HC Deb 16 March 2001 vol 364 cc748-51W
Angela Smith

To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what steps he is taking following responses to the consultation paper on telecommunications mast development; and if he will make a statement. [154519]

Mr. Raynsford

I am today announcing a series of important changes to the planning system on the siting of mobile phone masts. We willstrengthen public consultation requirements on mast proposals of 15 metres and below so that they are exactly the same as applications for planning permission; increase the time for authorities to deal with prior approval applications to 56 days; increase application fees to enable local authorities to carry out full public consultation; underline that school governors must be consulted on all proposals for new masts on or near a school or college; maintain in full an authority's ability to reject applications on amenity grounds;

A modem communications system brings massive benefits to people and businesses alike. Nearly 40 million people—60 per cent. of the UK population—use mobile phones. They enjoy the convenience and accessibility they provide. Parents and children feel more secure because of them. Mobile phones have saved lives—they allow the emergency services to be called immediately when they are needed. None of this could happen without the masts and other infrastructure which enable the service to be delivered.

But people are concerned about where masts are located. It is vital that masts are designed and sited sensitively so that their environmental impact is kept to a minimum. Local people must have a better opportunity than now to have their say on proposals for mast development.

We recognise too that there is public concern about the possibility of health effects associated with mobile phone masts. That is why the Government set up the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (chaired by Sir William Stewart) which published its report in May last year. The report suggested that the current planning requirements for masts of 15 metres and below did not allow adequate public consultation. It further suggested that lack of consultation was a major cause of grievance in people who suffer a loss of amenity when base stations are erected.

We therefore intend to strengthen the current public consultation requirements for masts of 15 metres and under to incorporate exactly the same requirements as for masts over that size and for other development requiring applications for planning Permission.

To give local planning authorities more time to consult local people we shall increase the amount of time they have to determine prior approval applications for ground-based masts and those on buildings from 42 and 28 days respectively to a uniform 56 days, In addition, we shall extend the prior approval arrangements to cover antennas on roofs where the height of the antenna (including any supporting structure) would exceed 4 metres.

Under the new arrangements, local planning authorities will be expected to make their decisions within 56 days. Authorities will still be able to turn down mast applications where they do not consider amenity aspects have been adequately addressed. If they have not made a decision within 56 days, approval will be deemed to have been granted. This discipline is needed because many authorities are failing to meet their Best Value target to determine 80 per cent. of planning applications in eight weeks and delay cannot be justified.

In recognition of the extra demands which improved consultation will make of authorities we propose to increase the fee payable by developers for prior approval applications from £35 to £190 so that authorities have more resources to handle them.

These changes represent a considerable strengthening of the current arrangements. We shall introduce them, and revised national planning policy guidance, at the earliest opportunity. The guidance will underline our commitment to encouraging mast and site sharing, where that represents the best environmental solution, to minimise proliferation of masts. It will also emphasise the Government's view that telecommunications development must be taken forward through partnership between the operator, the local planning authority and the local community. The revised guidance will make it clear that governing bodies must be consulted on all proposals to site masts on or near schools and colleges.

We welcome the commitments which the operators have made to develop, with other stakeholders, clear standards and procedures to deliver significantly improved consultation with local communities. For example, operators will initiate the process as early as possible by discussing optimum design and siting solutions even before applications for masts are submitted. We shall want to ensure that these commitments are implemented and followed in every case. We will underpin the arrangements with a new Code of Practice developed with the operators and representatives of local government. I intend to call in the operators shortly to discuss next steps.

The Stewart 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.

Gaps in scientific knowledge led the Group to recommend a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies, comprising a series of specific measures, until more research findings become available. We agree with this approach.

The Government have already taken forward a range of precautionary actions in response to the Group's Report. These include: ensuring that all mobile phones and base stations meet the guidelines of the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) for limiting exposure to electromagnetic fields. In relation to public exposure these are tougher than the guidelines issued by the National Radiological Protection Board by a factor of five. Mobile phone operators have agreed to ensure that all existing base stations meet these guidelines. In addition, the operators have agreed that all planning applications for new development will be accompanied by a certificate of compliance with ICNIRP guidelines; setting up, by the Radiocommunications Agency, a national database giving details of mobile phone base stations. It is planned that the map based facility will indicate the locations, height and maximum power outputs for each fixed transmitter. This is anticipated to be ready and on-line in the next three months; auditing mobile phone base stations and masts to assess emissions. The audit will focus on schools with base stations. Schools were asked to register if they wanted to he included. The audits have now begun and all schools registering within the deadline set will be included. The first 11 audits indicated maximum levels of exposure a tiny fraction of the ICNIRP guidelines (eg: the highest level was approximately 1–600 of the guideline levels). The database of results has been put on the Radiocommunications Agency website: www.radio.gov.uk; and launching a new joint Government/industry research programme, costing around £7 million and with an independent programme management committee led by Sir William Stewart. It will carry out research into the effects of mobile phone technology on health. This will ensure that this area is kept under review and that Government and the public are kept up to date with new research findings. The call for research proposals was issued on 9 February.

In addition, the Department of Health has published leaflets on mobile phones, base stations and health to give people the latest information and advice. The Department for Education and Employment has also issued information to schools and local education authorities regarding mobile phones, base stations and schools. This has been published on their website: www.dfee.gov.uk/a-z/mobilephones.

It is the Government's responsibility to decide what measures are necessary to protect public health. It remains the Government's firm view that the planning system is not the appropriate mechanism for determining health safeguards. I have outlined the measures being taken on a precautionary basis. In the Government's view, if a proposed development meets the ICNIRP guidelines it should not be necessary for a local planning authority, in processing an application, to consider the health aspects further. This view will be reiterated in our revised planning policy guidance.

I believe that the improvements to the planning arrangements announced today meet the concerns of the Stewart Group and others about public consultation on masts and strike the right balance by giving people a better opportunity to voice their views without hindering unnecessarily the development of a modern telecommunications network. We shall continue to keep the whole area of mobile phone technologies under review in the light of further research.