Town and Country Planning (Telecommunications Masts) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 12:03 pm on 21st May 2004.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Shadow Minister, International Affairs 12:08 pm, 21st May 2004

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The measures in the Bill are of significance to many people in my constituency and other constituencies up and down the country. At the outset I should like to put on record my appreciation for the overwhelming cross-party support that I have received and the enormous encouragement from outside the House. Since the Bill's First Reading, my postbag has been filled with letters from the four corners of the country expressing support.

In particular, I would like to thank the pressure groups Planning Sanity and Mast Sanity, which have been a constant source of encouragement and assistance. I would also like to thank Mr. Mike Bell, chairman of the Radiation Research Trust, and his team, whose support has been invaluable. Finally, Mrs. Sarah Webster of Bridgetown in Devon deserves, in particular, to be thanked in this debate. She is a dedicated and passionate campaigner on the issue of transmission masts who has helped me to understand in the clearest possible terms the impact it has had on the lives of so many people. She has put me in contact with people across the United Kingdom who are suffering from serious ill health that they attribute to transmission masts and base stations.

I have the fullest support of the two local councils in my constituency, Forest Heath district council and St. Edmundsbury borough council. I have consulted and have the fullest support of the Local Government Association, which is backing the Bill having canvassed the views of the local authorities it represents. I make no party political point when I say that many people in this country feel that the power to influence their lives and their local communities has slipped away from them over the years. It is extraordinary that the construction of masts that are so visible and so intrusive is a matter over which, in practice, local people have no control.

Far too many Members of Parliament have sent e-mails and letters of support to name each individually; none the less, I should mention my hon. Friend Mrs. Roe, who has campaigned for greater regulation in this area for several years—indeed, she preceded many in her calls for the effects of transmission masts on health to be researched much more rigorously. Many other Members have discussed the subject and their constituency concerns with me, not least my right hon. Friends the Members for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), and my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter), for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth), as well as many others across the political divide, most notably, my fellow Suffolk Members of Parliament.

In the past few years, there have been several Adjournment debates on the impact of transmission masts on health and on the environment, including one that I introduced last March. I should be surprised if any Member of Parliament has not at some point received correspondence on the issue from a constituent. Action to defuse a national groundswell of public anxiety is long overdue, and I want action to be taken on three fronts in particular.

First, the Government should accept the need for more research to investigate the genuine cases of ill health and the health concerns felt by sensible, rational people. Secondly, the precautionary principle advocated by Sir William Stewart when he was a Government senior advisor should mean that, in most cases, masts should not be placed too close to people's homes, schools and hospitals. The Government might wish to draw up new guidelines to put that into practice. Thirdly, a change should be made to paragraph 40 of policy planning guidance note 8 to enable the councillors who have to make planning decisions to take the views of those whom they represent into account in a balanced and objective way.

I note that, earlier this year, the National Radiological Protection Board published research that broadly confirms what Sir William Stewart stated four years previously:

"There is now scientific evidence, however, which suggests that there may be biological effects occurring at exposures below these guidelines . . . We conclude . . . that it is not possible at present to say that exposure to RF radiation,"— radiofrequency radiation—

"even at levels below national guidelines, is totally without potential adverse health effects, and that the gaps in knowledge are sufficient to justify a precautionary approach".

With such uncertainty continuing to hang over transmission masts, there is a clear need for more specific research.

My Bill addresses the other two calls for action. If it is enacted, every application for planning permission for a mast must be accompanied by a certificate that sets out the area and maximum range of the beam of greatest intensity. If that falls on part of any premises or land occupied by an education or medical facility, or a residential property, planning permission will not be granted. Furthermore, every application must also be accompanied by a precautionary principle statement. If the statement indicates that there is a threat of serious damage to heath or to the environment, the fact that there is no full scientific certainty about the health impact of mast radiation shall not constitute a reason to ignore the precautionary statement and grant planning permission. Those measures are significant and will place the power to accept or reject applications clearly in the hands of local authorities. I shall return to those points later in my speech, for I now want to concentrate on why I feel that those measures are necessary.

My interest in this matter was provoked by constituents of mine who wrote to me on numerous occasions to relay their fears that mobile phone masts have a detrimental effect on their health. Nausea, dizziness and headaches are just some of the symptoms that a number of my constituents tell me have affected them since a transmission mast was erected near their homes. One notable, specific case is that of Mark Wheal, who first brought this to my attention on behalf of himself and his anxious neighbours. Elsewhere, schoolchildren have suffered from nosebleeds, insomnia and, indeed, behavioural changes allegedly because a mast has been erected near their school.

When a cluster of transmission masts was placed on a water tower at Haverhill in my constituency, there were some curious consequences. Almost immediately, the squirrels and birds disappeared. Doris Barnes, who lived with her nephew, John Insole, began to have a series of what appeared to be strokes. Dementia began quickly to set in, and she needed 24-hour care. Her bedroom had been in the path of the beam of greatest intensity of the transmitter. As the Insoles inevitably found it difficult to cope, and on their GP's advice, she was put in a care home in a village nearby. Almost immediately, her health substantially recovered, and there was no apparent explanation. Those constituents of mine are rational individuals. I find it difficult to reject out of hand their belief that radiation from masts is responsible for their ill health. I also find it difficult to believe that there has been some sort of outbreak of mass hysteria in many parts of the country in relation to concerns about such masts.

