Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001

MR ALAN MEYER, MS JULIE MATHEW AND MS CHRISTINE MANGAT

  40. That is a bit of a combination. You did not mention nuclear power, which is usually one factor that is brought up. Do I understand you correctly? Are you saying that because something cannot be proved to be 110 per cent safe you do not want it?
  (Ms Mathew) No. I understand that you cannot prove something to be 100 per cent safe. I believe the situation is worse than that. We do not even know whether it is slightly safe or not. We are in an unknown area.

  41. We have heard one of the most distinguished scientists in the United Kingdom giving evidence this morning. He was far more cautious about the lack of safety than you appear to be. He speaks on the basis of considerable research. Is there not a danger that you are taking a rather alarmist approach?
  (Ms Mathew) I do not think so.
  (Ms Mangat) There are other scientific opinions that would contradict that. Those scientists are internationally renowned people too. I do not think that we can make up our minds on the basis of one opinion.

  42. The opinion was representative of a committee of a fairly stellar group of scientists whose reputations are of a worldwide character. I do not want to play ping-pong with you, but we are trying to establish a basis for the concerns that organisations like yours reflect.
  (Ms Mangat) But he did acknowledge that there is a risk.

  43. From the experience that you have had of the operators, who are really the problem, Orange and One-to-One seem to be rather low on people's affection ratings, if I can put it that way. Is that a fair summation? Do you find that they are perhaps less sensitive than other companies?
  (Mr Meyer) Generally there have been a number of highlighted cases where Orange masts have appeared in the middle of the night without anybody knowing. Of course, that has caused concern. You need to know that Mast Action UK is not totally destructive; it is also constructive. We have been holding a series of discussions with the industry with regard to the way forward that may provide some way that would achieve the roll-out infrastructure that is necessary, but without causing the anxiety and stress which, due to the way things have been done on many occasions, has undoubtedly been caused. The problem is that until recently, until before the Stewart report, there were concerns, both here and abroad that there may be some adverse health effects that could explain headaches, nosebleeds, temporary memory loss, nausea and so on. There was a lot of what the NRPB described as anecdotal evidence from a wide range of people, but Sir William Stewart and his expert group came to the conclusion that the well-being of people could be impacted by other means. Certainly, until the Stewart report, most of the concern was about the fact of the possible adverse health effect on children, in particular. More recently, it has become clear that not only is there the adverse health effect possibility—I stress that it is no higher than a question mark—but there is also a belief by a lot of people that the masts do not have to be placed within sensitive locations. With proper consultation and taking other people's rights into account, which previously did not exist in the English courts, there is no need to find that, because of planning regulations, a low mast appears outside your front door or maybe a high mast outside your back door, and you then find that your property values have disappeared out of the window overnight without any consultation. I think that now many groups across the country are concerned with regard to more than one issue. They are totally concerned and anxious about possible health effects. I certainly think that the Stewart report highlighted that stress was a factor on some people's well-being. The further research that the Government has announced by the Department of Health has, to some degree, stressed that part of the Stewart report that said that there was a need for robust research into the relevant issues. As a lawyer, I find it extremely surprising, after all these years, that there is no published research studies showing the effects of long-term 24-hour a day exposure on people close to a mast. We know that in Switzerland the Schwarzenberg study showed exactly similar sorts of symptoms. When the situation was investigated, by a fluke—I stress that it was a fluke—it was found that most people in the study of 4,000 carried out by the University of Berne showed, over a period of four or five days, that surprisingly they felt better. About a year and a half later it was discovered that the transmitter mast—not a mobile phone mast—had failed for those four or five days. Thereafter the cantonal government of Berne closed down the mast immediately because of the effects which then disappeared. Those effects were all totally similar to the alleged possible effects from mobile phone masts when they are erected. We do not know the answer. All we know is that the European Union has said that where the science is incomplete and inconclusive, where it is practical you should maintain the precautionary approach. There must be a balancing exercise, of course, because there is the need for the roll-out but there is also the need to take into account people's anxieties and stress. There have been two very recent planning inspectors' decisions that have shown that one does have to do a balancing exercise.

Mr Cunningham

  44. Do you consider the planning system is adequate to deal with the health issue?
  (Mr Meyer) Recently there has been some confusion in the planning field as a result of a letter written by the planning Minister on 29 June, which was interpreted by most local planners as meaning that you cannot consider adverse health issues further. I took that up with the DETR and there is a clarifying letter, saying that that is not what is meant. Recently there have been many planning application cases in which the planning committee have said, "We are not permitted to consider objections on adverse health grounds". It is two planning inspectors' decisions and they make it quite clear now that you need to do a balancing exercise between perceived network need to infill or increase capacity against, perhaps, potential local residents harm. These are new. They are very different. Maybe they have some reflections on the possible effect of Article 8 and the Human Rights Act and the European convention which says that you have to show that it is necessary if you are going to interfere with people's rights.

