– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 28th June 2005.
I have chaired the proceedings in Westminster Hall many times, and I have never seen such a great array of hon. Members before me for a debate on such a subject. I have been notified that a couple more hon. Members want to speak, but if Front-Bench spokesmen and others are brief, I shall try to accommodate as many hon. Members as I can.
May I thank you, Mr. Olner, and through you Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to secure this debate on planning regulations for mobile telecommunications masts, which are generating huge interest up and down the country and among colleagues. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Jim Fitzpatrick for being in the Chamber to respond to this important debate.
There is a desperate need to address the many serious concerns about the Government's policies on planning regulations for mobile telecommunications masts. It is ironic that mobile phones, which were created to allow connection and conversation between people separated by distance, have proved how distant the Government are and how incapable they are of listening, even to the most persistent interlocutors.
Each time the Government have gone through the motions of listening to people's concerns, it quickly becomes apparent that no real action has been taken. When the Government claim to accept:
"the importance of ensuring that effective public consultation"—[Hansard, 18 October 2004; Vol. 425, c. 743.]
takes place, as the then planning Minister—the current Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills, Phil Hope—said on 18 October 2004, they also quietly admit that that really means that arrangements are necessary to ensure that development is not delayed.
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister press release on
"People have a right to know where masts are located."
At the same time, however, the Government go to great lengths to prevent obtrusive new masts from being subject to planning permission.
The then planning Minister continued:
"these planning cases would be more likely to end up as planning appeals . . . because an application had been refused."—[Hansard, 18 October 2004; Vol. 425, c. 744.]
The Government are speaking with forked tongue; they claim to be listening to people's concerns about the effect on health of telecommunications masts, while a planning Minister sends out explicit instructions to councils that they should not impose a ban on mobile phones on health grounds.
The Government are simply not listening. Following the Stewart report, they promised to hold several consultation exercises, but they have clearly not taken enough exercise and must now be shown how to get planning permission for mobile telecommunications masts back into shape.
The Government must not be seen to accept the £22.5 billion third-generation mobile phone licence fees and then ignore the concerns of many worried constituents, yet that is exactly what appears to have happened when an august and unbiased body such as the Library says in its debate pack of
"most notable for not giving ground to objectors against masts".
I would be very interested to hear from the Minister about the outcome of yesterday's meeting between the Minister of State, Dr. Gibson, and Alan Meyer of Mast Action UK. What flaws in Government policy on planning permission for telecommunications masts did Mr. Meyer highlight in that meeting?
As things stand, the New Scientist of
We are much more likely to enjoy innovative solutions if we can give local communities more influence over how the increasing demand for supply is satisfied, and innovative solutions must involve things such as mast sharing and roaming, which operate very successfully on the continent.
Will my hon. Friend say what the telephone companies have against roaming? If it operates well in other countries it must work technically, so is this simply a financial matter for the companies?
I thought about that deep into the night last night. Surely the answer is that we know, because it works on the continent, that the technology works perfectly. Therefore, the first half of my right hon. Friend's proposition must be correct. It probably does reduce competition, but as local people are affected by the number of masts, we should keep that number to a minimum. One way to do that is to insist on mast sharing, where that is practical, and roaming. With modern technology, there is no reason why companies should not charge each other for the use of their masts when calls come through their respective apparatus.
However, under this Government's system, people have little control over developments that, according The Independent of
The Government have introduced a traffic light system that takes into consideration communities' previous planning decisions. That suggests that there is some kind of quota system, under which the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will accept only a finite number of planning permission refusals by each authority. That sounds rather like the approach to referendums by some Governments, who seem to think that the question should keep on being put until the voters give the right answer.
When the larger telecommunications masts erected for the railway network are "permitted developments", meaning that they do not need an application for planning permission, and when local authorities have to apply to the Government for an article 4 direction to remove operators' right to put up masts automatically, and then perhaps end up having to give them compensation, local communities do not feel that they are being listened to.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having raised this important issue. Does he agree that that complaint, like a number of his other points, also applies to the Tetra network used by the police, and is he aware that a cross-party conference is being organised in the Boothroyd Room on
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having managed to give advance notice of his meeting. I have no doubt that many hon. Members present will wish to attend. He raises the important matter of Tetra masts, which have all sorts of issues associated with them, and which worry many local communities that have such big masts near them. Peter Jones from Actix, which developed new wireless technology for mobile companies, has warned that the number of masts could increase by three or four times. That means that we are slipping into a situation in which people can choose whether to have a mobile phone, but not whether to live by a mobile phone mast.
Many cases that have arisen around the country suggest that that state of affairs needs to be corrected. I draw the Minister's attention to one in particular. It is a sad case. The Merseyside Society for Deaf People in West Derby has found it impossible to overcome the problem of a mast that interferes with hearing aids, because the mast has been given an ICNIRP certificate—that stands for the international commission on non-ionising radiation protection. However, local campaigners are convinced that when such problems occur, such certificates are not worth the paper that they are written on. People feel that they have no control or influence over the masts that affect their environment; communities clearly do not have a large enough role in the consultation process.
I would be grateful to the Minister if he told me how he proposes to remedy the situation. Will the Government establish a national database of masts, as recommended in the Stewart report? When will they make a commitment to publish in full the reports by Reading university and Arup, and by Micro Consultants Limited, so that communities have access to the relevant information? Will they publish the report by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory on epileptiform activity and cognitive performance, so that people's fears about health issues can be addressed?
Health concerns relating to telecommunications masts are not limited to Merseyside. I do not intend to dwell on health issues—that is not the purpose of the debate—but they are important, and must be mentioned. Many of my constituents in the Cotswolds are not only concerned about protecting the beautiful countryside that surrounds them, important as that is, but worried about the risks to schools lying in the radiation of the beam of greatest intensity from masts. They have limited confidence in the precautionary principle laid down in planning regulations and are aware that, as I said, the Government have not published all the reports that they have received on the potential health risks.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the planning legislation. In fact, planning policy guidance note 8 actively prevents health issues from being taken into account. The framework is also such that all the operator has to show is that alternative sites have been considered. In my constituency in the past week a planning appeal has gone against us because the operator did that, even though the site of the mast is in a green open space and the mast will adversely affect amenity.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. PPG8 enshrines the principle that mast applications should be accepted rather than refused. That presumption should be reversed.
