Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Royal Town Planning Institute

SUBMISSION TO DETR CONSULTATION PAPER

  The Institute welcomes this opportunity to comment on the consultation paper published on 31 July by the Minister for Housing and Planning.

  We have consulted widely on the paper within our membership—particularly including the appropriate specialist topic panels as well as our regional branches. Additionally, the Institute has received numbers of representations on the issues from members working in local authorities and in the telecommunications industry. On consideration of these views, I am able to offer the following observations.

GENERAL COMMENTS

  1.  The consultation document, including as it does a draft revision of PPG8 "Telecommunications", is a substantial one, which gets down to a considerable level of detail. In all this, it is easy to forget the background to the current concerns over the proliferation of telecommunications equipment and lose track of the central issues. In the Institute's view, these are:

    —  the uncertainty over the potential effects of telecommunications equipment on human health, and whether it is appropriate, in the circumstances, to use the planning system to address public health concerns; and

    —  the consequent need to adopt the precautionary principle in taking a view on new developments.

  2.  Alongside these issues, of course, are the planning system's more traditional concerns with environmental impact, and the need for some transparent and publicly acceptable mechanism for appraisal of the environmental effects of what, by their nature, are going to be highly visible developments, often in areas with an intrinsically attractive environment. In this context, it seems strange to the Institute that there was no attempt to appraise the environmental implications of the third generation of telecommunications licences before the Government invited operators to enter into the bidding process.

  3.  Public concern about telecommunications development when the first edition of PPG8 was published in 1988 focussed most significantly on the visual amenity aspects. Since then there have been major technological advances, reducing the size of equipment but also a dramatic increase in the number of operators and the extent of their networks and hence in the quantity of development. These considerations have however been overtaken by much wider concerns about the possible health effects of mobile phone technology. These concerns reflected fears particularly about the possible effects of electromagnetic fields around base stations and transmitters.

  4.  In September 1999, the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee published its report on "The Scientific Advisory System: Mobile Phones and Health". The Institute read the report with interest and considered that the planning system was not equipped to assess the health impact of such installations individually. It was firmly of the view that this is a matter that can only be done by Government, which would then set clear guidance to the planning system. Simply whether such equipment is safe or whether there should be safeguarding arrangements around such equipment is a matter for which the Government must have, and take, the responsibility to assess nationally. It should not be left to the judgement and discretion of individual local authorities.

  5.  Public scepticism about science in the light of food and other experiences must also be recognised. This is one of the reasons why the Institute had pressed consistently for the Government to invest resources in independent research into the health implications of telecommunications equipment. It is clear that the precautionary principle must be based on an assessment of risk, not simply fears and perceptions.

  6.  The Institute therefore welcomed the Government asking the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) to set up the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones (IEGMP). This Group published its report in May and the Government promptly welcomed the report and accepted many of its recommendations and particularly accepted the precautionary approaches advised by the report.

  7.  Publication of the Stewart Report raised public expectations that planning permission could and should be refused for telecommunications equipment, simply on the precautionary principle. Subsequently, on 29 June Nick Raynsford, the Minister for Housing and Planning wrote to all council leaders in England advising them of the impending new measures and guidance (the current consultation). He particularly advised that local planning authorities should continue to deal with planning applications for telecommunications on the basis of the current list of arrangements and policy guidance and considered that the decisions by some authorities to propose a ban on mobile phone applications on health grounds was wholly unjustified.

  8.  Much of the current consultation's revised guidance is based on the Stewart Group's approach. Application of the precautionary principle means that the safety of equipment should be established before planning permission is granted. The Institute has long been clear that this safety issue should be addressed by Government and the Radio Communications Agency—and that it is totally inappropriate for the planning system, or individual local planning authorities to be the place for testing the safety of equipment. Commenting, in February 1999, on a consultation draft circular on "Land use planning and electromagnetic fields (EMFs)", from the DETR and the Department of Health, the Institute said:

      "The potential dangers from the effects of EMFs are a national problem. It should not be left to individual LPAs to assess the risk, based on a WHO report. Clear guidance is required to deal with the situation satisfactorily. Such guidance can only come from the Departments of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and Health. Sadly, in the Institute's view the draft circular fails to fit the bill.".

