HL Deb 06 December 2004 vol 667 cc655-7

2.44 p.m.

Baroness Hanham asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the ruling of the Court of Appeal on 13 November, in relation to the siting of mobile phone masts, that it remains the responsibility of central government to decide what measures are necessary to protect public health.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it is for Her Majesty's Government to decide what measures are necessary to protect public health. The planning policies for telecommunications developments are based on the advice received from the Stewart group. However, the science has not allayed public concern, so it is considered important that local communities are engaged in the planning process for such developments. The Minister for Housing and Planning, Mr Keith Hill, will be making a Statement about that later this week, which we will also repeat in the Hansard of your Lordships' House.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, are the Government aware of the great concern felt by parents about the siting of mobile phone masts at or adjacent to schools? Although I hear what the Minister says about the Statement, what action will the Government take to enable planning authorities to take account of health concerns, which they are not allowed to do at present as a result of the Stewart report? Will they be commissioning any further research to see whether the masts have any electromagnetic effects on the population?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, of course the Government are aware of public concern about health matters. We all take those issues very seriously indeed. I do not want to pre-empt Mr Hill's Statement this afternoon. Obviously, like any parent, I am concerned about the siting of masts. That is why there are clear guidelines and provisions in the planning process, so that local planning authorities can take careful account of locally expressed views.

The noble Baroness asked about further studies. As I said, the Government accept that there is concern about health matters in relation to mobile phone technology. For that reason, we have established the mobile telephone health research programme, costing about £7.36 million annually, which is jointly funded by government and industry. We are keeping the whole question of mobile phone technology under careful review and will continue to keep the public informed of any new research findings.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, in order to dispel the widespread myths about the risks from phone masts, will the Government consider making available to editors of newspapers and television producers the evidence of actual incidence of cancer among children living near those masts and a control group far removed from them? Does the Minister not agree that, whatever the evidence about the effect on and risk to health of mobile phones, the risk from masts is infinitely less, because the intensity of radiation is hugely diluted?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there is much detailed research matter in the public domain. We try to make publicly available what research findings there are and it is open to editors to make proactive use of them. The noble Lord is right to say that the risks are very low.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, will the Government ask the police and/or Network Rail to share their mast sites with other providers? That would mean that there could be fewer sites and the danger, whatever it was, could be lessened.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her question. She makes a very good point and we will pass on her suggestion.

Baroness Scott of Needham Market

My Lords, the fact that planning applications for mobile phone masts are increasingly not just the subject of planning appeals but are going to the High Court suggests that the guidance is not as clear as the Minister suggests and currently meets neither the aspirations of local ommunities nor the strategic objectives of telecommunications companies. Does the noble Lord not agree that the time has come to revise the guidance to make it much clearer and easier to interpret?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there will of course be some revision of the guidance, because the planning policy guidance process is turning into a different form of planning guidance. There have been recent reviews of PPG8 and I understand that it is widely understood. The problem is that local residents sometimes do not like what they hear; one has to be realistic about that. The noble Baroness makes a point about the number of appeals. It is certainly true that there was a large increase in appeals and in the quantity of written representations on planning applications. Thankfully, that appears to have peaked and may well now be tailing off, but it is of course open to local political activists to stir up such issues. It is in their interests to do so; one can well understand that.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is not much of the concern about the tetramasts, which I understand are used by the police and other services? Is there not some indication that low level sound waves affect brain cells and that the people—the parents—who are expressing their concerns about children are probably quite right to do so?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am not inclined to agree with the first point of the noble Countess, but I can certainly understand parents being concerned about health issues. It is understandable that where a newly emerging technology is developing as fast as this one is, parents express those important concerns volubly and powerfully in their local communities.

Baroness Hanham

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that it is not possible for a planning committee—I declare my interest as a member of one—to take health considerations into account in considering those applications?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, basically, the noble Baroness is right: the local planning authority must deal with the facts of the planning issues in front of it, but the planning process is of course often used to express other views.