I have led grass-roots campaigns in Newmarket and Haverhill—two towns in my constituency—against mobile phone masts that were near schools, residential property and centres of population. In one instance, the behaviour of the mobile telecommunications company involved was literally underhand and unscrupulous. A TETRA mast was erected on a block of flats in Newmarket. After a strong campaign, agreement was reached that the mast should be moved. I thought that I had brokered an agreement for its removal to a location on a hill just outside the town. Then, one morning, we all woke up to find that it had been erected in another part of the town—technically, not in Suffolk, but in neighbouring Cambridgeshire. Townspeople were understandably outraged. Indeed, the Suffolk constabulary were deeply embarrassed as well. The local district council sought to have the mast removed, but lost on appeal. The company was simply not interested in discussing alternative sites for a compromise, despite assurances having been given to me.

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West

I am deeply grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. We have discussed this matter several times. Will he confirm that the contractor for the O2 system in his constituency was, in fact, O 2 Airwave?

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Shadow Minister, International Affairs

Yes, I can certainly confirm that. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being present because I shall now address specifically something that is of particular interest to him.

That behaviour is totally and disgracefully at odds with the code of best practice on mobile phone network development. That telecommunications company followed none of the guidance issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Indeed, let me read to the House an extract from the foreword of the code of best practice:

"Strategic planning, combined with proper discussion of and consultation on proposals for developing the telecommunications network, is central to this process. This requires operators, local authorities and local people working together in partnership to produce optimum solutions.

In August 2001, we introduced improved planning arrangements for telecommunications development. These included greater requirements for consulting local people."

The document goes on to say that the one of the main aims of the code is to

"encourage better communication and consultation at all stages of network development between operators, local authorities and local people."

Those words will come as a cruel joke to the people of Newmarket, whose deep concern and anxiety have been ignored.

Operators have devised what they call "the traffic light model" to enable them to rate a site according to likely sensitivities. It is intended as a guide to the degree of consultation necessary. One of the factors that is supposed to be considered before a mast is given green, amber or red status is the involvement of the local Member of Parliament. My concerns have been routinely ignored.

Furthermore, PPG8 already makes it clear that where there are plans to install, alter or replace an installation close to a school or college, the institution should be consulted before an application is submitted to the local authority. The mast in my constituency in Newmarket, which was moved to the neighbouring constituency in Cambridgeshire, is close to three schools, none of which was ever consulted. Schools never are.

Since I indicated my intention to present the Bill, I have discovered that the pattern is repeated right across the country. Such is the frustration of local residents that groups of concerned protesters have torn down masts and forcibly tried to block new installations. I shall quote from some of the letters I have received from worried people across the country.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear tales from my part of the country too, where, when masts are upgraded to secure greater 3G benefits, that is happening without any consultation whatever.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Shadow Minister, International Affairs

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. When an industry acts in that way, it divorces itself from people's anxieties. That is at the heart of the problem. There is no effective control of the process to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

I shall describe some of the worries expressed to me in letters, so that the House will be under no illusion about the severity of the problem. Mrs. Lin Ansell of Liss in Hampshire tells me of the impact of a mast outside her home. She writes:

"We experienced a phenomenon here in Liss regarding the Tetra mast sited between 120 and 300 metres from our houses. On Wednesday 29th October, 17 of the residents including 4 children experienced ill health, disturbance and disorientation. We were having a residents meeting at the time when we expressed our concern about how ill we and members of our family were feeling. We got better on the following Friday, and we found later (AFTER we had experienced these various symptoms) that the Tetra mast had been turned on during Wednesday and turned off on the Friday. . .

Since the mast was switched on for good, I have a permanent headache, metallic taste in my mouth and feel sick. We have moved into a back bedroom, and my friends who have come to stay complain of headaches and sleeplessness. I have been unable to offer the house to lodgers because of the illness felt by guests. This has deprived me of my health and my income. Are you able to offer any help in our hour of need?"

More disturbingly and tragically, I have received information that describes serious illnesses such as cancer, which sufferers ascribe to masts near their home. In Ballygawley, Northern Ireland, five homes amid rural farmland make up the hamlet of Cranlome Hill. Those houses are within 100 m of a transmission mast. In those five homes there are six cases of serious life-threatening cancer. The people who live in the houses lead healthy lives, with plenty of exercise and a good diet. Many would find it an unsustainable argument that the ill health may not be connected in some way to the unwelcome mast. Mr. Walter Graham, chairman of the campaign group, Northern Ireland Opposing Masts, explained to me in a letter the symptoms of local people living close to the mast:

"Our most recent member is a small rural area between Ballygawley and Dunganon known as the Cranlome Hill mast. Local citizens concerned for their health cut down the mast after their group of five homes at the bottom of the hill from the mast had six people with cancer. Four are now dead. The mast had thirty-five pieces of microwave equipment with another four due to go up. They even had cancer appear in a six-month-old cow kept in the field with the mast."