  9.  The unsatisfactory situation is exacerbated by the Institute's concerns about the way that the land use planning system is expected to deal with applications for telecommunications developments although as indicated previously, initially, these concerns were on siting and visual amenity grounds. There are substantial reservations about the concept of special permitted development rights being available to statutory undertakers, of any sort, when they are in a competitive situation. This is likely to lead to a proliferation, and duplication, of facilities (something which the Department appears to be anxious to avoid—see paragraph 37 of the paper). The Institute considers that the prior notification approach, in general, is unsatisfactory. Matters should either be permitted development, or require specific planning permission.

DETAILED COMMENTS

PART 1. INTRODUCTION

  10.  Paragraphs 2-3: The quoted sections of the Stewart Report provide far from conclusive evidence on the safety of equipment and installations, from a public health viewpoint. This is not reassuring, underlines the need for the adoption of the precautionary approach, and is immediately at odds with the extent of "control" available to local planning authorities through Part 24 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order—the GPDO.

PART 3. BACKGROUND

Context

  11.  Paragraph 10: A slightly cynical view might regard this paragraph as instructive! The Institute would not wish to belittle the importance of the telecommunications industry to employment, business efficiency and the economy in general. But the Government objective of "making the UK the best place in the world to do business electronically" is not an excuse to take shortcuts in addressing public health concerns, assessing environmental impact, or denying proper consultation through the planning process.

PART 4. CONSULTATION

Question 1: Do you think that greater public consultation could be achieved within the current prior approval procedures, or is it necessary to remove permitted development rights as recommended by the Stewart Group? If the former, how could this be achieved?

  12.  The Institute can express a clear preference for the removal of the prior approval procedures. It is also of the view that the permitted development rights are inconsistent with adequate public consultation. Paragraph 16 acknowledges that present arrangements represent a major advantage to mobile 'phone operators—they can "work to a definite timescale". Other developers could make the same case, but this does not absolve them, or the LPA, from the need to make considered decisions, in the public interest.

  13.  Even if clear Government guidance were available on the public health issues surrounding telecommunications developments, there is now such a great public awareness of the issues that proposals need to be handled transparently through the normal process of determining planning applications. The main problems with the prior notification approach are its low public profile, compared with a planning application, and the shortage of time—28, or even 42 days—available for consultation and the false impression it gives the public over the extent of planning control available. If the latter were extended to a more reasonable 56 days, to give the LPA time for the appropriate level of consultation, much of the apparent time savings to operators would be lost anyway.

Question 2: Do you agree that mobile phone operators and other telecommunications code system operators should be treated in the same way by planning procedures?

  14.  All applicants should be treated equally. It is a basic principle of planning practice that it is the proposal that counts, not the applicant. Attempting to distinguish between macrocells, microcells and picocells, between proposals inside rather than outside a building, and one class of applicant as against another, will make an already complicated situation impossible, especially for the public as consultee. The Institute proposes, very strongly, that the standard interpretation of what constitutes development should be applied, and the nature of the applicant ignored.

  15.  Telecommunications installations can have considerable adverse impact on residential amenity, townscape and the character of the countryside. The potential adverse effects have to be considered fairly, alongside the social and economic benefits of the development, and the LPA given the opportunity to strike the right balance. Greater control will put LPAs in a stronger position to encourage code operators to explore more fully the ways of reducing the impact of their proposals.

Question 3: Do you think that the construction and installation of any ground based telecommunications mast should be subject to an application for planning permission?

  16.  The Institute is not persuaded by the arguments in paragraph 32, and takes the view that all ground-based masts, irrespective of height, should require specific planning approval. Why should potential loss of profits to telecommunications operators be considered any more seriously than to any other prospective developer? The planning system is in place to serve the public interest, and in the case of ground based masts we are talking about environmental and amenity issues that have become the mainstay of that system.

Question 4: Do you think that the alteration or replacement of a ground-based mast already installed should be permitted except where the alteration or replacement would result in the mast being higher than the original mast? If so, where a mast would be higher than the original mast, should its alteration or replacement be permitted subject to prior approval, or should an application for planning permission be required?

  17.  If any ground-based mast should be the subject of a planning application, the same logic should be applied to alterations, though this may well be qualified by reference to a material change in appearance, or similar.

Question 5: Do you think that the construction and installation of any telecommunications mast on a building or other structure should be subject to an application for planning permission?

