I am conscious that planning arrangements for mobile phone masts are a matter of public concern. I am very much aware of it in my own part of the country. I am minded to require full planning permission for all mobile phone masts. However, before coming to a final decision, I wish to consult relevant interests and propose to do so by way of a consultation paper to be issued before the end of October.
I thank the Minister for his reply. The Minister has indicated that the Stewart Report will be published, presumably in a short while. Would he be of a mind to take the main recommendation of that report, which says that in the case of
"All base stations, including those with masts under 15 metres, permitted development rights should be revoked and withdrawn and that the siting of all new base stations should be subject to full planning permission"?
Is he also aware that the Stewart report indicates a total criticism of the lack of protocol in how planning applications are handled, and that changes are urgently required in the planning process? Will he have the departmental personnel and expertise to carry out these recommendations?
This is a difficult area. It concerns many people. In March 1999 the National Radiological Protection Board was asked to set up an independent expert working group to assess the current state of research into possible health risks from mobile phones. I want to emphasise that all mobile telecommunications masts are subject to planning control. Masts over 15 metres in height require my Department’s express planning permission under the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991. Most telecommunication masts under 15 metres are permitted development under the Planning and General Development (Northern Ireland) Order 1993. My Department’s prior approval is required only on location and design
Under the prior approval procedure my Department has 42 days within which to issue a decision on applications for ground-based masts, and 28 days for all other types of telecommunications equipment. I cannot say that I will be withdrawing any already granted approval, to answer Mr McGrady. The consultation paper will be issued before the end of October and will include a draft planning policy statement setting out the Department’s proposed policies for telecommunications development. The difficulty, and this applies to all Members is that many of us carry mobile phones around with us. If we were not getting good communications there would be a real hullabaloo. I take the point that there are great fears in the community about health risks.
The Minister has indicated that consultation will start in October. How long will this consultation process take and when does he hope to bring a report back to the Assembly? Also, will the concerns of local people be taken into account? What part will they play in the consultation process in relation to planning applications being granted? In the past, many people objected to applications but they still went ahead.
The Northern Ireland consultation will include a draft planning policy statement, and this will take a little time to develop. I can see it happening early in the new year. The Northern Ireland consultation will include a draft planning policy statement, and this has inevitably taken some time to develop. However, this should assist the consultation. Applicants for planning permission to erect telecommunications masts are entitled to have my Department make a determination. It would not be proper to postpone this decision-making process pending the development of planning policy in this area. I want to emphasise again that we are very concerned with it, but it does not all come under the Planning Service. There are health issues involved as well. So there are a couple of Departments involved in this.
This issue is one which greatly concerns many people and, as the Minister has already said, there are health implications. Therefore I find it rather sad that there is a dismissive attitude, that we cannot do this, that and the other thing, while people’s health is being put at risk. I say that as one who does not and will not carry a mobile phone. Does the Minister not agree that the ease with which these mobile telecommunications masts get planning permission, particularly under the prior approval procedures, has led to a proliferation of the masts throughout Northern Ireland, and that this in turn is creating radiation smog which is endangering the health of the entire community? What is he, as Minister, going to do to ensure that the voice of the people is listened to in their strong objections to such a proliferation of these masts? Is he further aware that, even when a council unanimously objects to the planning permission being granted for such masts, the Department goes ahead willy-nilly and grants permission over the head of the people and its elected representatives? Surely he would agree with me that this is no way in which such a serious issue should be dealt with.
I take exception to the fact that we do things willy-nilly. That is entirely wrong. My Department performs its work professionally in a dedicated fashion, and we take cognisance of representations made to us. We are not taking this lightly — I have got to make that point. As I said earlier, in answer to Mr McGrady, health issues are the responsibility of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Advice provided by that Department is that in areas readily accessible to the public there is no convincing evidence of a causal link between health risk and exposure to electromagnetic fields associated with mobile telecommunications masts. Any further advice or guidelines will be fully taken into account by the Planning Service. We do not — I repeat: do not — take this lightly. It is a difficult issue, and we understand that. We do take cognisance of the complaints made by people and the fears which people have.
The Minister referred to electromagnetic radiation and thermal radiation. From the Stewart report we can see that there is also great concern about the long-term effects of non-thermal radiation. Stewart talks about the precautionary approach being exercised with regard to telecommunication masts. Will that form the basis of the Department’s approach until proper consultation is carried out?
Of course, it will warrant a precautionary approach and great thought. I must emphasise this. We do not take this lightly. All matters are taken into consideration. We know there are fears, but nothing in the Stewart report confirms anything absolute at all, we have to take that into consideration. This issue is not being taken lightly. We are looking at it in depth, and all aspects will be taken into consideration during the assessment procedure.