Select Committee on Trade and Industry Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. When you say "independently", by an agency like the RCA?
  (Mr Joyce) I think so, because they would be in a good position to do it.

  121. What about information on a beam of greatest intensity, where that would fall? Is that not what worries people most in these applications?
  (Councillor Bailey) Yes. That should be shown as well and I believe that is also mentioned as one of the recommendations in the Stewart Report. It appears to me essential that people have the opportunity to see that information.

Mr Chope

  122. Can I ask about some of the effects on the planning system of what is being suggested? If all base stations were subject to planning permission, how would council staff and members cope with the workload? Would you have to have a revised fee scale? How many more staff would you need?
  (Councillor House) We are making separate representations to DETR about the planning fee structure and that has been an ongoing process. We are jointly working with DETR on these issues. I think they are quite apart from issues around telecom masts and base stations. The first reaction from both elected members and professional planners to bringing this kind of development within the planning system formally has been relief. So much time is currently spent by planners and by elected members trying to explain to local communities that this is a different structure and a different process at the moment that there is a lot of waste. It feeds a sense that there is something wrong here from local residents, the fact that it is a different system. That tends to result in more time being taken. I do not think there is a big issue in terms of costs, staff time or member time in bringing this area formally under the planning system. The reverse is more likely to be the case.

  123. You will be able to deliver all these permissions within the eight week timescale?
  (Councillor House) At the moment, local authorities deliver a response to meet the timescales set forward quicker than that. In practice, what many local authorities are trying to do at the moment in quite difficult circumstances is treat these consultations, these prior approvals, as being mini planning applications. They are trying to consult communities in the same way as they would through a formal planning route. There is not a great deal of change in terms of the processes that the local authority would actually have to administer.

  124. Yet you say that the prior approval procedures actually cost more in staff time than normal applications would. I could not quite understand that.
  (Mr Joyce) The reason for that is you have three systems. You have a normal planning application where people expect to be either notified by being given notice or a letter. You then have a 28 day system which does not necessarily need notification by the local authority. If you like, it is optional. Also, of course, the timescales are much less. Then you have the 42 day system whereby the responsibility is on the operator. For the person in the street, it is very difficult to understand why one mast in one part of a district needs planning permission and notification in the normal way and one in the next street of a similar scale and size does not. You spend a lot of time as a planning authority explaining the intricacies of the different systems; whereas if they were all rolled into one system that either needed planning application or did not, that would save an awful lot of time and frustration from members of the public in terms of understanding the system. With planning applications, there is opportunity to extend the time and continue discussions to resolve issues, maybe either as a result of getting responses back from the public or from discussions with an operator. The difference with a 28 and a 42 day system at the moment is that you have to make a decision within that timescale. If you do not, it is a deemed approval and that does not allow for those negotiations and discussions to continue.

  125. That is the exactly the concern of the operators. They say that if you move over to a full planning application system there are going to be inordinate delays and these discussions you refer to will go on far beyond the eight week period while it is costing the operators money and they will only have the option of appealing or being held to ransom by the local authority.
  (Mr Joyce) The answer to that is back to two things. One is prior application discussions with authorities, open and detailed. Secondly, and very importantly, is the quality of the information submitted at the time the application is submitted. At the present time, the regulations do not require operators to submit a great deal of information. The code of best practice does require a lot of information but that is not the regulations. A very simple way of overcoming this particular issue would be to translate the code of best practice which all operators have signed up to into basic regulation. So, the quality of information and early contact with the local authority will overcome some of these concerns that the operators may have.
  (Councillor Bailey) From the LGA, we are encouraging nationally now applicants not only in this industry but elsewhere to indulge in extensive pre-application consultations with local authorities in order to smooth the path once the application has come in. Indeed, in the letter on 9 March here from the FEI they say that they will participate in obligatory free roll-out and free application consultation and they will develop standard supporting documentation for all planning submissions. They are starting to take this on board. I am of the view personally that there should not be applications for single macro or micro sole masts, but as they have some idea on the honeycomb system where they are going in a particular district they should be coming forward with some sort of strategic plan. I do not believe it will take longer but it is an important part of the built in natural environment. Why should this industry be different to any other?

