HC Deb 24 January 2001 vol 361 cc1034-42

Motion made, and Ouestion proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Mr Robert Ainsworth.]

10.31 pm
Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I am grateful—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is out of order that those who are leaving the Chamber should walk in front of the hon. Member who has the Floor.

Mr. Burstow

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

I am grateful to have the opportunity to raise an important matter in the House tonight. My interest in the subject of mobile phone masts stems first and foremost from cases drawn to my attention via my constituency mailbag. Last year, my local council, the London borough of Sutton, received 22 prior notification submissions from telecommunications companies. Although not all of them proved controversial locally, several have caused considerable concern among many of my constituents.

Most recently, residents of the Belmont area of my constituency were alarmed by a mast proposal that fell outside the borough boundary and within the Banstead and Reigate district council area. Although remote from residents in that council's area, the mast would have been close to residents in my constituency. As a consequence of the lack of confidence felt by many residents about the possible effects on health of such masts, great concern arose. I am pleased to say that, owing to a combination of effective lobbying by residents on issues affecting the amenity of the locality and other planning matters, and the diligence of my colleague Councillor Tony Wallace, that proposal was ultimately rejected by the relevant planning authority.

That application and concerns that have arisen from earlier cases led me to seek tonight's debate. While preparing my speech, I became aware that several other hon. Members have already raised these issues, but there are some relevant matters on which I should like the Minister to expand. In particular, I hope that he will be able to tell me what progress has been made in acting on the recommendations of the independent expert group on mobile phones, chaired by Sir William Stewart. In the last Session, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) tabled two early-day motions calling for the urgent implementation of the Stewart report's proposals. It would be helpful if the Minister spelled out the Government's response to that report and the timetable that is being followed for the delivery of the recommendatins.

As the Stewart report noted, the current privileged development rights of the telecommunications industry leave residents' anxieties outside the equation for evaluating the proposals. The timetable for the current system of prior approval leaves little time in many cases to do much more than pay lip service to public consultation. That lack of consultation feeds a lack of confidence in the safety of masts.

I welcome the Government's consultation on requiring all new telecommunications masts to be subject to full planning application procedure. Such a requirement would mean that the process would be subject to much greater public scrutiny in future. When that consultation process ended, 301 responses had been received. My council wrote on 16 October, and I shall quote an extract from the letter: In order to enable greater resident involvement the London Borough of Sutton fully supports the aim contained within the consultation paper of requiring telecommunications companies to submit planning applications for all mast proposals. In this way it will be possible to be inclusive and to ensure that representations can be obtained and if necessary they can be heard within a public forum. All too often at present the telescoped timetable does not enable residents to feel that their views art being fully considered. In particular as the prior approval format does not constitute a planning application it therefore cannot be considered under the same set of rules. This dual approach is both difficult to understand and very frustrating for residents. It is those residents who are most affected by the mast proposals. I agree with those comments from the London borough of Sutton. Those anxieties have driven the questions that I tabled last year and my support for several early-day motions.

It would be useful to have the opportunity to review more of the responses to the Department's consultation. Unfortunately that has not been possible, despite an undertaking that was given by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), in a written answer on 9 November to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey). He asked when the responses would be published. The reply assured him: Copies of all responses, other than those where the respondent has indicated that the response is to be treated as confidential, will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.—[Official Report, 9 November 2000; Vol. 356, c. 348W.] The responses were not in the Library yesterday, however. Inquiries by Library staff to the parliamentary Clerk to the Department revealed that the responses were still being considered, and that, consequently, the Department had not released them to the Library. Why could not hon. Members see the responses until the Department had finished analysing them?

Given the changes that the new generation of personal communication networks will effect, have the Government assessed the number of new masts that will be required? Personal communication networks have a lower range and more masts will be required to achieve the same coverage as existing technology provides. Telecommunications companies have statutory licences from the Government and they will therefore be able to install equipment on the public highway. That right already exists. People are worried that there will be a proliferation of the columns that contain the masts and aerials.

One representation to the Department, by Kent county council, estimated that 100,000 new masts would be required to provide the new licensing arrangements. It would be useful if the Minister could say whether that was a fair estimate. If it is not, what constitutes a reasonable estimate in the Department's view?

Such expansion requires more than piecemeal development control and case-by-case consideration. Will the Government therefore accept the proposal of the Council for the Protection of Rural England that network operators should be obliged to consult local planning authorities on their plans for the whole network as it affects a specific locality? That would minimise the environmental impact.

Will the Government remove the permitted development rights for existing masts that have been approved under current prior approval arrangements? What monitoring arrangements are in place to ensure that the industry seriously considers the sharing of masts when possible and appropriate?

