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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—