Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 80 - 99)

TUESDAY 13 MARCH 2001

MR MIKE HASLAM, MR SIMON BIRCH AND MR PETER WILBRAHAM

Chairman

  80. What about masts on top of buildings? You then get into other kinds of issues. You say you can understand the ones on the ground needing planning permission but what about the other concerns?
  (Mr Haslam) If you deal with the health issues by national type approval, then there should be no reason in principle why small masts on roofs should not be subject to permitted development rights. Our view is that you should have full planning permission or permitted development consent and abandon the prior notification system. Those which do not need consent are clear. The local authority is not involved. Those that do need consent need consent in the usual way.

Mr Chope

  81. This is a slightly tangential point but I have a constituent who wishes to get access to Sky Digital and he can do that only if a tree, on which there is a preservation order in his garden, is chopped down. How do you see that sort of issue being resolved, particularly in areas where it is going to be very difficult to roll-out terrestrial digital television and the Government, at the same time, are saying that that will be the way forward?
  (Mr Haslam) The problem with the tree relates to tree preservation orders and access to the satellite television network. But one possibility would be to move the antennae further down the garden, out of the line of the tree. There is no reason why that cannot be done.
  (Mr Wilbraham) It is always a balance between private requirements and the public interest in keeping the tree.

  82. Do you think that there should be guidelines from the Government about that?
  (Mr Haslam) I think most planning authorities are quite capable of making decisions on those sorts of issues.

Chairman

  83. Do you envisage the operation of the planning controls as being expensive and time-consuming for local authorities, for the planning authorities and if so, would you imagine that the fees for such applications might be increased?
  (Mr Haslam) It should not be if there is good will on both sides and if authorities are not inundated with literally hundreds of applications at one time. If the health issue is taken out, then there should be no reason why the local authority could not deal with non-health issues in just the same way as any other planning application. But whilst you have the health issue as an uncertainty, there are always going to be occasions where, under pressure from local residents, authorities will be seeking expert advice on the emissions or whatever in relation to the particular proposal before it and that, inevitably, is an expensive process.
  (Mr Wilbraham) I said earlier that there are two aspects of the health issue. One is the fear of adverse consequences. Our concern is that unless that matter is addressed, it will just continue as a running sore with applications and will slow down the handling of all applications. In our view, the way to address that is that the authority which issues a type approval, as we suggest, should also monitor to ensure that masts which are build or, indeed, masts which are already there do comply with the requirements. If there is a much, much greater public awareness that there is an independent agency checking that what is said is going to happen actually has happened, then I think that that question of fear will start to reduce. I understand that the RCA already has a monitoring role but I think that the amount of communication about that enforcement and monitoring role is very lacking at the moment. It needs to be much more high profile because that fear has got to be allayed.

  84. We have heard a lot about anxiety and stress. You are dealing with planning applications all the time. Are anxiety and stress conditions a feature of the planning process in matters other than telecommunications masts?
  (Mr Haslam) Any controversial planning application has an element of stress, for example emissions from an incinerator. In my experience, people often perceive a problem to be much greater than it actually is. When I have been involved, as I have on many occasions, in highly contentious issues, those that have been built seldom generate the fears which are expressed at application stage. There is no doubt that, on occasions, planning is a very high profile activity. People like me sit in the middle of opposing views. That is why I have grey hairs.
  (Mr Birch) But many of them do not have this perceived health risk. In Guildford, we dealt with an incinerator proposal recently. The main concern among residents, I have received something like 28,000 letters of objection for the incinerator, is all to do with health. The Environment Agency says that it is state of the art, the best in the world. Nobody believes them any more. All the petitioners say, "We do not believe it. It is the health of our children. It is our health. We just do not want the thing". One of the previous witnesses mentioned BSE. We are getting it across a whole range of issues nowadays. It is not quite the same as traditional planning, where we tended to deal with buildings, with roads and environmental issues. People have said, "We don't want a supermarket", but when it is actually built, people say it is working properly; traffic is still flowing; food can be bought and so on. Those tend to be controversial issues. This one generates so much uncertainty because people simply do not know what is going to happen, so it is fear of the unknown.

  85. On the other hand, fear of the unknown will still exist if you get the kind of guidelines that you are suggesting. Taking the health issue out of the date, Mr Haslam, Mr Birch is saying that even if you do that, you have what I think theologians call "invincible ignorance" on the part of some people. They will never believe it?
  (Mr Haslam) But is not part of it hyping things up? As my colleague said just now, work is being done by people like the RCA which is not getting out into the public domain. I suspect that there is a major education process required. What is actually going on at the moment? People perceive fear and it can be whipped up, and I have seen it happen on many occasions. It may be that we need now a rather more rational approach to dispel people's fears.

  86. You are not politicians. Your political masters are subject to the electorate. Do you think that there is a danger that people might start running scared and so you will get planning refusals on the basis that they just do not want the hassle as elected representatives?
  (Mr Birch) There is lots of evidence that that is happening already. There is evidence right across the country that members are doing that all the time. Fear is whipped up and they will refuse the applications.

Mr Cunningham

  87. On permitted development rights, what is your view about the prior approval procedure?
  (Mr Haslam) Not a lot, to be blunt. We do not like it. It confuses the public. It does not give the public a genuine opportunity to influence decisions. We find it a thoroughly unsatisfactory process which is why are recommending or urging that we have a combination of full planning permission and straightforward permitted development and take out the prior notification altogether.
  (Mr Wilbraham) One of the problems with prior notification is that it has to go to the top of the queue irrespective of what the other matters to be dealt with are. They have to respond within a time scale, otherwise, the permission is deemed to be granted. And so, as a system, it simply is unsatisfactory.