The Government have issued guidelines and information on individuals' use of mobile phones—for those who use pacemakers, for example—but they have not issued similarly detailed information regarding mobile phone masts. Indeed, as my hon. Friend James Brokenshire has said—he must be psychic—the Government have actually prevented councils from objecting to mobile phone masts on health grounds, despite the Stewart report's recommendation that there should be a register of occupationally exposed workers.
As a result of such concerns, it is imperative that local communities be given more power over the location of their telecommunications masts. The easiest way for that to be achieved is to extend the requirement for full planning permission to all mobile phone masts, especially in sensitive greenbelt land and areas of outstanding natural beauty. I called for that in the Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation when we scrutinised the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (England) Order 2001 on
The current system exempts masts less than 15 m tall from the need for planning permission. That seems unfair to all those private individuals who have to apply for planning permission for the smallest alterations to their homes, although a neighbour's extension would have much less effect on the environment than a 40 ft tall mast. Indeed, during the 2001 election I came across a case between Corby and Kettering in which a huge mast suddenly appeared within 30 m of a street of houses, and the residents had known nothing about it. When the matter was investigated, it appeared that a notice had been put up on a local bus stop—but of course, few people had read it. That is an unacceptable situation. I put it to the Minister that everybody should be consulted, and everybody in the near vicinity should have a notice put through their letter box.
On that final point, we had such a case in my constituency, next to a school—in fact, it was on a site that the local education authority owned and had let out to the mobile phone operator. The school did not get any of the benefit, and because of the permitted development rights the local community was not consulted. The only person who was consulted was one of the local district councillors, who passed the information on to me, and we wrote to everybody in the area. A huge number of people were concerned, but if we had not taken that action, they would have been in complete ignorance of the fact that that mast was going to be put in place. The lack of openness breeds distrust and concern among local people, where there need be none.
My hon. Friend and neighbour has raised a very good point. The mobile phone industry must be much less defensive and must have more constructive dialogue with the Government. Equally, the Government must listen to local people's concerns. That should be taken into account when the Government come to decide whether they should return power to local communities to shape their own environment, or whether they should continue to give almost unchecked power to mobile phone operators to put masts where they please.
I must make it clear, because no doubt the Mobile Operators Association will be on to me this afternoon, that I do not blame the operators for their actions. They are working in an incredibly competitive field and contribute a great deal to our economy, employing tens of thousands of people. Indeed, when the industry was first created the Conservative Government encouraged it, as we saw the great benefits of such a technologically advanced sector and the huge employment gains, and other benefits, that it would bring. However, there must be more openness and consultation.
The Government have boasted that the present system offers
"a major advantage for mobile phone operators."—[Hansard, 6 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 118.]
That was according to the present Minister for Children and Families, who was Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions at the time. While seeming to ignore rural and urban communities, the Government have created a system that gives operators an automatic right of installation if local authorities delay decision making to take account of all the facts. They have awarded operators statutory undertaker status, allowing them to exercise compulsory purchase powers in collusion with the Secretary of State.
Instead, the Government should deliver on their promise to
"give local planning authorities and local people an idea of potential design solutions for particular sites".
According to Mr. Raynsford, when he was a Minister, that would
"help to promote better dialogue and a collaborative approach"—[Hansard, 24 January 2001; Vol. 361, c. 1039.]
That seems a very constructive way forward, and in its report of
"a higher level of engagement and subsequent ownership of the process by local communities".
It went on to say that that would also benefit the operators by
"resulting in less objections, less likelihood of rejection of the proposals, and less confrontation between operators and objectors".
From an all-party group, that is a very constructive approach.
I am proud of my party's approach to this difficult issue, which contrasts with the Government's record on telecommunications masts. When we were in government, and before it was realised what the future rate of growth in the mobile network would be, we gave succour to a nascent industry that would employ tens of thousands of people. However, we also introduced a framework of regulations that has laid the basis for what needs to be done today. The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 was introduced by a Conservative Administration, and it is now the only significant measure on which the Government can call.
Since 1997, we have tirelessly tried further to improve the regulation system for telecommunications masts. Colleagues have tabled a host of early-day motions and parliamentary questions, and we have offered the Government every encouragement to listen to local communities. We have a set of widely supported proposals for regulations for full planning permission, which my hon. Friend Mr. Pickles will no doubt elucidate from the Front Bench. We propose a single decision-making process for all masts, regardless of type or location, a commitment to increase local government's control over planning permission, and demands on the industry to demonstrate that proposed masts will not damage the local environment and that options for mast sharing have been extensively explored.
My party's work on the issue continues today. Beyond this Chamber, Conservative candidates such as Stephen Day in Cheadle are standing up for their local communities. On behalf of Cheadle Hulme residents, he is leading a local campaign against a planning application for a phone mast on Anfield road. He has highlighted the environmental—
I am simply using Stephen Day as an example, Mr. Olner. He has campaigned against applications for masts in Yew Tree Park road and elsewhere in Hulme, and against applications in Bramhall, Woodford and Stepping Hill. I wish him further success in his campaign.
To conclude, this is an important and sensitive issue, which the Government clearly need to address. As you said yourself, Mr. Olner, this morning's attendance in the Chamber demonstrates that the issue is of huge interest to colleagues and to all our constituents. We owe our constituents a duty to get things right, and they deserve to have their environment and health protected. We live in a democracy, so they should be fully consulted on the application process, and the Government need to listen to their concerns.
I congratulate Mr. Clifton-Brown on raising this subject. Many people are concerned about it, and we need to keep the way in which we deal with applications under review. To that extent, I agree with him, although I am not sure that I would want to go on a tour of Britain, particularly to places where there might be by-elections. Nevertheless, he gave a balanced account of his concerns.
Last Friday meeting I attended a meeting in my constituency and in a village called Ince Blundell. A number of applications have been made over the years to site masts in the village and in the nearby village of Thornton, causing widespread concern among local people. I shall start with a few comments about that meeting before moving on to the planning system.
The meeting was addressed by, among others, a gentleman called Dr. Highland, who describes himself as an associate fellow at Warwick university. The hon. Member for Cotswold avoided the issue of health and the planning system, but I am sure that he would admit privately that, although people sometimes express concern about the visual impact of masts, their concerns are often about health.