Mr. Graham goes on to speak about another mast in Saintfield. He says:

"I spoke at a public meeting in Saintfield, which has had two masts for a number of years. During question time a woman stated that she had had a daughter with leukaemia within a half mile of the masts and that she had contacted the health board asking about other children with the disease. They found eleven children under eleven with leukaemia and seven adults with cancer, all within a half mile of the masts. It has since been reported that a farmer two miles out of Saintfield, who has a mast in his field near the house, has had his child come down with leukaemia."

Any Member of the House present during the debate introduced by my hon. Friend Mr. Mitchell on 28 January could not have been left but deeply concerned after hearing of the cancer cluster in the hamlet of Wishaw. The chairman of the local action group, Sutton Coldfield residents against masts, Eileen O'Connor, an exceptionally brave lady herself who has battled against cancer, catalogues the ill-health in the tiny hamlet. She says:

"Five ladies developed breast cancer

One case of prostate cancer

One bladder cancer

One lung cancer

Three cases of pre-cancer cervical cells

One motor neurone disease age 51, who also had massive tumour removed from the top of his spine

People have developed benign lumps

Electro sensitivity

Three cases of severe skin rashes

Many villagers suffering with sleep problems, headaches, dizziness and low immune system problems.

Out of the eighteen houses surrounding the mast at up to a range of 500 metres, 77 per cent. of the tiny hamlet has health-related illness believed to be as a result of radiation from the mast. The outbreak of illness occurred in 2001 after seven years of exposure to the radiation emitted by the T-Mobile mast. We are now in connection with many people who are suffering from this form of radiation.

One other important fact is that since the Wishaw Mast was vandalised on 6th November 2003, many of the residents are reporting a feeling of well-being. The residents are reporting improvements in their sleep patterns and increased energy levels. The headaches and dizzy symptoms have disappeared".

The time is at hand to react to those tragic cases of ill health with a precautionary approach to the siting of masts. It is all that we can do in the absence of long-term definitive knowledge about the impact of radiation. The present law is woefully inadequate, with numerous loopholes that mobile phone companies are able to exploit at will. Dr. Pugh has just indicated one. Masts below 15 m do not even require planning permission. This means that masts can be erected without a full check on the suitability of the site by local councillors. If that state of affairs was not bad enough, masts erected on land owned by Network Rail require no planning permission whatever. It is wrong that these structures can be erected with such ease when there are still so many question marks over their impact on health. If enacted, my Bill would require that the transmission masts go through the full planning permission procedure, regardless of their height or whether they are on land owned by Network Rail.

The case is different elsewhere in the world where the large questions over the health impact of masts is recognised. UK Government policy concerning human exposure to the electromagnetic fields emitted by mobile telecommunication base stations is based on compliance with the safety levels published by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection. These levels are much higher than in Italy and Switzerland, and even than in China and Russia. In Italy, the national public limit for people exposed for more than four hours a day is 90 times lower than the ICNIRP value. A mast in Haverhill in my constituency complies with UK emission levels but would not have been allowed in other countries. Such disparities may be based on conflicting scientific information, so it is incumbent on us to access the best worldwide scientific research to try to plug the gaps in our knowledge.

I turn now to how my Bill may help to prevent many of the disturbing cases that I have described to the House. I have already touched on how it would amend existing legislation, bringing within the full planning process all applications to erect a mast. Furthermore, I have spoken about how the Bill would embrace the precautionary principle by requiring the publication of a statement that shows how the mast adheres to that principle. Considering that an application should already be accompanied by an explanation of an operator's needs in a particular area, details of the location and type of telecommunications apparatus or structure to be constructed, details of any other mobile phone systems on the site, the area of search and details of possible alternative options where appropriate—these may include other methods of providing the required coverage—design options for particular sites, a traffic light model rating and the proposed consultation strategy, I do not think that a precautionary principle statement would be too much of a burden. It seems sensible that such a statement should be made available to the public and that an appeal to the Secretary of State must take into account its contents. The fact that there is no full scientific certainty about the health impact of mast radiation should not constitute a reason to ignore the precautionary statement and grant planning permission.

Let me turn to the other measures in the Bill. I want to reduce from six months to three months the time for which telecommunications companies are allowed to install cumbersome, temporary, movable apparatus to replace unserviceable apparatus. New apparatus has to be of the same type and capacity as the unserviceable apparatus that it is to replace. That measure is important, as it will place the emphasis on telecommunications companies to repair their equipment quickly and with as little inconvenience to local residents as possible.

My Bill would also allow schools and hospitals to cancel contracts that they have entered into with telecommunications companies agreeing to the erection of installations on their land or premises. Once an application to cancel a contract has been served by a school or hospital, the mast must stop being used within 28 days. Many schools and hospitals might have entered into such agreements before the possible health effects of masts were known as they are now. It is only fair that they should have the opportunity to cancel those agreements in the light of new research. I know of parents and head teachers in my constituency who would strongly welcome the measure.

