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Telecommunications Masts

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:31 am on 28th June 2005.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Minister, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister 10:31 am, 28th June 2005

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—