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Telecommunications Masts (Development)

– in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 1st March 2000.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Minister (Education) 3:32 pm, 1st March 2000

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the development of telecommunications masts in the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Mr. Bercow, I know that you have a very good voice that carries, but please wait a moment. Will hon. Members leaving please do so quietly and quickly? We have an hon. Member on his feet.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Shadow Minister (Education)

Thank you, Madam Speaker.

Mobile phones are here to stay. There are now 24 million subscribers in the UK, the business turns over £6 billion a year, and more than 20,000 base stations exist across the country, including no fewer than 40 in my Buckingham constituency. Furthermore, the industry confers real benefits in terms of economic efficiency and personal convenience.

Nothing in the Bill that I advance today seeks to hamper the legitimate growth of that industry, or would, in my assessment, be likely to do so. However, the House will recognise that there is widespread concern on both health and environmental grounds about mobile telephones in general, and the frenetic proliferation of masts in particular.

That concern has been reflected in the House, since the general election, in 96 written parliamentary questions, five oral questions, four early-day motions—notably that of the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate), which has so far attracted 168 signatures—and three Adjournment debates, the most recent of which was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on 18 January this year in Westminster Hall.

I referred to anxieties about the threat to human health. The Government contend that there is no conclusive proof of a threat to health. Nevertheless, studies undertaken in Australia, Poland, Sweden and the United States have raised the spectre of dizzy spells, fatigue, headaches, memory loss, skin irritation, damage to the immune system, brain damage and cancer.

Anxiety about those conditions is such that, in the United States, no fewer than 39 states have so far decided to prevent any further erection of mobile telecommunications masts pending the generation of greater confidence in the technology, while in Australia a ban has been imposed on the erection of such masts fewer than 500 m from homes, hospitals and schools.

The House will also be conscious of the widespread anxiety about the threat to, above all, children under the age of 12, whose brains are not fully developed, whose skulls are less resistant to radiation, and who are therefore more susceptible to the damage to health that might be entailed.

I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House will appreciate my legitimate anxiety on behalf of parents—not least Mrs. Lyn Pasqua—of children at the Acorn pre-school nursery in Winslow. It should be noted that there has been a telecommunications base station in an adjoining building for two years.

A distinguished academic, Dr. Gerard Hyland of the physics department of the university of Warwick, maintains that there is a possible threat to human health from the non-thermal impact of radiation.

In the light of those concerns, I make just two requests of the House at this stage. The first is that the National Radiological Protection Board should be instructed to study the possible non-thermal impact on health; the second is that the House should undertake to debate fully, at the appropriate time, the reports that will in due course be forthcoming from the United Kingdom childhood cancer study, from the NRPB's independent expert group on mobile phone technology, from the European Commission's expert group on mobile phones, and from the World Health Organisation' s international project on electromagnetic field radiation. These are all important concerns, and we need to consider and respond responsibly to them.

The nub of the problem, however, derives from the planning policies that apply in this country. I make the point on no party-political basis whatever—the matter is far too serious, and we know that hon. Members in all parts of the House are concerned about it—but the fact is that planning policy guidance note 8 contains a presumption in favour of development. Under that note, it is expected that local authorities, in responding to applications from licensed operators, will do so positively and without questioning the need for the erection of new masts.

That difficulty for the environment is compounded by the fact that, under paragraph 24 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order, a general permission is conferred on licensed operators to erect new masts, subject to the caveat that they should be less than 15 m high and should not be situated in areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas, national parks or sites of special scientific interest.

Apart from that, the position for the local community and its elected representatives is very difficult. The councils have only a short period in which to object, meagre grounds on which to do so, and, judging by the record, limited success in the process. The effect of the arrangements, whatever their intention, has been to give a green light to companies such as Orange plc to ride roughshod over the wishes of local residents in the village of Long Crendon in my Buckingham constituency, where the company proposes to erect a new mast a mere 130 m from the boundary of the local school—with scant, if any, serious consultation with the local community that will thereby be affected.

Despite the company's advertising slogan, "Find out what people want: give it to them", and its explicit commitment to open dialogue, I am sorry to say that indifference, disdain and contempt have been the hallmarks of the company's treatment of my constituents. They are fighting back. Mrs. Penny Garrett, Mrs. Jean Gower and Councillor Mrs. Cecile Irving-Swift believe that such behaviour is unacceptable. It will not do, and it needs to change. The only light on the horizon is that a public meeting will take place, courtesy of an agreement with Mr. Richard Rumbelow, the organisation's sensible public affairs manager.

The rules that were appropriate for generating a national network need radical adjustment because such a network now exists. Respect must be shown for the environment, human safety and the tranquillity of communities. That is why we should amend planning policy guidance note 8 to ensure that proper account is taken of community concerns. Full planning permission for masts on greenbelt land, listed buildings, wildlife sites, and sites near areas already protected by law is urgently needed.

Full planning permission is also needed for sites near homes, schools and hospitals. It should be obligatory for mobile phone operators to provide one or two-year plans to local councils detailing their mast intentions; it would thus be possible for councils to know what was sought and to assess its validity.

More encouragement of mast sharing is required through linking it more integrally with the planning process. We should examine cross-network roaming and the opportunities for greater convenience and ease of use for consumers that that would entail. We need an acceptable method of ensuring that masts are sympathetically blended into the environment in which they are situated.

The proposals that I have outlined are practical, constructive and forward looking. They will enjoy widespread support in the country. Confident in that knowledge, I appeal to the House for its backing for the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Bercow, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Crispin Blunt, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Mark Fisher, Mr. James Gray, Mr. Gerald Howarth, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Mr. Laurence Robertson, Mrs. Marion Roe, Dr. Howard Stoate, Mr. Phil Willis.