I do not pretend to be a scientist and I cannot possibly make scientific judgments. My interest in this subject has arisen from real-life experiences and some, admittedly minority opinion, research. Finally, I would like to read a copy of a letter that I received from Mrs. Jane Lee of Budleigh Salterton in Devon, a lady who lost a legal battle with Orange earlier in the year, as I want to show the House in the clearest possible terms how the law is stacked in favour of the telecommunications companies, and to what lengths ordinary people have gone in order to prevent masts from being placed outside their homes. She writes:

"I am severely disabled and now in an extremely serious financial situation. The reasons for this are:

1. I have just lost an expensive legal battle to stop Orange putting up a mast that would focus the beam of greatest intensity directly onto my home.

2. Now that this mast has been allowed, my local estate agent tells me that I will probably lose a third of the value of my home.

3. In order to protect my own and my family's health, I feel I am being forced to move. It will be hard to find another bungalow in this area that I can afford and adapt to my special needs. Worse, in order to find another home that I can afford I may have to move away from my family and friends who are my support.

I have seen other people who have been made ill by low level radiation from masts beaming into their homes. I refuse to have this imposed on myself, my family or on my neighbours. I have therefore fought 4 battles over 2½ years. The stress of this has meant that I have hardly slept in the last 12 months and been driven to near despair.

As my house is worth over £100,000 I cannot get legal aid. In losing my high court battle, I have to pay costs, which I cannot afford. As few people will risk living so close to a mast I am about to lose a third of the only capital I will ever have (due to my disability I am unable to earn money to replace this). I have lived here for over 7 years and am heartbroken at the prospect of losing the home I love."

Since being drawn in the private Members' ballot I have been sent more than 500 letters from individuals and organisations offering me alternative Bills, but this issue needs urgent legislation and attention. My Bill is sound and comprehensive, and I hope that my arguments in the House today and the impressive cross- party support that I have received show that we can reach a sensible consensus should the Bill reach its Committee stage. Without a shadow of doubt, legislation is required.

The Bill gives the power to local authorities to decide where transmission masts should be erected. I understand that mobile phones will not work without the supporting infrastructure—the masts—and want people to benefit from greater choice and network coverage, but that can be achieved while minimising the possible health risks to members of the public. I urge the House to support the Bill today, to carry it through Committee and to turn it into law.

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 12:36 pm, 21st May 2004

I congratulate Mr. Spring on introducing the Bill, which I support. The Bill is built around the precautionary principle and reflects concerns about the risks posed by mobile phone mast stations and people's fears of them.

Although the risks posed by using a mobile phone are well known to hon. Members, many of whom walk around with mobile phones glued to the sides of their faces, the scientific community has not yet agreed the risks posed by mobile phone stations—the risk is not an established fact. Indeed, the hon. Member for West Suffolk has included this fair and honest statement on his website:

"Recent studies have discovered no link between poor health and exposure to radiation that is emitted from the masts."

However, we all know three perfectly plain things. First, as yet, no study can gauge the long-term effects of consistent exposure to masts and their radiation, and it will take decades correctly to establish that point. Cigarettes were not originally known to be carcinogenic, and the initial use of a cigarette does not produce a change in cells, but over time sustained exposure has that effect. Formula milk, as opposed to breast milk, has only recently been discovered to have long-term risks, which were previously unidentified.

Secondly, we know that some people are affected more than others by base stations because they are more in the line of fire, which causes an effect. The debate is not about whether there is an effect, but whether the effect is harmful, and, if so, exactly how harmful it is. Even the Stewart report acknowledges that children are potentially more at risk.

Thirdly—this is the key factor that impresses anyone involved in a mast campaign—those affected or those who believe that they are affected are not at liberty to move out of the way of the mast. They live in the area, they are residents, their children play in the area and they are inevitably affected, and not by their choice.

Additionally, it is fairly obvious that a new generation of masts may well magnify some of the purported effects of the current masts. I pay tribute to activists in my constituency, and particularly to Geoff Williams and "Mast Sanity", which has done a lot to alert me to the increase in phone masts, which is almost unknown to the general public.

The Bill does two positive things. It forces the developers of masts formally to state that their masts generate no harm and that they are, in a sense, safe, which is good. It also urges people to identify the groups who are in the line of fire—the beam of maximum intensity. I am sure that the phone companies will not welcome either of those provisions. A declaration of safety, however and whenever given, is to some extent a legal hostage to fortune and can be produced later if any evidence should arrive. That will innately make the mast manufacturers and the mobile phone companies a little more cautious. Moreover, it will define, or force a definition of, the people who are most at risk, who might later wish to make a claim.

The one good thing that that will do is concentrate the minds of both developers and councillors, by making them think specifically about who may be affected and about the long-term effects. It will not guarantee that everything goes perfectly for the mast protesters, or that every proposal that they object to is turned down. In particular, it will do nothing to affect mast developers' rights of appeal. They will still be able to appeal, and win their appeal.

Mast developers will, I guess, feel reasonably legally safe if they act according to the best knowledge at the time, regardless of what subsequent developments and scientific knowledge may show up. Ultimately, however, they will not be that protected, because they will be working in a transparent regime. They will feel that bit less comfortable if the Bill reaches the statute book.

Legally, the Bill will not make a seismic change or radically reduce mast developers' rights as some of us may wish. Culturally, however, the change could be significant.