Dr. Highland gave a PowerPoint presentation, to which, I noticed, a disclaimer from Warwick university was attached. I sat and listened carefully. I became quite alarmed that someone who claims academic eminence could present anecdote as evidence, when the two are incompatible. With a wave of the hand towards the end of his presentation, Dr. Highland said, "And of course, all of those who disagree with me"—Government scientific advisers of one kind or another—"shouldn't be listened to because they're either paid by the Government or they're in the pocket of the telecommunications industry."
I raise that example not to attack Dr. Highland under the cloak of privilege, although that might be the perceived effect of what I have just said, but because I am concerned that a lot of "punk science" is being perpetrated, which alarms people. The issue is serious and needs to be addressed, but the Stewart report is being dismissed in certain quarters, for whatever reasons, which is making people frightened about issues close to their homes.
I do not say that there is no problem. The Stewart inquiry was methodical and thorough, and it concluded that we cannot be absolutely certain that there is no health problem. We should therefore proceed cautiously. The collection and analysis of scientific evidence should continue, and should be properly funded and taken seriously by the Government.
My other point is that, in a sense, we should probably not be having this debate, on these terms. Most people are concerned about health issues; however, I am not sure that the planning system is the right way to deal with those concerns, although a completely redesigned planning system might be able to cope. The planning system was invented, as it were, in the 19th century as a result of concern about the squalor in which people lived and its contribution to poor public health. The system has evolved over the past 50 years or so, but it can no longer properly deal with such problems. If people are genuinely concerned about the siting of a mast because of its visual impact or for other reasons, that will be a planning issue, but I contend that most people are worried about public health.
I shall give way in a moment to the hon. Member for Cotswold, whose debate it is.
The point is that visual and planning matters are secondary to what I perceive to be the public's main concern, which is uncertainty about public health.
As my hon. Friend James Brokenshire made clear, PPG8 specifically states that the planning authority is not allowed to take health issues into account. If it were rewritten so that health issues could be taken into account in certain circumstances, the situation would be different.
The point that I was making—I apologise if it was less than clear—is that irrespective of any guidance issued by the Department, I am not sure that the planning system is the way to deal with public health. For one thing, most professionals in planning departments simply do not have the qualifications to evaluate public health issues. They could perform an evaluation through the local primary care trust, but what would it be based on? It would be based on known science, and we know from the Stewart inquiry that that is less than clear.
I will give way once more, but the more time I take the less there will be for others.
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that there should be a statutory consultation process involving health and safety experts as well as the local planning authority? If so, is that the position now taken by Her Majesty's Government?
The hon. Gentleman should know that the reason I am speaking from this position is that although I support most of the things that the Government wish to do, I do not speak for them. I am making a constituency speech. With his customary wit and elegance of language, the Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, my hon. Friend Jim Fitzpatrick, will state the Government's position.
If Mark Pritchard will bear with me, he will understand in a moment the central point that I am trying to make. Suffice it to say that even if the guidance to which the hon. Member for Cotswold referred a few moments ago was withdrawn and changed, the planning system would still not be properly equipped to deal with that class of issue.
I thank my hon. Friend; he has been generous in giving way. Part of the problem is that the Government are not objective observers. My hon. Friend will know that they are deliberating on the firelink proposal, the future communications system for the fire service. I hope that the Government will consider minimising the number of new masts, should any be needed. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree the Government have a vested interest.
My hon. Friend has made his point and I do not intend to respond; perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will do so. However, given people's concerns, and given the uncertainty about the public health issues involved and the science behind them, there is, as my hon. Friend said, an argument for minimising the use of masts through mast sharing and roaming, to which the hon. Member for Cotswold referred. I imagine that we could minimise the use of masts to quite a large degree.
I do not have any data on the subject, but that seems to be the most useful way forward. However, if sharing and roaming is to happen, it cannot be driven by local authorities, because it will in part be outside local authority control. It cannot be confined within local authority boundaries. I would like the Government to take a fresh look at that, and to try to work out a system with the industry whereby the use of masts is minimised through mast sharing and roaming. However, that must be co-ordinated centrally; it cannot be left to local authorities, because they do not have the necessary powers or the scope to do so. If we adopt the appropriate precautionary principle, there must be an agreement between the industry and the Government and a definite plan and strategy to make it work.
In the absence of clear scientific evidence about the health effects, the appropriate way forward is to co-ordinate precautions nationally to minimise the use of masts. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, who is always eminently reasonable, will think about my comments and consider whether we can deal with the matter better in future.
Let me first congratulate Mr. Clifton-Brown on securing this debate on an important issue. I want to touch on three points: local consultation, permitted development rights and the inclusion of health implications in the planning process.
I know—not just from my mailbag, from my email inbox and from knocking on doors—that this is an issue in my constituency. Using the new pledgebank.com website, I recently set up an online pledge to organise a public meeting in my constituency about mobile phone mast applications if at least 20 people showed an interest in attending. The speed at which the required 20 people signed up to the pledge shows the level of interest in the issue ,at a time when there is apparently little appetite for old-fashioned political engagement at public meetings and suchlike. That meeting will take place later in the summer, and I hope that representatives from mobile phone operators will attend.
That meeting will be useful, because there has been a lack of consultation. One mobile phone operator who wants to site a mast in Bearsden recently agreed to meet local residents for consultation, but only if there would be no more than 10 residents at the meeting. That is not my idea of adequate consultation.
We all recognise the need for mobile phone masts. Most of us, and most of our constituents, use mobile phones and enjoy the benefits of convenient communication. The key is to ensure that the masts are sensitively sited, and that requires meaningful consultation at the start in local areas.
Hon. Members will be aware that Scotland is often a pioneer leading the way, and so it is with the planning process for mobile phone mast applications. South of the border, phone masts of a certain height can be erected without reference to local communities and planning authorities, and that is a recipe for disaster. No wonder people feel powerless and without a voice. I urge the Minister to look at the Scottish example, where planning permission is required for mobile phone masts of all heights, to see whether lessons can be learned.
However, ensuring that the erection of masts has to go through the planning process is not enough. My constituents feel frustrated that there is inadequate scope for their views to be heard, and local authorities still do not have adequate decision-making powers on applications. One example, on which Mr. Howarth touched, is that the impact on health cannot be used as a ground for refusal. Yet many people's concerns about phone masts relate directly to the impact on health, especially the health of their children.