  126. Would you be prepared to concede that it would be a good idea to have a default permission system, particularly where that involves alterations or additions to an existing structure?
  (Councillor House) The difficulty with that approach is that it puts pressure on the local authority to say, "If there is a default at a certain point to say `This is approved', we will refuse at the last possible moment." To an extent, that is what is happening now. It does not help the concept of cooperation and partnership between the industry and local authorities. If we are working together with a clear set of objectives and guidelines, these problems should not really arise. Inevitably there will be odd occasions where, for particular circumstances, things do not work as well as they should do. Those need to be looked at and examined. There is an appeal process. Clearly, that is a last resort. It is not one that we as local authorities want to see used widely because it actually brings planning systems into disrepute.

  127. Do you expect planning permission to be required for all base stations or would you want to apply de minimis rules such as we have for satellite dishes?
  (Councillor House) We would see all telecom development brought into the same regime as any other development. If it requires planning permission for some other use, it would require planning permission in this case.

  128. For example, if you want to put a television receiver on your roof, it is only if you are in a conservation area or on a listed building that you have to apply for permission.
  (Councillor House) Permitted development rules would continue. That is the picture we would like to see.

  129. The LGA represents, as I understand it, a police authority. Have you had any discussions about the whole issue of the TETRA roll-out for the new police airwave communications network? Are you concerned about what has been said by police officers, that they are worried about the risks to their own health in handling this equipment? We heard evidence this morning from the expert that if there are hazards in any of this they are particularly likely to be in the area of the TETRA technology which is going for very low frequencies, unlike normal mobile phone technology.
  (Councillor House) I do not think we have had those discussions.

  130. That is a new subject as far as you are concerned?
  (Councillor House) Yes.

Mr Laxton

  131. You were saying a moment ago in response to Mr Chope that you had the capacity to deal with applications but if you were looking at it in a proactive way have you ever looked at the position as a local authority in your local plans, for instance, setting down a network of what might be sites in your locality that would meet the requirements of the operators and perhaps may be least controversial so far as the relationship with the electorate in your localities?
  (Councillor House) It is a very good area for further discussion. The best way of dealing with these things has to be in partnership with the industry. It has to try and look at issues on a district-wide basis, rather than simply a planning application followed by another planning application with no clear route map as to where we are actually going. Local plans can be one part of that picture. We would want to encourage there to be cooperative discussions between the industry and individual local authorities about how issues can be dealt with in that particular area. That means that the local authority is a proactive part of the process of saying, "That site is better than that site. How can we help make this happen?"

  132. It means local authorities also put themselves in this contentious area into the firing line as well?
  (Councillor House) Yes, as we do across the planning system. That is part of the job.
  (Mr Jones) To be able to do that, we do need the information from the operators on what their network requirements are and what their technological requirements are and so on. That is across the whole range of operators, not just individual operators, so that we can come to those conclusions. It does raise the issue again about the possibilities of mast sharing and so on.
  (Mr Joyce) It certainly needs flexibility on both sides because from a local authority point of view we are looking for the most environmentally acceptable location. Technically, that may not be the most appropriate so it does need some kind of corresponding give and take in terms of getting to a situation where, on the generality, you have an acceptable way forward with regard to future applications.

  133. You were saying, Councillor Bailey, a moment ago in response to Mr Chope that you were seeing some signs that the industry was looking to consult. In the past, has there been, in terms of your experience in the LGA across local authorities, a real reluctance or maybe no amount of prior consultation by the industry with the local planning authorities?
  (Mr Joyce) It is variable. It depends on a number of factors in terms of operators, whether they talk to authorities direct or whether they go through agents, how they split up an area. For example, in Leeds, I have a situation where I have been talking to two different agents because their areas of responsibility go straight down the middle of Leeds. Generally speaking, it is helpful to have those first discussions but you are giving advice in good faith. I have had experience where that advice has been ignored, an application has come in and it has been refused. I try to steer operators away from sensitive sites, but they have still gone for that particular route. You are offering advice and you expect it to be heeded to a degree. Also, it is not a good thing to have one set of discussions; then everything could go quiet for a year and suddenly you get a whole load of applications. There does need to be a continual dialogue and I think there is a responsibility on operators to keep authorities updated because they may change the way they want to operate or they may bring in new technology or change their plans. I think it is important that authorities are kept informed of any changes so you can develop a dialogue as opposed to just coming in once and not again.
  (Councillor Bailey) The LGA has been emphasising the need for cooperation in dealing with all planning applications. There was a concordat published last year which we saw as a step forward. We are not necessarily saying things were bad before but we were looking to improve. This industry, in response to public concerns and also the recommendations of the Stewart Report, is now saying that they will cooperate in this. I see that as a beneficial step.
  (Councillor House) It could be argued that the relationship is maturing. We have seen effectively a new industry develop and grow very rapidly. That growth is set to continue. New relationships need to be formed. There was a degree of suspicion, almost hostility in some cases, between operators and local planning authorities. That is a process which is now beginning to change and I welcome that change very much. The industry has found that it is better to talk to local authorities and equally local authorities have found that it is better to talk to the operators.
  (Mr Jones) Consultation does vary between operators. In my experience, it is improving and we are getting more early warning, more roll out plans coming from the operators. In the past, there has been a limited amount of consultation but my view is that the operators took the view that they were consulting from a position of strength because they were in the driving seat.