On planning guidance, can the Minister tell the House when it is intended to introduce the new planning requirements? When will they be in force?

Other questions are relevant to anxiety about the proliferation of masts. By dint of being statutory undertakers, telecommunications companies have the ability to exercise compulsory purchase order powers under an order by the Secretary of State. There is a possibility of CPOs being used to acquire land to allow such masts to be erected. If there is to be an increase in the number of bases required to secure the roll-out of the new licences and new technologies involved, what assessment has been made of the implications for a possible increase in the number of CPOs?

Finally, let me deal with an issue that is probably on the minds of many of my constituents and, I suspect, the minds of constituents of many other hon. Members. I refer to the debate about the public health effects of both ground stations and mobile phones. The Stewart report took the view that, according to the balance of the evidence, there was no general risk to the health of people near base stations; however, it accepted that there was evidence of subtle biological effects from radiation generated by such stations. Indeed, evidence collected for a report by the World Health Organisation suggests that low level doses have a cumulative effect on health.

As a result of the Stewart report, the Government have committed themselves to the precautionary approach recommended by the report, but that approach has tended to concentrate on phone use rather than bases. Of course it is welcome that more information and guidance is being provided, especially for children who may use mobile phones, but I understand that the leaflets that are meant to be provided with phones are not always provided by retailers when people buy them, and that there is thus no guarantee that the information is being conveyed.

In the United States, New Zealand and many European countries there are rules governing exclusion zones around base stations, which in some cases extend to 500 m. That was recommended by the Stewart report, but on my reading the Government have not acted on its recommendation to date. The Stewart report also recommended auditing: We recommend that an independent, random, ongoing audit of all base stations be carried out to ensure that exposure guidelines are not exceeded outside the marked exclusion zone and that the base stations comply with their agreed specifications. If base station emissions are found to exceed guideline levels, or there is significant departure from the stated characteristics, then the base station should be decommissioned until compliance is demonstrated. Can the Minister say when the programme will begin, and how many bases will be visited each year? Such audits could play an important part in restoring confidence in the safety of the technology.

My constituents and my local authority want all mast applications to be properly considered through the planning process, so that there is proper public debate and scrutiny. They also want to know that the bases are being audited, and that the expansion of the network—which many of us will welcome, because it will provide access to the technology and allow better use of mobile phones and all the attendant communications aids—will not take place at the expense of the precautionary principle.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Barstow) on securing the debate and giving the House an opportunity to discuss an important issue which, as he said, has caused concern not just in his constituency but far more widely.

The hon. Gentleman will, I hope, appreciate that because of the nature of the planning system, which enables cases to come to the Secretary of State on appeal, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any individual cases. I shall therefore concentrate on the wider issues that he raised.

I confirm that our general policy on telecommunications development is to encourage and facilitate the rollout of a modern national telecommunications network, while at the same time protecting the environment. The Government are also responsible for protecting public health. In recent years, public concern about the possible health implications of mobile phone masts—and, indeed, handsets—has been increasing. I shall try to address both issues.

The Government take the health concerns extremely seriously, which is why in 1999 they asked their statutory adviser, the National Radiological Protection Board, to set up an independent expert group on mobile phones. Under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart, the group considered concerns about the health effects of the use of mobile phones, base stations and transmitters. It conducted a rigorous and comprehensive assessment of existing research and gathered a wide range of views. I shall return to that matter.

The telecommunications sector is a vital part of the UK economy. It currently represents 3 per cent. of gross domestic product and network operators employ more than 213,000 people. There are more than 32 million telephone exchange lines and, in addition, some 30 million mobile phone subscribers. However, those figures do not tell the whole story. Telecommunications also provides a business backbone. Many industries are improving their routes to market through use of advanced telecommunications, the internet being a prime example. Business efficiency is also helped by such things as e-mail, short messaging services, mobile communications and video conferencing. The Government have as one of their core objectives making the UK the best place in the world to do business electronically by 2002.

The growth in the UK mobile communications sector over the past 15 years has been remarkable, and that growth is set to continue with the third generation of mobile telecommunications systems about to come on stream. A modern network brings a number of social and economic benefits, but the drive to develop the industry must be balanced against environmental objectives. The Government attach great importance to keeping to a minimum the environmental intrusion caused by telecoms network development. The land use planning system provides the tool to achieve that balance.