The 2004 Stewart report recognised that whatever the health implications, children are more at risk. Government advice is that children under eight should not use mobile phones. Parents are understandably concerned by the mixed messages. The daily radiation produced by a mast is often compared with the number of minutes spent talking on a mobile phone—yet although parents are told not to allow their children to spend many minutes talking on their mobile phones, they are expected not to be concerned about the health implications of nearby masts.
Further research is clearly required—for example, to ascertain the radiation effect of clusters of phone masts in a local area. That will become more important, as 3G technology requires more masts, so people will live close to several. Land contours should also be taken into account when measuring radiation levels. It is not much good siting the radiation at ground level when the top of the mast beams into upstairs bedrooms where children sleep.
Perhaps most importantly, the precautionary principle should be applied in these cases. East Dunbartonshire council, like many local authorities, recently had a policy of not siting masts near schools, but that policy was overturned on appeal. However, the Government's own documents state that the precautionary principle should be used. I refer to the sustainable strategy document entitled "Securing the Future", which was written in March and, I think, launched today. It says that policies should respect five principles, one of which is "Using Sound Science Responsibly", which is defined as
"ensuring policy is developed and implemented on the basis of strong scientific evidence, whilst taking into account scientific uncertainty (through the Precautionary Principle)".
I welcome the Minister's comments on how he sees that idea fitting into the planning process for mobile phone applications.
In considering future action on the issue, I would urge the Minister to be bold and not bind the hands of those making planning decisions. Removing permitted development rights would be a good start, but it is not enough on its own. Local planning authorities must have the tools to examine all the issues relating to mobile phone masts.
We are all grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown for raising this subject today. I think that the electors of Cheadle, too, will be interested in the extent to which Conservatives have shown concern for their interests. I am grateful to be called to speak, Mr. Olner, because we have a splendid array of Conservatives on these Benches, which shows our interest in this subject, and our concern about it.
In my constituency there is a very good organisation called ORAM. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] It does have a pleasing similarity to my own name, and I do recommend it, because it stands for Orpington Residents Against Masts. Its purpose is perfectly clear. It has done a considerable public service in my constituency by raising the issue through public meetings, drawing up petitions about masts, investigating the facts and calling on experts. In one case—this shows a non-party approach—a Liberal Democrat spokesman was invited. It has shown considerable concern—the concern of ordinary people—about the subject. This is not just a matter for Members of Parliament or councillors, but one about which ordinary people are very concerned.
In my constituency nine applications for mobile phone masts are now going through the system; that is a large number. From time to time, residents get concerned about the reasons given by the mobile phone mast operators for those new constructions. For example, one mobile phone mast has just been allowed on appeal after being refused by the local authority, Bromley council. The reasons given in a letter to one of my constituents who was concerned about that were as follows:
"Synergy, Planning and Property Consultants have informed us that the masts are needed for drivers on the A21 wishing to access their home computers."
It is illegal now to have hand-held phones in cars, and very few people have hands-free phones in their cars. Moreover, the A21 is on a red route, where people cannot stop. The reason cited seems rather curious to me, and it seems rather trivial to my constituents.
My experience in Putney, working with the Southfields Triangle Residents Association and residents associations in West Hill and the rest of Southfields, is very similar. Last summer Orange submitted eight planning applications for mobile phone masts within a one-mile radius, and it seemed to me that it hoped that ultimately one of them would be accepted on trivial grounds, and so long as one got through, it would have achieved its objective.
We need to examine the planning process to stop this bully-boy tactic of mass applications in the hope that one will succeed. It is interesting to hear what my hon. Friend says about residents standing up against the process. One of the by-products of the eight Orange submissions was that they did a great job of reinvigorating our local community. There are far more people in those residents associations now than there were this time last year, before the applications were made. That shows that people are deeply concerned about the matter, and they are right to be, because they do not have the facts and data. I believe that local councils should have more ability to reflect those concerns in their planning decisions—
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for a lengthy but pertinent intervention. She is quite right: not only residents, as evidenced by the activity of ORAM in my constituency, but councils are increasingly concerned about the planning system. Mr. Howarth, who has now departed the Chamber, said that the current planning system did not allow councils to act in the best interests of residents. That is the problem.
Bromley council will be writing to the Minister, following a decision of its development control committee and its report on the planning arrangements surrounding applications for mobile phone masts. The committee is interested in two points, one of which was raised by Jo Swinson in relation to the situation in Scotland, where Scottish people have done very well. The point is that all masts, whatever their height, should be taken into account in the whole planning system.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if planning permission were required for all masts, that would encourage mast sharing? One current problem is that mobile phone operators say that they cannot share masts because there has to be a certain distance between their equipment and the other operator's equipment—
Thank you, Mr. Olner, for rescuing me from that additional lengthy intervention.
Orange wrote to me about the issue of considering all masts under the planning system. It said:
"our experience clearly demonstrates that the public's concerns are not with the planning process."
I disagree. When the public learn about the sketchy nature of the consultation that is allowed, and of the planning process, they are very concerned. As the old saying goes, never overestimate people's knowledge—but never underestimate their intelligence either. When they get to know about the subject, they are very concerned.
In connection with what the hon. Gentleman said in his intervention, Orange also said:
"Full planning would not give local authorities any more power to refuse applications or communities any greater say in the site selection process."
I think that it would. The fact that mobile phone mast operators would have to go through a planning procedure would give local authorities the extra negotiating powers and leverage that they do not have at the moment, whether for site sharing or for considering other sites. Often other sites can be considered, but because of the ease with which the companies' preferred sites get through the planning system, they are not.
The advantage of going through the planning process is that full local consultation would have to take place. There would be adverts in the local papers and notices to all those concerned, and there would also be an opportunity to appear at the planning hearings of the local council. In that way, local democracy and people's participation in it would be enhanced.
I agree. The other aspect of that point is that my council is calling for a lengthy consultation period. As my hon. Friend knows, the current period is 56 days, and eight weeks is not that long for organising a consultation exercise. There is always dispute about how widely the consultation should range, and it takes time to work out who should be involved.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there may be a case for investigating the possibility of something similar to environmental impact assessments, with a consultation period of 16 weeks rather than eight weeks? Clearly this is an environmental matter.