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West

In the context of cultural change, does the hon. Gentleman share my view that although this is one of the most sensitive and delicate issues for communities throughout the country, the uniform experience of Members of Parliament is that the mobile operators act with haughty and contemptuous disdain, when they ought to be engaging most closely with the communities that are alarmed by their proposals?

Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

The hon. Gentleman is right. Mast operators talk a better game than they play. They see Members of Parliament from time to time and tell them about their commitments, but as the hon. Member for West Suffolk said, when applications are made, particularly when they are sensitive, we are not always consulted.

We want cultural change and a swing in favour of local authority power. We want the siting of masts to be more collaborative and consensual, with a greater role for the local authority to say where they should go—for example, places where there would be less public opposition. I would like local authorities to play a more directive role, but the Bill does not do much to lead them in that direction. The hon. Member for West Suffolk talked about local authorities being only too willing, but he must be blessed in that respect. Local authorities in many parts of the country want a directive role, but there are some that are not so aggressive. For example, my own local authority seems to accept that the siting of masts in residential areas can be responded to with a shrug, whereas it prohibits masts on the end of a pier. Consequently, in my constituency the fish are better protected than the population.

The Bill is a first step forward, not a massive breakthrough. As the hon. Gentleman said, if he had drafted a more aggressive Bill, it would have been shot down in flames right at the start. It does, however, have real potential. It is a positive way forward, which could produce some kind of cultural change, and it should certainly have a Second Reading.

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Opposition Whip (Commons) 12:43 pm, 21st May 2004

I support the Bill that my hon. Friend Mr. Spring has brought before the House with his customary elegance and attention to detail. It is greatly to his credit that he has provided the House with an opportunity to debate this important subject, and I congratulate him accordingly.

I doubt whether there is a Member in the Chamber today who has not at some time or another had a letter, e-mail or phone call from a constituent concerned about the impact of mobile telephone masts on health or quality of life. Many will have experienced pressure groups in their constituencies campaigning on the issue. Members will undoubtedly recognise the complaints listed by my hon. Friend—nausea, dizziness, cancers, and, of course, critically, the fear of those complaints. The growth in those complaints has seemingly occurred in line with the increase in mobile telephone use, and the perception in the public's mind is that the two are linked.

The Bill would introduce several valuable measures that would protect individuals from the potential dangers of telecommunications masts. Relevant to all this—and in many ways the starting point for it—are the findings of the independent expert group on mobile telephones, chaired by Sir William Stewart, and published in May 2000. As the Stewart group found, there is no conclusive evidence of harm from emissions from mobile phones and telecommunications masts. However, the report did recommend a precautionary approach, which would indicate that the findings were far from certain. Indeed, how could they be? It is therefore important that we take the necessary precautions to protect people from potential harm.

Let nobody be in any doubt about the scale of the issue with which we are dealing. There has been a massive boom in the use of mobile phones in recent years. Figures from the Mobile Operators Association show that in 1997–98 there were 9.1 million UK mobile phone subscribers. By June 2001, that number had rocketed to 44.7 million. As at June 2003, the association noted that the number of UK mobile phone subscribers had topped 50 million people for the first time. I have also read that 6 per cent of all households already do not use landlines and rely solely upon mobile phones.

Naturally, the boom in mobile phones has led to an expansion in the number of masts across the country. According to the Mobile Operators Association, there are currently some 40,000 radio base stations in the UK. With the increasing number of mobile phone users—and the additional masts that will be needed to support the new third generation or 3G services—it is possible that this number could rise to 48,000 by 2007. That is a reasonable estimate, but it would mean many new installations across the whole country, at a time when Britain is perceived to be increasingly congested. It undoubtedly deserves some scrutiny.

The boom in mobile phone use has far surpassed the levels that were anticipated when the current planning rules relating to masts were introduced. It was as long ago as 1995 when the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order, specifically part 24 of schedule 2, was brought into law, providing certain permitted development rights for licensed telecommunications operators. Obviously certain conditions apply to those rights—the mast cannot exceed 15 metres in height, it must not be erected in a national park, conservation area or area of outstanding natural beauty, and it must not have been denied permission by the local authority within the period allowed by the order.

I am no friend of red tape, but there is a definite and pressing need to examine closely the planning laws and issues surrounding the erection of new telecommunications masts. The Bill may not prove to be the perfect tool to overhaul the planning laws on this important issue. However, given proper consideration and amendment in Committee, it would provide a useful channel for a discussion of the planning laws and could end up as a strong addition to the statute book.

I once again congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk on all the work that he has done to bring this issue forward. The principle he proposes has my strongest support as a Front Bencher and as an individual Member of Parliament. I urge the Government to give the Bill a Second Reading and to allow the parliamentary time necessary for due consideration.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 12:49 pm, 21st May 2004

I congratulate Mr. Spring on his placing in the ballot for private Members' Bills, and on using this opportunity to secure a debate on an important topic that is of widespread interest to Members of the House and the general public and high on the Government's agenda. I listened carefully to his contribution, as I did to those of Dr. Pugh and Hugh Robertson, who I suspect may have been speaking from the Dispatch Box for the first time, in which case I congratulate him.