Licensed telecommunications code system operators are authorised by the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, commonly referred to as the GPDO, to install specified telecommunications apparatus without needing to make a planning application to the local authority. However, our current planning framework includes well-established policies to protect the countryside and urban areas—in particular, our national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and sites of special scientific interest. The installation of any telecommunications mast in such areas is subject to a requirement to submit a planning application. In addition, a planning application is required for the installation of any telecommunications mast in excess of 15 m in height, wherever it is to be sited.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester)

Does the Minister agree that many objections from residents result from the blank cheque planning permission granted by the previous Government? If the present Government amended the legislation to require planning permission to be sought for even the smallest mast, that would go a long way to appease residents such as those in St. John's ward in Colchester, who oppose such an application.

Mr. Raynsford

The hon. Gentleman anticipates a point that I shall come to in a moment. I assure him and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that I shall deal with it.

The GPDO approach nevertheless incorporates safeguards for other types of telecommunications development, including masts not exceeding 15 m in height. The main safe guard is provided through what is known as the prior approval procedure, which gives the local planning authority an opportunity to consider the siting and appearance of telecom masts.

The local planning authority has 28 days to carry out that process in respect of masts not exceeding 15 m in height on buildings or other structures. Following amendments to paragraph 24 of the GPDO in 1999, we extended that period to 42 days in respect of ground-based masts not exceeding 15 m in height and required the operator to erect a site notice to publicise the development proposed. Those amendments were introduced to provide the public with a clear opportunity to comment to the authority on the siting and appearance of ground-based masts.

Local planning authorities are strongly encouraged to undertake any additional publicity that they consider necessary to give people likely to be affected by the proposed development an opportunity to make their views known. Where the local authority considers that the proposed development would have a detrimental effect on local amenity, it is able to refuse approval. I have not completed my remarks on that subject, and shall come back to it later, so I hope that hon. Members will bear with me.

One concern often expressed is the proliferation of telecom masts. Indeed, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam specifically raised that issue. Planning policy guidance underlines the Government's view that the number of telecoms masts should be kept to the minimum consistent with an efficient network. Our policy is to encourage mast and site sharing, while recognising that it may not be the optimum environmental solution in every case. A couple of slim and unobtrusive masts, for example, may well be better than one cluttered one. In general, however, the principle is to encourage mast-sharing and limit the number of new masts to the minimum consistent with the objective of establishing an efficient network created

Consideration of sharing is the starting point and conditions attached to individual operating licences granted by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry include a requirement to investigate mast sharing before seeking to put up any new mast.

Mr. Burstow

Given that a condition is attached to the licences, will the Minister tell the House whether or not the DTI has arrangements to monitor compliance with that condition to ensure that that happens?

Mr. Raynsford

That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry: I am more than happy to discuss it with him and write to the hon. Gentleman. I shall come on to the important issue of the arrangements that we are making for monitoring in a moment.

The Government expect operators to provide evidence to the local planning authority that they have considered the use of existing masts, buildings or other structures before seeking to erect any new mast, regardless of size. With evidence on the suitability of alternative sites, the operator can discuss with the local planning authority, at an early stage, whether a shared mast would be the preferable solution for a particular development.

As well as base station location, sympathetic design has a key part to play in minim sing the impact of telecommunications development on the environment. The Government are keen to see operators working together to investigate the use of new technologies, materials and designs that will allow masts to complement or merge unobtrusively into their surroundings. The hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members will know of imaginative approaches that have been adopted including, in one extreme case, an installation in Guildford cathedral concealed in the figure of an angel. Such possibilities will be appropriate and entirely satisfactory in some cases, but not, perhaps, in others. However, that area needs to be pursued.

We are sure that there is scope for further work to develop new and more sympathetic mast designs, drawing lessons from successful design, siting and landscaping solutions in this country and abroad. If operators can give local planning authorities and local people an idea of potential design solutions for particular sites, that will help to promote better dialogue and a collaborative approach to devising effective environmental solutions and help to make mast development more acceptable to the public.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues in the DTI whether a procedure or guideline could be issued? An advertisement from suppliers or manufacturers could state what they wanted and what the network expected. In effect, it would ask for tenders from individuals who would conform with the design requirements and fit in with the local authority conditions. People would be interested in doing that because there might be some commercial benefit. I know people who would welcome the opportunity to have a mast in an appropriate place, and would far rather that such a development was led by the landlord, rather than by an initiative on behalf of the mobile phone operator.

Mr. Raynsford

I hear and understand the point made by the hon. Gentleman. He will accept that the operator has to ensure that the location of the mast ensures that it is an appropriate complement to the rest of the network. Therefore, I would not wish to encourage too many initiatives of that nature from individuals who may be keen to have a mast in a location where they would probably receive some income for it, but where it is of no great benefit to the extension of the network or may not be ideal on amenity or health grounds. The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point, but there are limitations on how far the initiative can be taken for bodies other than the operators, who understand what is required to achieve the most efficient network.