That is a good point, and perhaps the Government will take it into account when they reply to Bromley council. The present period is too short for any realistic consultation. Often, people find themselves right up against the deadline without having had the opportunity to consider residents' concerns fully. I hope that the Government will take the letter that they receive from Bromley council seriously. I shall follow it up myself.
First, I should like the Government to do more research into the health aspect of the issue; I have not gone into that, because of the number of people who want to speak in this debate. There must be more such research, and the Government should take a lead. Secondly, I should like them to consider the planning guidance that they issue to local authorities, and at least to change the current regime and make it more sympathetic. I look for a positive response from the Government to the concerns exhibited by the council in my constituency.
Order. Five people are indicating that they want to speak. I intend to call the Liberal Democrat spokesman to sum up at 10.25, so I ask those who participate to be brief. Thank you.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown on securing this debate. It is no surprise that the Chamber is so full, because the issue is of huge concern to everybody. In Guildford it is probably the single biggest planning issue. I think that I receive more letters about mobile phone masts than anything else. The applications rain down on us daily—and if it is not an application, it is an appeal. The concern of residents in my constituency, in places such as Bramley, Shalford and Chilworth, is that there is always either an application or an appeal going through.
The issue does not seem very complicated to me. In May 2000 Sir William Stewart called for a precautionary approach, and in January 2005 the National Radiological Protection Board, chaired by Sir William Stewart, again called for such an approach. Sir William also said:
"This approach should be adopted by all involved in this area—including government".
It appears that absolutely nothing has happened.
We need planning regulations that allow local people not only to have their say, but to have what they say listened to and acted on. Mobile phone companies put huge resources into the planning process, while local people feel that their hands are tied behind their backs. They feel disempowered and disillusioned with the whole process. The word "consultation" has been so devalued that it is held in contempt by many people, and consultation is often seen as a patronising process that allows nobody to have their voice heard. It is crucial that we allow residents' health concerns to be addressed through the planning process. Local councillors feel exactly the same. They also feel that their hands are tied behind their backs.
The balance and the presumptions in the process need to be shifted. Sir William Stewart first urged a precautionary approach in 2000, and after all this time, I urge the Government finally to address this issue.
I shall speak briefly, both to congratulate Mr. Clifton-Brown on securing the debate and to underline and echo a number of the points that have already been made by hon. Members.
There is cross-party concern about this issue, which has been raised today on behalf of a great many people who feel that the balance has not been struck in a way that is right, fair or sensible on issues of planning control and public health in connection with telecommunications masts. I wanted to take part in the debate because of an application that recently came before my local authority, the London borough of Sutton, relating to Fieldsend road in Cheam. Unfortunately it was determined and decided by officials without making its way before a committee of members because, despite the objections of a number of my constituents to the mast application on the grounds of both planning and health considerations, it was not de-delegated by local councillors.
I support those who have already spoken in favour of changing the planning arrangements so that all masts are brought within the ambit of planning control in the fullest possible sense. My hon. Friend Mr. Leech is right to stress that having full planning control would give us the opportunity to exercise greater control and influence over the possibility of mast sharing, because of the scope for negotiation and the chance to raise that matter in the planning process. That is entirely missing now.
I was heartened by what my hon. Friend Jo Swinson said about what already happens in Scotland. I hope that the Minister will indicate in his reply why to date the Government have not decided that England should follow the lead of Scotland—and, indeed, Northern Ireland—where such matters are dealt with through the full planning process.
I also wish to reiterate the point about the lack of peer-reviewed science in this area of public policy. Can the Minister say a bit more about the timetable for the publication of such research, and also what work is being done on the effects of masts and base stations on public health, particularly in respect of genetic predisposition and possible age-related effects? It is clear to my constituents and to me that the Government have talked a great deal about the need for a precautionary approach, but planning law does not allow for one. Many of my constituents believe that health should be a much greater consideration than it is at present.
I am delighted that we are having this debate, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively to it. Many of my constituents feel let down by and shut out from the process. They want their voices to be heard and to feel that the planning process is working for them, rather than in the interests of mammon.
I am here to express some of the concern and anger felt by a great number of my constituents who have been affected by mobile phone masts in recent months and years. In many ways, they feel powerless to get any action when an application is made to put a mobile phone mast in the vicinity of their homes or of other services that they may use.
I am in an interesting situation, as my borough council, Basingstoke and Deane, has been held out as a model authority for its use of the code of conduct in that respect. Despite that, there is still the feeling among local people that they are not getting their point of view across. Our local council works closely with mobile phone operators, but my constituents feel that their concerns are not heard, whether because of the short time—eight weeks—that is allowed for the discussion process, or whether because the issues that they feel are important are simply not taken into account.
It may be useful to consider a very real and current problem in my constituency. The mast under discussion will actually be sited in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Sir George Young—on the Kingsclere road in the Newbury road roundabout area—but it will directly affect people in my area. The plan is to erect a 15 m telecommunications tower with three antennae. There have been numerous letters of objection from local residents about visual intrusion, anxiety about health effects, spoiled views of the countryside—the area borders some beautiful Hampshire countryside—the fact that other masts are already located in the area, and, importantly, the fact that the proposed mast would be too close to residents and to schools.
A local ward councillor, Mrs. Sue Peters, has taken up the cause and has been expressing the concerns of local residents directly in the council. The proposal is to put up a mast some 45 m from property and 180 m from a special educational needs school for children with severe learning difficulties. Hon. Members may be aware that the National Radiological Protection Board issued a warning this year about the location of such masts near such schools.
Despite the deep concern, the application has been recommended for approval. Frankly, little account has been taken of the concerns that have been expressed by local residents. As my hon. Friend Mr. Horam said, councils are not always able to act in the best interests of their residents. There is an urgent need for a review of planning matters governing mobile phone masts. Residents feel powerless, local elected representatives feel that their hands are tied behind their backs, and mobile phone operators are operating within a code of conduct and within legislation that does not take account of the issues that are most important to my constituents.