  88. Do you think that permitted development rights should be retained for existing sites or buildings?
  (Mr Wilbraham) You mean existing masts?

  89. Yes?
  (Mr Wilbraham) Those were already built either under planning permission deemed to have been granted by the GPDO or by specific planning permission. The only way to remove them would be to rescind or revoke that planning permission, which would involve compensation. I cannot see that happening. I think we are generally looking to the future. But if the underlying question is how do you address masts which may not meet current guidelines, then the answer to that is through the monitoring and enforcement by the RCA under this type approval that Mr Haslam has suggested. That would go right back to any mast which is now operational, irrespective of when it was built. If that happens, then I think it will give the public confidence and the local authorities confidence and they would attribute less weight to irrational fears, if I can put it that way, when the planning applications are determined.

Chairman

  90. You used the term development rights as a kind of lever in the sense of trying to encourage site sharing and things like that on existing sites?
  (Mr Wilbraham) Yes. If, for example, you were to say that one company could put another antenna on an existing mast under development rights rather than go through a full planning application, I am sure that that would be a gentle pressure, at least, on the industry to get together.
  (Mr Birch) There are two issues with mast sharing. One is amenity and sometimes mast sharing is possibly only where you have got a thicker lattice-type mast which in terms of amenity might be a bad thing because quite often shared masts are great big ugly things so you do not actually want them on amenity grounds. The second issue, which we do not really understand, is the health issue of the cumulative effect where you have a whole series of masts clustered together and whether something happens there which is more than just having one plus one plus one. So I think there are issues to be looked at. It is not simple, the mast-sharing argument.

Ms Perham

  91. I am just wondering where you are going with all this. Do you think that the new PPG8 is a crucial factor?
  (Mr Haslam) That is going to be revised and in draft it makes it clear that the final version will depend on decisions to be taken by government on the exact issue that we are talking about today: should planning permission be required for aspects of the current system which currently are covered through the advance notice procedure. So if our view prevails that all new ground-based masts should require full permission, the PPG will be suitably amended to reflect that. That is made clear in the consultation draft. As the draft is written, we are happy with it with that proviso that it will inevitably change when decisions are made as to what is going to happen to the fundamental issue of planning permission.

  92. Your view is that the Government should give national guidance on health issues, to be separate?
  (Mr Haslam) More than guidance, we think that there should be some national certification. For example, electrical equipment which you buy has been certified to be okay. If you buy a car, it has been type certified. It is MOT'd every three years to check the emissions. If the emissions are high, the car is failed. We see no reason why that kind of philosophy should not apply to emissions coming from masts. They should be checked on a regular basis.

  93. That should be done by an independent agency?
  (Mr Haslam) Yes, nationally, yes.

  94. Is your view in the paper to the DETR on the Government's proposals that they push the problem on to the appropriate local planning authorities and, no doubt, in due course, the planning inspectorate and back to the Secretary of State. Is that your view?
  (Mr Haslam) That is what is happening at the moment. We have had these three decisions where inspectors have refused appeals on health grounds. That will no doubt generate a momentum across the country and the inspectorate will get more and more appeals. I have no doubt about that in my mind at all. We believe that the system is better addressed, as I said before, by a national type approval to take the health issue, in effect, away from local authorities.

  95. What about this idea of an ombudsman?
  (Mr Haslam) There is a local authority ombudsman so if a local authority does not act properly, it is subject to the ombudsman. I see no reason why there should not be a similar ombudsman for the telecommunications industry.

  96. So it is a separate process? Mast Action UK were in favour of that and they see it as being a separate assessment of this issue?
  (Mr Haslam) I am assuming that we are talking about an industry ombudsman for the mobile telecommunications industry not to compete with but to run alongside the local authority ombudsman and the parliamentary ombudsman because there are separate ombudsmen for the different activities.

  97. Would that not draw out the process?
  (Mr Haslam) Not if follows the usual practice. A reference to the ombudsman is after a decision has been made, when something has happened which is seen to be unsatisfactory. In the local authority ombudsman situation, the ombudsman cannot actually change a decision. He can simply criticise if things have been done badly and recommend financial penalties but he cannot actually change the position.

  98. What about prior site selection criteria, is that realistic?
  (Mr Haslam) It all helps. As my colleague was saying just now, each site should be considered on its own merits. Whilst you can set out general criteria, whenever a planning application or a proposal is submitted there is almost inevitably going to be someone who raises an objection against it. That is life, I am afraid.

Chairman

  99. This business about clear up the health issue providing people do not object, and they are likely to do so, and we could maybe have it near a school provided it is not too near, but some folk do not want them at all, are we putting our hand into quicksilver here, we can never get a grip on anything?
  (Mr Haslam) Can I use the analogy of the car. There is not widespread public fear that cars driving on the streets are hugely dangerous. People accept there is a danger but they accept that the emissions from the cars are controlled and after three years a car is MOT-ed, every year once it is three years old. I see no reason why that should not happen with mobile phones. Once the public have got confidence that the emissions issue has been looked at the current furore will, I am sure, die down. It is lack of public confidence that is the biggest problem at the moment and we have seen it with BSE and we are seeing it at the moment with the foot and mouth issue. There is a public lack of confidence in the scientific advice being given to Government on some major national issues.
  (Mr Birch) I think there is a feeling too that the whole system has been skewed to give undue benefit to the telecommunications industry with prior notification. Certainly residents I speak to do not see any requirement for that, "other developers do not get this special treatment, why should telecommunications?" I think bringing everything within planning control would go a long way to at least putting everybody on a level playing field.



 
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