deal with planning applications expeditiously, as we do. Provided that they do so, there is no difference.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

I welcome the announcements that my right hon. Friend made in March, as, I am sure, do others. However, when he lays the final regulations that relate to those announcements, will he take into account the experience of my constituents in Mitre House, a block of flats in my constituency? My constituents found that they and the local council were powerless to prevent the erection of a mast on the roof of the building. Nothing less than full planning permission would satisfy the need for proper consultation.

Mr. Raynsford

I assure my hon. Friend that under the arrangements that we have announced, roof-based masts will also be subject to the 56-day procedure. Currently, a separate 28-day procedure applies in respect of such masts, so there is a significant improvement. The doubling of the consultation period should ensure that my hon. Friend's concerns in respect of his constituents' views about such proposals are dealt with satisfactorily.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I cannot believe that the Minister is convincing even himself with this flannel. Clearly, he is not convincing any of his colleagues. On 31 July last year, he said that he was minded to introduce a requirement for full planning permission. He reneged on that statement, and his alternative proposals were rightly shredded by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, which had a Labour majority. The Committee pointed out that he planned to entrench the unpopular and confusing prior approval regime and entrench existing perverse incentives to operators to put up masts below an arbitrarily chosen height limit". Does he agree with his colleagues on the Committee that his policy is perverse, unpopular and confusing?

Mr. Raynsford

As I recall it, the Trade and Industry Committee described our proposals in its most recent report on the subject as a carefully crafted compromise. That is exactly what they are. [Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen. They are a compromise because there are two conflicting pressures. There is concern among a very large number of our citizens who want to use mobile phones and want good reception. There are 40 million users. Equally, there is concern about the adverse environmental and amenity impact, and about health matters. We have considered those concerns carefully and sought an appropriate compromise. I should like to quote the views of a particular person on this subject. He said: people need reassuring and the planning guidelines do need changing. I don't think we need to smother the thing in bureaucracy and red tape, and mobile phone companies have to have the ability to put up the masts. I agree with those comments entirely. They come from the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman), and I am sorry that he has not persuaded his colleague of the sense of his approach.

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