I look forward to hearing the Minister's views. There is a need for an urgent review, for a requirement for full planning permission for all mobile phone masts, for accountability on the part of local councillors for their decisions, for residents to be able to participate fully in the making of those decisions, for councils to be allowed to take health concerns into account and, importantly—particularly in my constituency, where house building is still going on at a rapid rate—for planning for the future. In the new communities in my constituency, land is not allocated for masts. We should do more to predict the system's future needs, and should plan mobile phone masts as part of infrastructure development.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold mentioned the comments in New Scientist—
Indeed, New Scientist was interesting. Is my hon. Friend taking into account the vast numbers of new masts of the new generation that will be built, which is a matter for even greater concern?
My hon. Friend is right. As New Scientist stated, a fourfold increase in the number of masts is to be expected in coming years, which would be equivalent to about 200 extra masts in each constituency. More must be done to plan for that. The presumption in favour of development in the current planning system must be changed, and our constituents' frustration must be listened to.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown for securing this important debate. Few issues have caused more concern in my constituency. My maiden speech last week included a tour of my constituency. A more appropriate way to tour it might have been via its mobile phone masts, so great is the coverage. Only on Saturday I was in Slades Hill, where between 50 and 100 residents came out to protest against the planning inspector's latest decision, overturning the council's wise decision to refuse a mast there. No doubt the decision was overturned not on grounds that were of concern to local people, including health, but solely and squarely on appearance.
In the area of Enfield, Southgate, there is no greater concern. If, Tardis-like, I were to transport hon. Members to my constituency office to look across a distance of one mile, nine masts could already be seen; another four applications are pending. If I then moved us to Roundhill drive, as an example of the issues that face us, we could see a mast that has been put up within permitted development rights. It is horrendous—yards from gardens, near a playground and not far from a school. An application has now been made to increase the height of that mast. No doubt that is because the local authority, having taken a concerned view in response to residents' and parents' concerns, intends to move the mast that is now on top of Grange Park school, which puts pressure on the operator to increase coverage in Roundhill drive. The irony is that the new site is near a playground, and thus near children. Children do not only go to school; they live in houses, and go out in gardens. There is great concern about the application.
A few metres along, in Chaseville Park road, a repeated application that has been made for the open area is of great concern to people. They are worried about repeated applications, such as those that my hon. Friends have mentioned.
My hon. Friend and I both represent suburban London seats of high residential density. Does he share my concern about the cumulative impact on public health and the environment of multiple applications by multiple operators? Does he share my belief that planning guidance should give councils greater freedom to take that cumulative impact into account?
Order. Many questions have been asked of the Minister, and although I want Back Benchers to have as much time to speak as possible, I also want Opposition spokesmen to have time to sum up. I think that we are treading into their time now.
Thank you, Mr. Olner; I will be brief. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. Cumulative impact is not recognised in PPG8. Beam intensity and its cumulative effect is of great concern to residents, but the planning guidance does not reflect that. I would like the Minister's response to that idea, because PPG8 deals simply with the International Commission for Non-Ionising Radiation Protection guidelines. The operator ticks a box there, and does not have to reflect the concerns of a community about that cumulative effect properly. That is paramount. At a recent planning committee meeting, we heard from an operator that to get coverage for the new 3G technology it needs a mast every 800 m throughout the constituency. That demonstrates starkly why people are concerned.
We went way beyond reasons for licences some time ago, and the new 3G technology is causing a proliferation of masts in Enfield, Southgate. We need an amendment to PPG8. We need the removal of permitted development rights and for the full planning process to be available, so that local people can be given back control over their communities. People are not concerned only about house prices and the nimby factor, but about having some control of their local community.
I gather that it is conventional to congratulate the person who secured the debate, but I think that Mr. Clifton-Brown deserves more than conventional thanks for securing this debate, given the enormous amount of interest shown in it.
From the outset, I stress that my party's policy remains in line with what a large number of hon. Members have said—that phone masts and associated equipment should require full planning permission before being allowed to go ahead. That would allow local authorities to take into account the full range of considerations, including any health issues that might arise. That does not mean that planning permission should be refused on the basis of insufficient information—local authorities should still have a local plan policy for phone masts in general—but it would mean an end to part 24 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995.
Anyone who has tried to read that legislation will have found it to be full of gobbledegook. It is, perhaps, the worst drafted legislation that I have ever seen, and was obviously drafted by someone who had only a passing acquaintance with the English language. It is impossible to discern the policy behind the various exemptions; the legislation seems to have more to do with the interests and convenience of lobbyists than with sound planning policy.
Mr. Howarth raised two objections to that change, one of which was that scientific evidence should be a matter for central Government only. The trouble with that is that scientific evidence changes, and can do so rapidly. New studies are coming out all the time; the non-thermal effects of radiation are being considered by a number of research projects, so new information that will change our views might well appear before the end of the year. The Government change policy slowly, and that is one reason why we should give local authorities a greater role—to allow more rapid and flexible responses to changes in the evidence.
The hon. Gentleman's second objection was that local authority boundaries make them too small to have proper policies toward the roll-out of such technologies. I thought that the new regional spatial strategies were supposed to get round that problem and that the new planning systems should—
The hon. Gentleman should not misrepresent me. I said that local authority areas were too small to accommodate a strategy for mast sharing and roaming.
Yes, but regions are not too small for that, and regional spatial strategies should be allowed to take that sort of policy question into account.
Given what we have heard about the substantial increase in the number of masts that will be required in the next few years, does my hon. Friend agree that local development frameworks should include plans that deal with telecommunications, so that local communities can be involved in decisions about potential mast sites at that stage?
Yes, I do agree. The planning system should and does allow more participation than anything that the Government do with PPGs. At the heart of the question is PPG8, particularly the relationship between paragraphs 29 and 30. Paragraph 29 says:
"Health considerations and public concern can in principle be material considerations".
But paragraph 30 says:
"it is the Government's firm view that the planning system is not the place for determining health safeguards"— that was the point made by the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East—and that it
"remains central Government's responsibility to decide what measures are necessary to protect public health."
It then goes on to incorporate the ICNIRP standard into Government policy.
As it stands, that means simply that central Government do not trust local government to take such decisions. Oddly, in the T-Mobile case, central Government argued the opposite, and were told by the Court of Appeal that they had to stick to the original meaning of PPG8. The Court of Appeal was doing its job: telling central Government that if they want to change policy, they must do so by changing the PPG, not by reinterpreting it.