Before I deal with the substantive concerns of the Bill, I want to set this discussion in the wider context. It has been the Government's objective to create the most dynamic, competitive communications industry in the world, ensuring universal access to a choice of diverse services of the highest quality, and ensuring that citizens and consumers are safeguarded. There are 50 million mobile phone users in the Untied Kingdom—around 75 per cent. of the population. Take-up of this technology, which did not exist 15 years ago, has been at a remarkable rate. The UK is at the forefront of service provision of mobile communications technology and it has been estimated that the UK mobile sector contributes £18 billion to the UK economy, or about 2 per cent. of GDP.

This has been achieved by a careful balancing of the planning regulations and guidelines, which have facilitated the growth not only of existing but of new telecommunications systems, while seeking to keep the environmental impact to a minimum and addressing public health concerns. The Government believe that we have struck the right balance.

Let me assure hon. Members that very careful consideration was given to the current planning arrangements before they were introduced. The Stewart report on mobile phones and health, published in 2000, recommended that telecommunication development should be subject to the normal planning process, in order to improve local consultation. The Government considered this recommendation in detail and accepted the importance of ensuring that effective public consultation took place. As a result, in August 2001, we significantly strengthened the planning arrangements for telecommunications development. We increased the time for authorities to deal with prior approval applications from 28 and 42 days to a uniform 56 days, and strengthened public consultation requirements on prior approval procedures so that they are exactly the same as those for applications for planning permission. We also increased fees from £35 to £190 to enable authorities to carry out full public consultation.

Our revised arrangements for prior approval applications have the same consultation requirements as those for applications for planning permission. Therefore, we have met the concerns that led the Stewart group to make the recommendation for full planning permission.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Shadow Minister, International Affairs

I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will come to this point, but can he tell the House of any instance in which an application to erect a transmission mast has been rejected on appeal? He may have set out a theoretical framework for what happens in the planning process, but in practice nothing of the kind happens. I hope that he is not suggesting that it is happening, because it is not.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I defer to the hon. Gentleman, and I will check on that point. If I may, I will write to him to indicate the Government's observations on the process. Nevertheless, I reiterate that the fact remains that the full procedures are in place, and the options for appeal are there under the proper provisions of the law.

The Bill aims to bring all telecommunications development under full planning control. That is simply not realistic. The prior approval procedures give authorities time to consider proposals, but consent is deemed to be granted if no decision has been made after 56 days, so that development is not delayed. This discipline is needed because many authorities are failing to meet their best value targets for determining planning applications. Furthermore, network operators estimate that only around 15 per cent. of installations are under their permitted development rights. Those installations are by definition the smallest and most discrete of developments. We do not want to restrict those rights, because local planning authorities need to focus attention on the developments that will have the greatest impact.

The current arrangements also have the effect of encouraging network operators to install smaller apparatus on existing buildings and structures wherever possible. That minimises the environmental impact of such developments. However, the fact that those small developments do not need planning permission does not mean that there is no public consultation. The code of best practice that was produced jointly by central and local government and the mobile phone industry is clear that every potential site is rated using the traffic light model. That model determines the level of public consultation that will be required if the site is selected for the installation.

The Government believe that limiting the rights of network operators to install telecommunications equipment would be detrimental to the ability of network operators to meet public demand for mobile services and would not materially increase or improve consultation with local communities.

Photo of Jim Dowd Jim Dowd Labour, Lewisham West

My right hon. Friend says that every site is rated according to the traffic light model. I do not think that that is the issue. The issue is what the mobile operators do in response to that rating. When they get a clear red indication on the model, they do absolutely nothing. How are the public reassured by that?

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I hope to take up those issues, which I know are of considerable concern to my hon. Friend, in the course of our proceedings today. We can deal with those concerns in greater detail at that point.

The Bill would also remove the permitted development rights afforded to railway undertakings that allow them to build masts and install antennae for their communications systems. The recent concern about those permitted development rights results from the development of masts required as part of Network Rail's new safety system, known as the global system for mobile communications for railways—GSM-R.

Network Rail is upgrading its analogue radio systems network to a digital network. GSM-R will for the first time provide a national system of secure, immediate and direct driver-to-signaller communication across the entire network. The upgrade is primarily safety driven. It will implement a key conclusion of the Cullen investigation into and report on the Ladbroke Grove rail accident and facilitate compliance with European legislation.

On 10 September, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister published a research study on permitted development rights from Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners Ltd. That is the first phase of a wide-ranging review of the General Permitted Development Order 1995. It includes a review of the operation of the permitted development rights available to railway undertakings, and consideration of whether a height limit of 15 m should be set for their masts in "sensitive" landscape areas, and whether prior approval should be required on their siting and appearance.

We are considering the report's recommendations carefully. Once we decide whether any of the suggested reforms should be taken forward, we will undertake a public consultation. I will, of course, encourage all interested Members to participate in that process.

If the Government decided that the permitted development rights granted either to mobile network operators or to Network Rail in respect of the erection of masts needed to be restricted, primary legislation would not be the appropriate way of achieving that. Their permitted development rights are granted by the General Permitted Development Order, and any restriction should be by way of amendment to the order.

