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Mr. Luff: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what assessment he has made of the impact of the closure of the British Waterways' canal network on the leisure boating and narrow boat rental sectors; and if he will make a statement. [153820]

Mr. Robert Ainsworth [holding answer 15 March 2001]: British Waterways (BW) closed access to all its waterways located in affected and restricted areas from the beginning of the month to help limit the spread of foot and mouth disease. The closure applies where county councils have taken powers to close rights of way and prevents all non-essential use of the waterways concerned.

The Government have established a task force chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment to consider the implications of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease for the rural economy. The implications for the canal network (and other waterways) will be within the ambit of this group which will be considering whether and where it is safe to reopen rights of way, including waterways. The task force will also help those caught up in the crisis and measures to help the rural economy once the outbreak has been eradicated.

Millennium Dome

Mr. Peter Ainsworth: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1) what progress has been made towards selling the dome; and if he will make a statement; [154236]

Ms Armstrong: English Partnerships have received more than a hundred informal expressions of interest for the dome and the regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsula, which they are exploring through discussions. As announced on 15 February 2001, Official Report, column 221W, the Government want openly to test the market for future uses of the dome. As part of this, English Partnerships have been asked to consider all options and mechanisms for the future use of the dome. Further details of future arrangements for taking this process forward will be announced as soon as possible.

Strategic Rail Authority

Mr. Drew: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will make a statement on the future role of the Strategic Rail Authority. [153907]

Mr. Hill: The purposes of the Strategic Rail Authority are set out in section 205 of the Transport Act 2000. The SRA published on 13 March its Strategic Plan which sets out how it will further these purposes. Copies have been placed in the House Library.

Mr. Drew: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will list the terms of appointment of the Chairman, Vice-Chairman and other board members of the Strategic Rail Authority. [153908]

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Mr. Hill: I have placed copies of the terms of appointment of the Chairman and other members of the Strategic Rail Authority in the Libraries of the House.

Rail Franchises

Mr. Drew: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will make a statement on progress with regard to the awarding of new rail franchises and the role being played by OPRAF. [153909]

Mr. Hill: The Strategic Rail Authority has taken over the functions of OPRAF. Franchise replacement is taking longer than originally anticipated in some cases but remains a priority for the Government and the Authority. The replacement process remains essential to delivering service improvements to passengers and the potential benefits are already clear in the new proposals for the Chiltern and South Central franchises.

Mr. Drew: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will list the applicants for the Wessex Rail franchise; and when a decision is expected on the successful bidder. [153910]

Mr. Hill: The Strategic Rail Authority announced on 2 March that Connex Transport UK Ltd., First Group Plc, GB Railways Group Plc, Group 4 Falck Global Solutions Ltd., National Express Group Plc, SBB Laing and Stagecoach Holdings Plc had prequalified to submit proposals for the Wessex franchise. There is no set timetable for awarding this new franchise.

Waste Recycling

Mr. Loughton: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will list the rates of recycling of household waste achieved by local authorities in England. [154211]

Mr. Robert Ainsworth: I refer the hon. Member to the reply given on 1 March 2001, Official Report, columns 722-23W, in which we referred to the publication of the "Guidance on Municipal Waste Management Strategies" containing household waste recycling rates for local authorities in England. Copies of the guidance have been deposited in the House of Commons Library and have been sent to all English local authorities.

Telecommunication Masts

Angela Smith: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what steps he is taking following responses to the consultation paper on telecommunications mast development; and if he will make a statement. [154519]

Mr. Raynsford: I am today announcing a series of important changes to the planning system on the siting of mobile phone masts. We will:

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A modern communications system brings massive benefits to people and businesses alike. Nearly 40 million people--60 per cent. of the UK population--use mobile phones. They enjoy the convenience and accessibility they provide. Parents and children feel more secure because of them. Mobile phones have saved lives--they allow the emergency services to be called immediately when they are needed. None of this could happen without the masts and other infrastructure which enable the service to be delivered.

But people are concerned about where masts are located. It is vital that masts are designed and sited sensitively so that their environmental impact is kept to a minimum. Local people must have a better opportunity than now to have their say on proposals for mast development.

We recognise too that there is public concern about the possibility of health effects associated with mobile phone masts. That is why the Government set up the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (chaired by Sir William Stewart) which published its report in May last year. The report suggested that the current planning requirements for masts of 15 metres and below did not allow adequate public consultation. It further suggested that lack of consultation was a major cause of grievance in people who suffer a loss of amenity when base stations are erected.

We therefore intend to strengthen the current public consultation requirements for masts of 15 metres and under to incorporate exactly the same requirements as for masts over that size and for other development requiring applications for planning permission.

To give local planning authorities more time to consult local people we shall increase the amount of time they have to determine prior approval applications for ground-based masts and those on buildings from 42 and 28 days respectively to a uniform 56 days. In addition, we shall extend the prior approval arrangements to cover antennas on roofs where the height of the antenna (including any supporting structure) would exceed 4 metres.

Under the new arrangements, local planning authorities will be expected to make their decisions within 56 days. Authorities will still be able to turn down mast applications where they do not consider amenity aspects have been adequately addressed. If they have not made a decision within 56 days, approval will be deemed to have been granted. This discipline is needed because many authorities are failing to meet their Best Value target to determine 80 per cent. of planning applications in eight weeks and delay cannot be justified.

In recognition of the extra demands which improved consultation will make of authorities we propose to increase the fee payable by developers for prior approval applications from £35 to £190 so that authorities have more resources to handle them.

These changes represent a considerable strengthening of the current arrangements. We shall introduce them, and revised national planning policy guidance, at the earliest opportunity. The guidance will underline our commitment to encouraging mast and site sharing, where that represents the best environmental solution, to minimise proliferation of masts. It will also emphasise the

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Government's view that telecommunications development must be taken forward through partnership between the operator, the local planning authority and the local community. The revised guidance will make it clear that governing bodies must be consulted on all proposals to site masts on or near schools and colleges.

We welcome the commitments which the operators have made to develop, with other stakeholders, clear standards and procedures to deliver significantly improved consultation with local communities. For example, operators will initiate the process as early as possible by discussing optimum design and siting solutions even before applications for masts are submitted. We shall want to ensure that these commitments are implemented and followed in every case. We will underpin the arrangements with a new Code of Practice developed with the operators and representatives of local government. I intend to call in the operators shortly to discuss next steps.

The Stewart Report concluded that

The Government have already taken forward a range of precautionary actions in response to the Group's Report. These include:

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In addition, the Department of Health has published leaflets on mobile phones, base stations and health to give people the latest information and advice. The Department for Education and Employment has also issued information to schools and local education authorities regarding mobile phones, base stations and schools. This has been published on their website:

It is the Government's responsibility to decide what measures are necessary to protect public health. It remains the Government's firm view that the planning system is not the appropriate mechanism for determining health safeguards. I have outlined the measures being taken on a precautionary basis. In the Government's view, if a proposed development meets the ICNIRP guidelines it should not be necessary for a local planning authority, in processing an application, to consider the health aspects further. This view will be reiterated in our revised planning policy guidance.

I believe that the improvements to the planning arrangements announced today meet the concerns of the Stewart Group and others about public consultation on masts and strike the right balance by giving people a better opportunity to voice their views without hindering unnecessarily the development of a modern telecommunications network. We shall continue to keep the whole area of mobile phone technologies under review in the light of further research.

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