That idea that local authorities are subject to panic attacks because of the activity of pressure groups is unfair. It is not as if central Government are immune from similar panic attacks—for example, in the case of the Hatfield train crash, and the way in which central Government have dealt with terrorism. Local authority refusal rates, which worry the Government, arise out of the sense of powerlessness that several hon. Members, including Anne Milton, raised. What we need is simple guidance about how local authorities can be more enlightened in dealing with such planning matters.
The city that I represent, Cambridge, organised a seminar, or citizens jury, on phone masts and allowed evidence from both sides—both the companies and the pressure groups—to be brought. That came out with a series of moderate conclusions and a slightly stricter standard, and recommended that a dedicated officer of the local authority be appointed to deal with communications between the two sides. More power for local authorities does not mean outright bans or irrational policies.
The trouble is that at the moment, initiatives by local authorities can apply only to their role as landlords; because of PPG8, they cannot apply to their role as planning authorities. I gather that a similar problem has been faced in Stockport, where Mark Hunter, the leader of the council, has introduced policies to reduce the number of masts being erected in the borough, but is restricted by PPG8 to acting only in the local authority's role as a landlord. He cannot deal with the wider problem caused by central Government control—
Order. Would the hon. Gentleman like to wind up now, please, to give the other Opposition spokesman time to speak?
Yes, Mr. Olner. I will conclude briefly.
There is a call in some academic circles for the state to be a "cost-benefit state" that considers only the strictly objective risks. We need instead a cost-benefit society, in which members of society in general take into account the objective risks. The only way in which we can achieve that is by encouraging participation in local government, so that, from local responsibility, people learn how to deal with the costs and benefits of proposals such as phone masts.
Thank you for calling me, Mr. Olner; I will endeavour to ensure that the Minister can have his full 12 minutes of glory. It is a great pleasure to follow David Howarth, who was, I think, making a speech from the Front Bench for the first time. His speech was very reasonable. In particular, he was absolutely right when he congratulated my hon. Friend Mr. Clifton-Brown who, with his customary elegance of language, introduced this important issue for debate.
I confess that the elegance of my hon. Friend's language misled me for a moment. When he referred to the Government's inability to listen to their "interlocutors", I thought that he was introducing a new mobile phone concept, to join 3G and the others. Nevertheless, his point was extremely well made.
Members have pointed out with some elegance a difference that exists in the United Kingdom—between Scotland and Northern Ireland and the rest of us. Essentially, the rest of us are considerably worse off than Scotland and Northern Ireland. As my hon. Friend Mr. Burrowes pointed out, the number of mobile phone masts is growing, as is the number that he can see from his constituency office. The case for roaming is increasingly becoming one to which we need to have an answer. That is something that my party is actively considering as a policy.
The most noticeable thing about the debate was that despite all the knowledgeable contributions, not a single person spoke in favour of the existing policy. I hope that the Minister will take that into consideration. People want to redress the balance in favour of the people. At the moment, things are very much in the hands of the mobile phone companies.
My hon. Friend Anne Milton referred to the health issues raised by the Stewart report, but that report also raises the question of powers. The report says:
"Public telecommunications operators have been granted a number of rights similar to those enjoyed by gas, water and electricity companies . . . We believe this approach is not optimal since it does not allow adequately for the uncertainties in scientific knowledge", and
"the possibility of harm from exposures insufficient to cause important heating of tissues cannot yet be ruled out with confidence."
To improve matters, we need to address several key issues, the first of which is the question of full planning permission, which I note has the support of the all-party group on mobile communications.
My hon. Friend Mr. Horam talked most forcefully about a letter that he received from Orange that said, with the majesty of people who possess enormous powers, that the public are not concerned about such matters—they do not write to the company about them, and are quite content. That grossly misrepresents the situation. The public believe right now that masts must have planning permission, and they think that that actually is the system. It is a considerable shock to them to learn that it is not.
My hon. Friend is a great champion of local government. Does he agree that that confusion reduces the reputation of local authorities, because people find that they are powerless in areas where it was assumed that they had powers?
My hon. Friend makes a point that I was about to make; people look to their local councils for an answer and, in the words of my hon. Friend Mrs. Miller, they are simply not heard. That has an effect on the reputation not only of local government, but of government itself.
There must be a single process whereby the rail network, church property, and Tetra masts are all treated exactly the same. I cannot put it more elegantly than a publication containing community news in the Cheadle constituency, which says:
"Decisions about masts should be taken at a local level with residents' concerns taken into account—that is certainly something I will be fighting for."
That was written by Mr. Stephen Day. Until the evidence proves otherwise, we must take health into consideration.
Bodies such as the Local Government Association could disseminate best practice and exchange information, thereby ensuring that councils are fully informed of the scientific research. Mr. Howarth was dismissive about a dodgy PowerPoint presentation—it was not the first such presentation, and I dare say that it will not be the last—but he rightly said that it was important to consider the health issues. I entirely agree with him that we should take a precautionary approach.
Visual intrusiveness is also an important concern. If full planning permission were required, the operators of telecommunications masts would take such things much more seriously. The balance that I suggested would be then redressed, as the operators would pay greater attention to ensuring that the masts were not such an eyesore.
Above all, we need greater consistency. We want to assist councils to develop greater master sharing and to formulate joint approaches for the future of mast development. Equally, councils must recognise that a single larger shared site can sometimes be visually intrusive.
I shall finish by citing my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, who introduced this important debate. Two points that he made sum up what we need to do. My hon. Friend was right to say that politicians have a duty to listen to the public. He was equally right to say that in a democracy, the public should be consulted. In a participatory democracy where the politicians are responsible to the public, it is not just every four or five years that we are required to be responsible to them. The duty lies heavily on our shoulders, and we should never neglect it.
Good morning, Mr. Olner; it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I congratulate Mr. Clifton-Brown on securing the opportunity to debate the planning implications of mobile telecommunications masts. However, the passionate conclusion to his speech was devalued by his reference to his possible hon. Friend from Cheadle; that took the wind out of his arguments slightly.
There is clearly widespread interest in the subject of the debate. I hope to deal with most of the points that hon. Members have raised, although what I say may not be to their full satisfaction. First, I shall briefly respond to one or two points that are not dealt with in my speech.