Let me address the provisions in the Bill that would require a planning application for a telecommunications installation to be accompanied by a statement that it conforms to the precautionary principle and a certificate setting out the range of the beam of greatest intensity. There is a clear distinction between the precautionary principle and precautionary approaches. Implementation of the precautionary principle was described in some detail in a Commission paper of February 2000. I want to say more about the detail of that shortly, but it is apparent that the requirements of the precautionary principle would fit poorly with any measures undertaken in respect of mobile communications equipment.

The precautionary approach taken by the Government in respect of mobile telecommunications is of practical measures that are achievable and, in many cases, implemented voluntarily. The precautionary measures adopted on the recommendation of the Stewart group included the decision to adopt the exposure guidelines for non-ionising radiation recommended by the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection—ICNIRP—to which the hon. Member for West Suffolk referred in his speech. That important measure was adopted for public protection.

It is important to acknowledge that ICNIRP is an international body that puts considerable effort into developing comprehensive reviews of the available scientific information to provide a basis for recommendations on exposure guidelines for non-ionising radiation, including electromagnetic fields. The members of the commission are experts in their field and are supported by a number of standing committees, on epidemiology, biology, physics and optics.

The advice that ICNIRP gives on exposure guidelines comes from extensive consultation based on the totality of the available scientific evidence on possible health effects. For that reason, the guidelines are widely accepted around the world and are the basis for exposure standards in many countries, within Europe and further afield. Those international guidelines have been developed to protect everyone in the population—mobile phone users and those who work or live near base stations, as well as people who do not use mobile phones.

The term "the beam of greatest intensity" arises from a recommendation in the Stewart report,

"in relation to macrocell base stations sited within school grounds, that the beam of greatest intensity should not fall on any part of the school grounds or buildings without agreement from the school and parents. Similar considerations should apply to macrocell base stations sited near to school grounds."

The group made the recommendation as it had been suggested that children might be especially vulnerable to any adverse effects of radiofrequency radiation and would have a longer time to accumulate exposure over the course of their life. The group acknowledged that some countries had prohibited the placing of macrocell base stations on sensitive sites, such as schools.

Although such a policy is easy to administer, Stewart did not believe that it always produced the desired effect, because of the way that emissions are beamed. A macrocell base station located near a school may cause higher exposure to pupils than if it were placed on the roof of the school building. The group thought that there was a better approach, which was reflected in its recommendation.

The Government considered that it would be difficult to adopt the recommendation, despite the arguments in the Stewart report. The concerns about the practicalities of adopting the recommendation including technological ones, such as the fact that it is problematical to define exactly where the beam of greatest intensity falls in all cases. It was also feared that adopting the recommendation would generate greater unnecessary anxiety about the siting of mobile phone base stations. People would inevitably ask why, if it was not acceptable for beams from base stations to be directed near schools, it should be acceptable near hospitals, homes or workplaces.

A base station rarely operates at the maximum licensed power and even if it did it would still have to comply with the international guidelines that were set, as I said, to protect everyone in the population. The Government believe that adopting the recommendation would have no practical benefit in decreasing the risk created by exposure to base station electromagnetic fields.

Furthermore, the ongoing audit of base station emissions near sensitive sites justified that decision. Ofcom—formerly the Radiocommunications Agency—has measured exposures around nearly 300 base stations, including those located on or near schools. In all cases, exposures were below—mostly thousands of times below—the guidelines. That should also serve to allay public concerns. For all those reasons, the Government do not support the intentions behind the provisions in the Bill that require that a planning application for a telecommunications installation be accompanied by a statement that it conforms to the precautionary principle and by a certificate setting out the range of the beam of greatest intensity.

The hon. Gentleman, in his detailed and well researched speech, raised a number of issues relating to PPG8, general health considerations and the precautionary approach, and I will say a few more words in response to the points he raised. The guidance in PPG8 says that health considerations and public concerns can, in principle, be material considerations in determining applications for planning permission and prior approval. In the first instance it is for the decision maker—usually the local planning authority—to determine what issues are material in any particular case and what weight to attach to them. Nevertheless, PPG8 states clearly that, in the Government's view, if a proposed mobile phone base station meets the international guidelines for public exposure—the ICNIRP guidelines—it should not be necessary for a local planning authority, in processing an application, to give further consideration to the health aspects and any concerns about them.

Let me say a few words about health and the precautionary approach. The Government, of course, take seriously public concern about the possibility of health effects being associated with telecommunications base stations. That is why we set up the independent expert group, chaired by Sir William Stewart, to consider the health effects of mobile phone base stations and transmitters. In respect of base stations, the 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 guidelines."

The Government have adopted the precautionary approach recommended by Stewart so, since the publication of his report, we have introduced standards to ensure that all base stations meet the international guidelines on public exposure set by ICNIRP. These guidelines are five times tougher in respect of public exposure than the National Radiological Protection Board guidelines previously used.

The Government's acceptance of a precautionary approach is limited to the specific recommendations in the group's report and the Government's response to them. It does not mean that individual local authorities should introduce their own precautionary policies for determining applications for mobile phone base stations; that would certainly be a recipe for confusion and uncertainty. However, we remain alert to public concerns and to the need for continuing research in these matters. That is why we have also launched a £7 million joint Government and industry research programme to investigate the health issues relating to mobile telecommunications and have made a commitment to keep the whole subject of mobile phone technologies under review in the light of further research.