  45. What you are really saying in effect is that if public opinion had reached a conclusion, the planning authority system will have to take health aspects into consideration, given the fact that you can have a local authority, as it were, a planning authority, going along with public opinion. Do you not think that there will be a build up to this being a major consideration?
  (Mr Meyer) I think that these decisions seem to show a change. They are appeals which previously might well have been granted but they were rejected and the reasoning in those decisions is very interesting to read because it does take into account in one of them, the Harrow case, what the courts have said, the Court of Appeal, not just any old court, the Court of Appeal said in 1997, in the Newport case and in the Tandridge case that genuine public fear and concern, whether irrational and whether based on evidence or not, is a material planning consideration which a planning authority needs to weigh against lots of other planning considerations. Clearly, the Government's view is a very fair view but it still has to be weighed by the local planning authority and locally as to what the situation is. I think if you understand these planning applications for masts over 15 metres in height, most of the applications say, "We investigated six or eight other sites and this is our preferred one" and maybe they will be told, "Maybe in due course, taking into account local considerations, you will have to bat at number six as opposed to number one in future".

  46. Do you have a view about the Stanmore and South Ockendon cases?
  (Mr Meyer) The Stanmore case is in the London Borough of Harrow and I think that the local planning authority came to the right conclusion and the inspector upheld it.

Mr Chope

  47. How do you feel about an ombudsman? Professor Stewart touched on that subject earlier this morning.
  (Mr Meyer) It is always helpful these days to have recourse to somebody outside because whatever anybody may think, Mast Action UK is trying to be reasonable and to plot a path somewhere down the middle where you can have proper masts and you can have proper safety and lack of stress in people's homes. There is no doubt that in other countries, the roll-out has been carried out in different ways with many much higher masts, which might be preferable in many situations. I think it was touched upon about churches. Churches generally, subject to contours of the land, are usually at a high point and maybe an antenna either on or in a church steeple will go above most people's heads. Maybe that is a better solution. But certainly Orange in Switzerland have masts at between 25 and 40 metres in height in consultation with the local communities there. I suspect that part of the problem here has been GDPO which encourages masts at below 15 metres in height which naturally will be outside people's bedroom windows and children's classrooms and things like that. People fear what it might mean after BSE. Certainly, there have been other fears. I think, very pertinently, there have been for years and years, as Sir William stated, denials that power lines could have any impact whatsoever and that, I know has been going on for at least 35 years, and now they come out and say, "Well, maybe we were wrong".

Chairman

  48. Have you read the report on power lines? My understanding is that it is not quite as definitive as that?
  (Mr Meyer) No, it says "possibly".

  49. This is a sort of linking of all the things that you do not like and coming up with a conclusion which has no scientific approach?
  (Mr Meyer) No, but this is what the public concerned about. It may not be scientific but the scientific approach to BSE turned out to be completely wrong and there is a concern that maybe with mobile phones, if you have 24-hour exposure to a mast outside your front door, maybe it does have a biological effect. Nobody is suggesting for one moment that the thermal guidelines are wrong. The suggestion is that maybe thermal is not the right guideline.

Mr Cunningham

  50. But do you have a view about an ombudsman?
  (Mr Meyer) I am always in favour of ombudsmen. They are a lost resort for somebody and is someone who is outside the bias of all sides.

Ms Perham

  51. Do you oppose all masts on school buildings?
  (Mr Meyer) No, sometimes it is better to have it on top of a school building than in a field adjoining. But you cannot oppose everything because there is no doubt that children go to school with mobile phones. As Christopher Chope suggested earlier, people's lives are saved by mobile phones. There are a lot of pluses but there appear to be a few minuses which perhaps could be avoided.

Chairman

  52. Perhaps you would like to come in on this?
  (Ms Mathew) Our position has always been that we are against the unnecessary and insensitive siting of these masts. The majority of these cases that we represent, the mast has been put on a school playing field close to classrooms or at the bottom of somebody's garden when it could have gone 500 or 1,000 metres along into open country. People see an alternative and do not understand why that is not possible.

Ms Perham

  53. There is a real problem with this, is there not, because you may have heard me ask Sir William, when he was giving his evidence, if you have got densely populated areas, where are there going to be sensitive sites as opposed to insensitive sites and if you are not near open fields, how are you going to find the right site? How will that come about, do you think?
  (Ms Mathew) I think a possible way forward is to have very tall masts on the top of tall buildings so you take it above the population but not to have lamp-posts five metres from a child's bedroom window. I think that there are alternatives.

  54. Whose job is it to find the alternatives? Is it the job of the industry?
  (Ms Mathew) I think it should be done by consultation. We have been talking with the industry and other representative bodies on a national scale and also locally, to work with the communities to look for a way forward, not just with the local planning authority but with other members of the community. There are clearly always alternative sites that are acceptable to all parties concerned. But in many cases, where there has been controversy, it is because the cheapest and best option for the phone company has been chosen above all other options.

  55. The problem is that other people will not accept the alternative site and one of the cases that you forwarded to us was about the deal between Herts County Council and Orange to put them on lamp-posts but you are not in favour of that?
  (Ms Mathew) No. The trust is not in favour of that. In fact, a lot of our cases are lamp-post masts. People have a fear of having those, sometimes, 5 metres from their child's bedroom window, which is totally unacceptable to them.

