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10.43 pm

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) on securing the debate and giving the House an opportunity to discuss an important issue which, as he said, has caused concern not just in his constituency but far more widely.

The hon. Gentleman will, I hope, appreciate that because of the nature of the planning system, which enables cases to come to the Secretary of State on appeal, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on any individual cases. I shall therefore concentrate on the wider issues that he raised.

I confirm that our general policy on telecommunications development is to encourage and facilitate the roll-out of a modern national telecommunications network, while at the same time protecting the environment. The Government are also responsible for protecting public health. In recent years, public concern about the possible health implications of mobile phone masts--and, indeed, handsets--has been increasing. I shall try to address both issues.

The Government take the health concerns extremely seriously, which is why in 1999 they asked their statutory adviser, the National Radiological Protection Board, to set up an independent expert group on mobile phones. Under the chairmanship of Sir William Stewart, the group considered concerns about the health effects of the use of mobile phones, base stations and transmitters. It conducted a rigorous and comprehensive assessment of existing research and gathered a wide range of views. I shall return to that matter.

The telecommunications sector is a vital part of the UK economy. It currently represents 3 per cent. of gross domestic product and network operators employ more than 213,000 people. There are more than 32 million telephone exchange lines and, in addition, some 30 million mobile phone subscribers. However, those figures do not tell the whole story. Telecommunications also provides a business backbone. Many industries are improving their routes to market through use of advanced telecommunications, the internet being a prime example. Business efficiency is also helped by such things as e-mail, short messaging services, mobile communications and video conferencing. The Government have as one of their core objectives making the UK the best place in the world to do business electronically by 2002.

The growth in the UK mobile communications sector over the past 15 years has been remarkable, and that growth is set to continue with the third generation of mobile telecommunications systems about to come on stream. A modern network brings a number of social and economic benefits, but the drive to develop the industry must be balanced against environmental objectives. The Government attach great importance to keeping to a minimum the environmental intrusion caused by telecoms network development. The land use planning system provides the tool to achieve that balance.

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Licensed telecommunications code system operators are authorised by the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, commonly referred to as the GPDO, to install specified telecommunications apparatus without needing to make a planning application to the local authority. However, our current planning framework includes well-established policies to protect the countryside and urban areas--in particular, our national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and sites of special scientific interest. The installation of any telecommunications mast in such areas is subject to a requirement to submit a planning application. In addition, a planning application is required for the installation of any telecommunications mast in excess of 15 m in height, wherever it is to be sited.

Mr. Bob Russell (Colchester): Does the Minister agree that many objections from residents result from the blank cheque planning permission granted by the previous Government? If the present Government amended the legislation to require planning permission to be sought for even the smallest mast, that would go a long way to appease residents such as those in St. John's ward in Colchester, who oppose such an application.

Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman anticipates a point that I shall come to in a moment. I assure him and the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam that I shall deal with it.

The GPDO approach nevertheless incorporates safeguards for other types of telecommunications development, including masts not exceeding 15 m in height. The main safeguard is provided through what is known as the prior approval procedure, which gives the local planning authority an opportunity to consider the siting and appearance of telecom masts.

The local planning authority has 28 days to carry out that process in respect of masts not exceeding 15 m in height on buildings or other structures. Following amendments to paragraph 24 of the GPDO in 1999, we extended that period to 42 days in respect of ground-based masts not exceeding 15 m in height and required the operator to erect a site notice to publicise the development proposed. Those amendments were introduced to provide the public with a clear opportunity to comment to the authority on the siting and appearance of ground-based masts.

Local planning authorities are strongly encouraged to undertake any additional publicity that they consider necessary to give people likely to be affected by the proposed development an opportunity to make their views known. Where the local authority considers that the proposed development would have a detrimental effect on local amenity, it is able to refuse approval. I have not completed my remarks on that subject, and shall come back to it later, so I hope that hon. Members will bear with me.

One concern often expressed is the proliferation of telecom masts. Indeed, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam specifically raised that issue. Planning policy guidance underlines the Government's view that the number of telecoms masts should be kept to the minimum consistent with an efficient network. Our policy is to encourage mast and site sharing, while recognising that it may not be the optimum environmental solution in every

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case. A couple of slim and unobtrusive masts, for example, may well be better than one cluttered one. In general, however, the principle is to encourage mast-sharing and limit the number of new masts to the minimum consistent with the objective of establishing an efficient network created

Consideration of sharing is the starting point and conditions attached to individual operating licences granted by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry include a requirement to investigate mast sharing before seeking to put up any new mast.

Mr. Burstow: Given that a condition is attached to the licences, will the Minister tell the House whether or not the DTI has arrangements to monitor compliance with that condition to ensure that that happens?

Mr. Raynsford: That is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry: I am more than happy to discuss it with him and write to the hon. Gentleman. I shall come on to the important issue of the arrangements that we are making for monitoring in a moment.

The Government expect operators to provide evidence to the local planning authority that they have considered the use of existing masts, buildings or other structures before seeking to erect any new mast, regardless of size. With evidence on the suitability of alternative sites, the operator can discuss with the local planning authority, at an early stage, whether a shared mast would be the preferable solution for a particular development.

As well as base station location, sympathetic design has a key part to play in minimising the impact of telecommunications development on the environment. The Government are keen to see operators working together to investigate the use of new technologies, materials and designs that will allow masts to complement or merge unobtrusively into their surroundings. The hon. Gentleman and many other hon. Members will know of imaginative approaches that have been adopted including, in one extreme case, an installation on Guildford cathedral concealed in the figure of an angel. Such possibilities will be appropriate and entirely satisfactory in some cases, but not, perhaps, in others. However, that area needs to be pursued.

We are sure that there is scope for further work to develop new and more sympathetic mast designs, drawing lessons from successful design, siting and landscaping solutions in this country and abroad. If operators can give local planning authorities and local people an idea of potential design solutions for particular sites, that will help to promote better dialogue and a collaborative approach to devising effective environmental solutions and help to make mast development more acceptable to the public.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues in the DTI whether a procedure or guideline could be issued? An advertisement from suppliers or manufacturers could state what they wanted and what the network expected. In effect, it would ask for tenders from individuals who would conform with the design requirements and fit in with the local authority conditions. People would be interested in doing that because there

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might be some commercial benefit. I know people who would welcome the opportunity to have a mast in an appropriate place, and would far rather that such a development was led by the landlord, rather than by an initiative on behalf of the mobile phone operator.

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