  18.  Masts on buildings can have considerable visual impact, dependent on size and style. Lattice style masts have the greatest impact, and should be the subject of a planning application. There is an argument that slimline, flagpole masts may be permitted development dependent on size and number, but this reintroduces complexity. On the other hand, permitted development rights can be used to "encourage" the installation of particular types of mast over those that require specific permission.

Question 6: Do you think that the alteration or replacement of a mast on a building or other structure should be permitted except where the alteration or replacement would result in the mast being higher than the original mast; should its alteration or replacement be permitted subject to prior approval, or should an application for planning permission be required?

  19.  The same logic applies as with Question 4, above.

Question 7: Do you think that the construction, installation, alteration or replacement of radio equipment housing with a volume in excess of 2.5 cubic metres, and of development ancillary to radio equipment housing, when carried out in conjunction with the construction, installation, alteration or replacement of a mast, should be subject to the same planning requirements as a mast?

  20.  Yes, because the 2.5 cubic metre threshold is entirely arbitrary, and takes no account of the sensitivity of the location. Even small installations can have an adverse impact on the character of a building or area.

Question 9: Do you think that the installation, alteration or replacement of a microcell which materially affects the external appearance of the building should be treated in the same way as an antenna in Part 24 of the GPDO?

  21.  Yes, there is a clear analogy with advertisements. Both have the propensity to create "clutter" and detract from the visual appearance of a building, and both should be controlled in the interest of amenity.

Question 10: Do you want to propose any other amendments to Part 24 of the GPDO?

  22.  If the prior notification system is to be retained (notwithstanding the compelling reasons for abandoning it), it should be made clear that the overall height of ancillary apparatus (antennae, dishes, etc) acceptable as permitted development should fall within the height of the associated mast, and not the two to three metres over and above that which the code operators appear to interpret as acceptable.

PART 6. DRAFT REVISION OF PPG8 "TELECOMMUNICATIONS"

  23.  The present PPG8 dates from December 1992. Updated guidance is clearly necessary, especially in view of the rapid rate of growth and technological change in the telecommunications industry. In this respect, the descriptive and explanatory material in paragraphs 7-30 of the draft revised PPG is especially useful and welcomed.

  24.  The Institute is generally content with the draft revision, on the assumption that paragraphs 36-62 will be adjusted to reflect the Department's response to the answers to the questions asked in Part 4 of this consultation.

  25.  The only reservation is about the practicality of the advice on the handling of health concerns, and the application of the precautionary principle. In a technical sense, the draft PPG (paragraphs 63-81) represents a balanced, and transparent, approach, given the Stewart Report's recommendations and the present state of knowledge. Indeed, the draft acknowledges the important role of the Department in addressing these issues (see paragraph four, above). The problem remains the gap between public perception and scientific certainty. In a practical sense, the "instruction" in paragraph 81 that "local authorities should not implement their own precautionary policies" is not especially helpful where a local planning authority is faced with significant public opposition to a proposal.

CONCLUSIONS

  26.  The Institute is far from convinced that the Government's proposals satisfactorily address either public concerns about the health implications of telecommunications equipment or provide a clear way forward for the industry in making planning applications. Rather they push the problem onto the plate of local planning authorities and no doubt, in due course to the Planning Inspectorate and back to the Secretary of State. This will all happen at a time when the continued extension of the second generation mobile system and the rolling out of the third generation licences produce very large numbers of proposals and little has been done to meet public concerns on the health impacts.

  27.  The Institute suggests that the issues should be addressed by:

    —  national type approval of the public health safety of particular models of equipment. Only if that was received could a planning application be made;

    —  national advice on the safety implications of siting, say, in relation to schools and possible safeguarding zones around such equipment;

    —  preparation of site selection criteria for base stations and transmitters which would enable alternative sites to be considered by the operator and local planning authority. There is a precedent here with water waste treatment plants.

  28.  If such a system was in place it would firmly place responsibility for public health at national level with appropriate specialist advice and enable local authorities' consideration to focus on the impact on visual amenity and the assessment of alternative sites. Within this framework, the approach set out in the consultation paper could be sensibly applied. Otherwise, the likely outcome is widespread public concern leading to refusals of planning permission on the precautionary principle approach.

  29.  The Institute recognises that there will be some cost implications of this approach but the monies for this would be a most appropriate first, but very small call, on the receipts for the Exchequer from the auction of the third generation licences.

2 November 2000


 
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