I am grateful for the serious and balanced approach of my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth. His remarks helped to take the debate forward. I assure Jo Swinson that I am always happy to consider Scottish examples. My classic cockney accent may disguise my origins, but we do look at all the evidence. As far as classic cockney is concerned, "Oram" is probably the correct pronunciation of the surname of Mr. Horam, as well as of the acronym that he mentioned. I can reassure Mr. Burrowes that PPG8 requires the ICNIRP certificate to deal with the cumulative effect of several installations; I can give the appropriate reference in due course.
The Government have noted the calls for all mobile telephone mast development to require full planning permission. It is suggested that that would ensure that local councillors were clearly accountable and answerable for the location of masts. However, councils are already accountable for that. Ground-based masts are subject to full planning permission unless they are outside designated areas and less than 15 m high. Ground masts that are outside designated areas, and less than 15 m high, are subject to a prior approval process very similar to an application for planning permission. The difference is that if after 56 days the local planning authority has not made a formal decision, approval is deemed to be granted.
The hon. Member for Cotswold raised the question of strengthening prior approval arrangements. Before 1997 the consideration period for prior approval applications was only 28 days. After 1997 it became 46 days, and after 2001 it became 56 days. We have already strengthened the regulations twice. The hon. Gentleman also asked about a national database. The Stewart report, "Mobile Phones and Health", which I am sure he knows, recommended that information about mobile phone base stations should be made available. The Government accepted the recommendation and set up a national database, giving details of all base stations and their emissions, including those that did not require prior planning approval. The sitefinder database is maintained by Ofcom, and is available at www.sitefinder.radio.gov.uk. The information on the database is provided by the mobile phone network operators.
As for the question of a single process for all masts, as hon. Members know, as well as ground-based masts there are smaller installations that are less visually intrusive and more discreet. Such equipment may not need formal planning approval or permission. That might be because of the de minimis principle, which in the context of planning means that they are so small as not to constitute development, and cannot therefore be brought under the control of the planning system. Otherwise, they might constitute permitted development.
Permitted development rights are conferred on licensed communications code system operators. Outside designated areas, such companies are authorised under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 to install specified communications equipment without the need to make a planning application to the local authority. However, those rights do not mean that local authorities and communities cannot have a say. The operators have committed to annual roll-out discussions and local consultation for all installations.
Mr. Burstow mentioned the regulations in Scotland—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, because he is trying to get a lot into a short time, but the general permitted development rights cause a problem. Although councils may be consulted, they cannot refuse masts that come within that ambit unless they go through the cumbersome process of getting an article 4 direction. If that is refused, they have to pay compensation. That is a very cumbersome mechanism, and the Government need to look into it.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. As I shall explain later, we are still considering a variety of issues, and I am sure that that is one such issue.
Let me tell the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that although Scotland demands full planning permission for ground-based masts, there are permitted development rights for smaller installations. That change was made in response to the Stewart report in 2000, which was concerned that the prior approval period for smaller masts—46 days—did not allow for full consultation. In England, we strengthened the consultative requirements for ground-based masts up to 15 m high, so they are the same as those for full planning permission.
On the technological research, I briefly remind colleagues that on
Does the Minister not agree with Mr. Howarth that we should proceed on a precautionary basis? While the health evidence is so uncertain, should not we err on the side of caution?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but if he will allow me, I will come to the precautionary aspect, particularly in relation to health, in a moment.
An announcement on the outcome of the research that the Minister for Housing and Planning announced on
I turn now to supplementary planning guidance. On
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister commissioned a study from Reading university and Arup to assess what impact the code of best practice, which was published in 2002, has had since its introduction, and how the public perceive its operation. We have received the research report and are carefully considering its recommendations, and particularly how we might take them forward in the context of the wider review of the planning arrangements for telecommunications masts. We will publish the research report in due course as part of that wider review.
I turn now to the health concerns mentioned by many right hon. and hon. Members. Like them, the Government understand that public concern about the siting of mobile phone base stations is fuelled by health concerns. Let me assure hon. Members that the Government take seriously the need to protect the public from potential health risks.
We have had two major reviews of the evidence regarding health effects due to exposure to radiofrequency transmissions associated with mobile phone handsets and base stations. The first, by the independent expert group on mobile phones, was in 2000; the second, by the National Radiological Protection Board's advisory group on non-ionising radiation, was in 2004. Both reports concluded that the overall evidence indicates that mobile base stations are unlikely to pose a risk to health, because exposure levels are extremely low. However, both reports recognised that scientific uncertainty requires a precautionary approach to such technologies and further research. I assure hon. Members that any changes will continue to reflect the precautionary approach.
The Government established the mobile telephone health research programme, which is costing around £7.36 million and is jointly funded by Government and industry. We are currently considering continuing the programme, as recommended in the NRPB's report "Mobile Phones and Health", which was published in January.
I shall now refer to the comments that my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East made.
On the precautionary approach, I note that the Government's guidance to local education authorities refers to the beam of greatest intensity, and says that base station antennae should not be on school grounds without the agreement of the parents or the school—
I am sure that when the Government finish their consideration of the reports under review, the hon. Gentleman's comments will be covered.
In respect of health issues and planning, many people would like councils to be able to take health concerns into account more when making decisions about telecommunications developments. As has been mentioned, on
The Court of Appeal gave consideration to the policy guidance, and found the policy to mean that where a certificate of compliance with exposure guidelines exists, only in exceptional circumstances would it be legitimate for a local planning authority to take public fears about health risks into account. The First Secretary of State decided not to petition the House of Lords for leave to appeal, because the decision raises policy issues rather than significant points of law. Therefore, as part of the wider review of planning arrangements for telecommunications masts, we are carefully considering the judgment.
However, it is clear that local planning authorities cannot simply be allowed to adopt their own precautionary policies, as that would be a recipe for confusion. Indeed, the NRPB's recent report supports the Government's view that although planning is necessarily a local issue, the assessment of evidence related to possible health concerns associated with exposures to radio frequency fields from base stations is best dealt with nationally. The role of the planning system is to assist local communities in determining the best location for telecommunications developments. We believe that that can be achieved only through effective local consultation processes. That is why the Government will continue to consider local consultation as being of the utmost importance.
In conclusion, I reassure hon. Members that the Government remain committed to ensuring that the essential infrastructure for modern telecommunications systems is developed sensitively, with environmental impact kept to a minimum, and with proper discussion with local communities. Therefore, we continue to listen to public and parliamentary concerns, and to consider the way forward.