As I mentioned earlier, we take very seriously public concerns about the possibility of health effects. The Stewart group published its report on 11 May last year. It concluded that the balance of evidence to date does not suggest that emissions from mobile phones and base stations put the health of the UK population at risk. The group also said, however, that it is not possible to say that exposure to radio-frequency radiation, even at levels below national guidelines, is totally without potential adverse health effects. It therefore recommended that a precautionary approach, comprising a series of specific measures, to the use of mobile-telephone technologies be adopted until more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available.

On mobile telephone base stations, the group's report concluded that the balance of evidence indicates that there is no general risk to the health of people living near to base stations on the basis that exposures are expected to be small fractions of the guidelines. However, there can be indirect adverse effects on their well-being in some cases. The Stewart report suggested that public consultation under the prior approval arrangement was not working satisfactorily, notwithstanding the improvements made in 1999. It also suggested that lack of public consultation was a major cause of grievance in people who suffered from loss of amenity when base stations were erected. It suggested that many people felt excluded and disempowered by the existing planning arrangements and that resulting frustration could also have a negative effect on people's health and well-being.

For those reasons, the group recommended that changes to the planning arrangements were necessary. Specifically, it recommended that for all base stations, including those with masts under 15 m, permitted development rights for their erection be revoked and that the siting of all new base stations should be subject to the normal planning procedures. In their initial response, published on 11 May, the Government welcomed the group's report and accepted many of its recommendations. In particular, the Government accepted the recommended precautionary approach as advised by the report.

I wrote to council leaders, in June 2000, setting out what is being done to take forward the planning recommendations, and reiterating how local planning authorities should continue to treat applications for mobile telephone development. Local planning authorities should continue to deal with planning applications for telecommunications on the basis of the current legislative arrangements and policy guidance.

The letter explained that, as part of its precautionary approach, the group's report did not recommend a ban or moratorium on the construction of mobile telephone masts and that we had no plans to introduce one. It made it clear that the Government's acceptance of a precautionary approach was limited to the specific recommendations in the group's report and the Government's response to them. The letter clearly stated that health considerations and public concern can in principle be material considerations in determining applications for planning permission and prior approval. It also said that it is for the decision maker—usually the local planning authority—to determine what weight to attach to such considerations in any particular case.

It is the Government's view that if a proposed development meets the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection guidelines—commonly known as the ICNIRP guidelines—as recommended by Stewart on a precautionary basis, it should not be necessary for a planning authority, in processing an application, to consider the health effects further. It does not mean that individual local authorities should introduce their own precautionary policies for determining applications for mobile telephone base stations. That would be a recipe for confusion and uncertainty.

Following preliminary discussions with the Local Government Association, other Departments and the mobile telephone industry, we issued a consultation paper, on 31 July, which sought views on whether any changes to planning legislation were necessary, and what those changes should be. In addition to asking questions about possible changes to the legislation, the consultation paper contained draft revised planning guidance.

Currently, guidance to local planning authorities is to be found in four separate places: PPG8; Circular 4/99—"Planning for Telecommunications"; the code of best practice on telecommunications prior approval procedures; and the drift circular on "Land Use Planning and Electromagnetic Fields", which was issued for consultation in December 1998.

The revised draft PPG8 is intended to rationalise, consolidate and update that range of guidance. A separate code of practice will be retained, but revised so that it reflects any changes to the planning arrangements for masts. The revised code will, we hope, be a joint document agreed by Government, local authorities and the industry, as the present one is.

As part of the revised PPG8, we will give advice on how to take into account health concerns, including the advice that health considerations and public concern can in principle be material considerations in determining applications, as explained earlier. Our draft revised guidance suggests, among other things, that operators should include with their applications a statement that the apparatus will meet the ICNIRP guidelines if and when it is up and running.

The consultation period ended on 31 October. Approximately 365 responses were received—rather more than the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam heard about. We are currently analysing them and will announce any changes as soon as is practicable. I will arrange for the responses to be placed in the Library as soon as possible. I noted his comment on that. I cannot give him a date when the conclusions will be announced, but we are working on this as a matter of priority.

We are also working on an audit of base stations—the hon. Gentleman asked about that—and have in hand a number of other measures. As my time is running out, I will write to him on the other issues that he has raised, and I assure him of our commitment to finding a way forward that meets our twin objectives of allowing the system to roll out satisfactorily so as to ensure the extension of telecommunications while at the same time taking into account the environmental and health concerns that have been expressed by the public.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eleven o'clock.