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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.