HC Deb 07 January 2004 vol 416 cc241-2
2. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury)(Con)

If he will introduce legislation to require public utilities to obtain planning permission before erecting masts; and if he will make a statement. [145885]

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill)

In most cases, mobile phone operators' masts are subject to full planning permission or prior approval procedures. Other utilities have a range of so-called permitted development rights, which we are now reviewing as part of our planning reform agenda.

Mr. Robertson

I thank the Minister for that mildly encouraging response. In my constituency, Network Rail planned to build a 33 m mast in the village of Churchdown, but it withdrew its proposals when all the residents formed a group to oppose them. May I suggest that organisations such as Network Rail invest in investigating what alternative and, indeed, more advanced technology might be available to avoid siting masts where they are clearly not wanted and where they are clearly inappropriate? It might also be better if a formal consultation were required, so that residents had the right to prevent such things from happening in the first place.

Keith Hill

I am somewhat sympathetic to the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. He will be aware that there is a general height restriction of 15 m on water, gas and electricity undertakings, but there is no current restriction, as he says, on Network Rail. However, a report by the Lichfield consortium has been completed, which recommends similar restrictions on railway undertakers for mast installations in sensitive areas, so we are moving in that direction.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op)

On the website of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, it says that the Government attach considerable importance to keeping the number of radio and telecoms masts and sites to a minimum. There seems to be some evidence that various telecoms companies are still developing their networks in parallel rather than sharing masts and sites. What are the Government doing that is tangible to minimise the number of such installations?

Keith Hill

If that is the case, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that that is not in the spirit of the undertaking made by the mobile phone operators. We expect them to synchronise and link together their masts. If there is evidence of the unreasonable proliferation of such masts, we will, of course, want to have a look at that. As a matter of principle I, as the Minister with responsibility for planning, have regular meetings with the mobile phone operators and I will certainly take up the matter with them when we next meet.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con)

From my experience in my constituency, I am absolutely convinced that Network Rail and its predecessors have been abusing their permitted development rights to gain a commercial advantage from the fact that they are able to put up such masts without planning permission. Will the Minister tell the House exactly when the Government will implement the welcome recommendations of the Lichfield consortium to limit Network Rail in the way in which other public utilities are limited?

Keith Hill

We intend to issue a consultation paper on the report produced by Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners, which I mentioned earlier, in the early summer of this year. We obviously want to take the representations of all interested parties into account before we contemplate possible legislation on the matter.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con)

I wish the Minister a happy new year and hope that he will make the correct decision on telephone masts. I am sure that he will be aware that Network Rail intends to put up several thousand masts. Many of the masts will be over 15 m and would normally require planning permission but will be exempt from that under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995. Will he urgently review the matter, because Network Rail will put up the masts at a huge rate until the 1995 order is stopped?

Keith Hill

It is indeed 1995. I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes. I recognise that there is extraordinary sensitivity in some circumstances about the proposed location of such masts and we will keep a close eye on the matter. In general terms, we have the matter very much under review.

Forward to