I shall also say a few words about other forms of research. Reference has been made to Tetra—terrestrial trunked radio. The National Radiological Protection Board's independent advisory group on non-ionising radiation—AGNIR—published a report on possible health effects from Tetra in 2002. The report noted that the signals from Tetra-based stations, like their mobile phone counterparts, are not pulsed. There is, therefore, no reason to believe that signals from Tetra-based stations should be treated differently from those from other base stations. The report also found that exposures of the public to signals from Tetra-based stations are small fractions of international guidelines. Airwave mmO 2 , which is rolling out the Tetra network for the police, is not a signatory to the 10 commitments, but it has its own version of the commitments and works to the guidelines in the code of best practice.

I am sure that hon. Members will also be aware of the recent Dutch TON study. The study from the Netherlands has examined the effects of radiofrequency signals from mobile phone base stations on feelings of well-being and cognitive functions. The results reported are important and need to be considered carefully. They also need to be confirmed by a different laboratory, as the authors themselves have emphasised.

On 14 May 2004, AGNIR published its report on "Health Effects from Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields". It fulfils a recommendation of the Stewart report to review the issue within three years.

With regard to exposures in the vicinity of mobile phone base stations, AGNIR examined data from a number of surveys and concluded that exposure levels are extremely low, and the evidence indicates that they are unlikely to pose a health risk. Nevertheless, AGNIR points out the limitations of published research and concludes that continued research is needed. The Government accept that the public have health concerns about mobile technologies and recognise that those need further study, which we are supporting.

The Bill's remaining provisions relate to base stations on property used by schools and medical facilities. They attempt to prevent operators from compulsorily acquiring rights to site installations on grounds used by schools, colleges and medical facilities. They would require county councils to revoke agreements to site telecommunications installations on sensitive locations, such as schools and medical facilities, and would allow for land previously compulsorily purchased for telecommunications use to be returned to its original owner without compensating the operator.

I remind hon. Members that the Stewart group report did not recommend that the erection of masts on or near schools be prohibited, or that existing masts be removed. As I stated, the report recommended that the beam of greatest intensity should not fall on any part of a school's grounds or buildings without agreement from the school and parents. I reiterate that Stewart did not recommend a moratorium on the siting of base stations on schools. As a result of the way in which omissions are beamed, a macrocell base station located near a school may cause a higher exposure to pupils than if it were placed on the roof of the school building.

The Government do not accept the arguments for directing the beam away from sensitive sites, but even if we did, it is impossible to understand the logic for the provisions. The Stewart group's report does not provide any basis for precautionary actions beyond those already proposed and accepted. It is our view that we should not implement additional precautionary policies. Of course, the development of modern communications systems inevitably leads to an increase in the infrastructure needed to support them, but the planning system already contains the necessary controls to ensure that such developments are carried out sensitively and with respect for the environment.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Shadow Minister, International Affairs

I put it to the Minister, in a wholly non-partisan and dispassionate way, that if he thinks that planning protection is actually working on the ground he is entirely mistaken. I also put it to him, again in a wholly non-partisan way, that the Government have a responsibility to react to the incidences of ill health ascribed to the transmission masts. That is what the precautionary principle is all about. The voluntary code is being abused wholesale by the telecommunications companies. It is a mess. I understand his position and acknowledge that he has been open and professional, but the Government have a responsibility to the people of this country to tidy up that mess. I hope that as a result of this debate he goes away and reflects on how to do that.

Photo of Keith Hill Keith Hill Minister of State (Housing and Planning), Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

I understand and appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman raises those concerns. I also appreciate his acknowledgment that the Government are taking the issues seriously. We recognise the public's concerns about the health implications of masts. We have worked very hard to get the best scientific evidence on which to make a judgment about the health impacts of those masts. What is more, we are responding to research from abroad and in this country. Indeed, we are funding research in this country to continue studies into the public health implications of masts. Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are also carefully monitoring developments in the localities where masts have been installed.

As the hon. Gentleman told the House, he has been the recipient of a huge volume of correspondence since he announced his intention to propose this measure. As the Minister for Housing and Planning, I, too, am in receipt of a considerable amount of correspondence, from members of the public and from Members of the House who are properly responding to the concerns of their constituents. Of course, that volume of correspondence encourages any reasonable Planning Minister, which I hope I can claim to be, constantly to ensure that official and other relevant parties test the performance of the operators in these matters. In addition, Ministers regularly meet the operators and make strenuous demands for the evidence on which they maintain their activities.

The Government are aware that this is an issue of great public sensitivity, and we are constantly on the alert with regard to it. The fact that we recognise those public concerns is exactly the reason that this country is a world leader not only in research and development in mobile phone technologies but in research on health concerns. I say again to the hon. Gentleman and to the House that we are keeping the whole area under the closest review in light of that further research.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 10, Noes 2.

Division number 182 Town and Country Planning (Telecommunications Masts) Bill

Aye: 10 MPs

No: 2 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Madam Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.