Chairman

  56. It was suggested that in children's classrooms, there are higher levels of radiation than there should be. What should we do about that?
  (Ms Mathew) I am sure they do. As I understand it, there is a difference between that and mobile phone radiation, which is digitally pulsed. But I am sure that if my child was expected to sit in front of a computer for the six hours a day that he was in school, I would be concerned. But that is not what is happening. They spend shorter amounts of time. There is different radiation and there is also the question of exposure. If you are living near a mast, it is 24 hours a day.

Mr Chope

  57. Can I go back to the issue we were discussing earlier in relation to planning that irrational public fear is a relevant planning consideration? How do you feel that that should be reflected in the planning policy guidance. Surely, you can whip up public hysteria about something and it would seem that we are in danger of having a planning rule which would encourage opponents of a mast to get large numbers of people on the basis of perhaps irrational fears, with signed petitions, and whip up opposition to a mast and then that becomes a ground for refusing planning permission whereas people who are not similarly whipped up will find that they have a mast outside their house. What do you feel about that?
  (Mr Meyer) I think there are real dangers in the whole situation but I think you have to rely on the fact that there is a certain amount of common sense usually present in a local planning authority's planning and development and control committee. There are problems but I think that the main problem has been that there was never sufficient or, in many instances, any consultation with the local community at all. It is not sufficient for the mobile phone network operator's agent, it is very rarely the operators themselves, to go along and chat with one planning officer. I think that the feeling is that to do it properly, you need to be able to raise the issues. I do not want to get too legalistic about it because I think we would be on very dangerous ground. But the fact is that since 2nd October, a public authority, a planning authority, you have to be entitled to a fair, impartial and independent hearing. If you are told that you cannot consider possible adverse health effects, then that would probably not be in accordance with the law. However, how much weight a planning authority places on it, it was quite clear in the Tandridge case, Lord Justice Schiemann states that it is common ground that genuine public fear is a material planning consideration but he then added quite properly and quite fairly that how much weight a local planning authority places on it is a matter for them. We believe that if there were two things, firstly, full planning for all masts but secondly that the network operator perhaps had to set out in his planning application what local consultations had been conducted in advance, a large amount of the problems would disappear because, as Ms Perham said, there are different constituencies and different thinking in a local planning authority's area. We have really considered this for a very long time. There are different parameters which may apply in an rural constituency where you can put a mast outside a village and not necessarily bang in the centre. That is much more difficult in a conurbation but most conurbations have very tall buildings within them and you can put them on the roofs, as they do in many countries abroad. They put them on the roof and that, to some degree, overcomes the problem. In Denmark, there was a great row about a mast put on the roof of a block of flats over the head of a member of the Danish Government. He was absolutely furious about this mast on his roof. He had this checked out by the University of Aarhus to see whether it was safe and he was delighted when he found that the only emissions were likely to affect the opposite tower block and one of his political opponents lived there. It is very difficult, but certainly the feeling is that masts' beams drop at an angle of 6 degrees, as stated in the Stewart Report, and if they are very high, by the time they come to first-floor bedroom windows and things like that, they will be a long way away. We do not know. That is the problem. At Sir William's launch meeting for research applications, Dr Michael Repacholi said, "The only projects we are interested in deal with the biological effects. Nobody is interested in thermal heating. We know about that". That is what the public are concerned about; that the guidelines could possibly be the wrong guidelines, not that they are wrong about thermal heating but that the biological effects, if there are any, and I would stress that we do not know, so I think it is very difficult.

  58. The only significance, in terms of human rights, is that it gives you a say?
  (Mr Meyer) I think it gives you two things. I think it gives you a right to a say and I think a lot of people would feel much happier if they did have a right to a say. That is very useful. But we often have no choice. Let us suppose that somebody puts a mast outside the back of my garden and I then want to sell my house. The estate agents give my potential purchasers six sets of particulars. They go round in their car and see a mast at the end of the garden. They will not even look at the house in future. You could be in negative equity. You are in an impossible situation. So there is the article which says you have a right to a say, or may be it does. We have to wait and see what a judge says. But the second thing is that Article 8, which has always been in existence but nobody would trek to Strasburg to find out the answer five years later, says, together with the first protocol, Article 1, that you have a right to respect for private and family life, your possessions and your correspondence. I do not think we are very interested in correspondence but Article 1 makes it quite clear that "possessions" include your home which is, presumably, your major possession. It says quite clearly in Article 8(2) that in the public interest, that Article 1 right can be interfered with if it is necessary. What we think is important is for both the network operator and, I suspect, for the local planning authority too, because a public authority cannot do an act which is incompatible with convention rights, to take into account that you need to look at the alternatives and to make a choice in the interests of the community. It will mean that somebody's NIMBY approach will not work. Somebody else's might, we do not know. But these are changes which have come about since Stewart and which take into account possible adverse health effects as being something that at least you can discuss, for what it is worth, and there may be adverse property implications which could be more important to a lot of people. But I do not want to get too involved in the law because we do not know the answer, do we?

Chairman

  59. A lot of the problems started way before October of last year, did they not?
  (Mr Meyer) I know.



 
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