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Telecommunications Masts

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 9:30 am, 28th June 2005

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 3 July 2004, the all-party group on mobile communications said that approach could be best achieved by subjecting all masts to full planning permission because that would result in

"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—