  134. We have had evidence from Orange which suggests that the takeup of offers from local authorities was not very high. They were prepared to consult prior to the event but found that most local authorities were indifferent until a proper planning application had been made and the site had been indicated. Do you find that some of the operators—and there are only four or five main ones—are more proactive than others?
  (Mr Joyce) It is variable. Each company has a slightly different approach to it and therefore some of the operators are very keen and continue to keep you up to date with what is happening. That is helpful. Others only come into the office once they are about to submit a whole load of applications. The quality of the information is also variable in terms of what they know. That may not be a fault of the operators or their agents; it may well be genuinely that they do not know until they have done further work exactly what they are going to do in terms of the area that you are covering.
  (Mr Jones) Orange approached us with their roll out plans and we did have a presentation from them and consultation with them, but in that particular instance the applications came in exactly as they were shown on the roll out plans. One takes a view about the value of that.

Mr Laxton

  135. Local authorities are substantial land owners. I understand that there are a couple of authorities, Kent and Islington, who have just taken a blanket view, "No masts on our land, period." Any comments on that?
  (Councillor House) Not on individual local authorities, no. We, as an association, do not comment on individual policies of local authorities. What we do say very strongly is that we need to find the best sites. Over time, I suspect that more cooperation between local authorities collectively and individually in the industry will overcome some of these issues. The key gap at the moment is the missing national planning authority guidance. Until we get that gap overcome, we are not going to see a consistent pattern of performance across local government because local government is operating in a vacuum. Because residents in communities do not have confidence in the system, I do not think it is therefore that surprising if some local authorities have then decided, "We do not want to have any truck with this. So far as our land is concerned, no go."

  136. They do not want to put themselves in the firing line?
  (Councillor House) At the moment. Some of them would argue—and there could be some justification for this—"Why should we? We have not got clarity from government. Until we get clarity from government, we are going to say `no way'".

Mr Chope

  137. Does that wash? Even this morning, the pressure groups most concerned about this conceded that it was thoroughly unreasonable for local authorities to have a blanket refusal policy. It seems as though you are condoning local authorities that have a blanket refusal policy. If you are not condoning them, can you take the opportunity presented by the Committee today to say that you think it is totally unacceptable that a local authority charged with responsibility for taking decisions on planning applications should have a blanket refusal policy?
  (Councillor House) If we are to have a comprehensive, good quality network which serves the needs of our communities, we have to look for the best sites. If some of those best sites have to be on local authority land, then local authorities have to accept some responsibility for that, but it is not going to happen until we have a properly published and agreed policy framework for dealing with these issues. It is not there at the moment. It is not therefore surprising if some local authorities have said, "We are not prepared to get involved in this debate." It may not be very helpful but there is a vacuum that needs to be filled.


  138. Could we move on to mast sharing? Do you have any means whereby the option of mast sharing can be explored at the early stages of discussions with operators?
  (Mr Jones) One of the problems comes back to the regulatory system that we are in because of the very limited time we have available, namely 28 days or 42 days, which means that what we ask for is information from the applicant on what efforts they have made to mast share as part of the information with the application. Within that short time scale, it does not give us much of an opportunity to go back to them and say, "Have you looked at this? Have you looked at that? What other options are available?" and still come to a decision within that timescale. That is one issue. If I may pursue that a little further, one of our particular concerns is with the new technology systems which are coming in at the moment in microcells rather than macrocells. It would appear that the options for sharing microcell masts are much more limited because of their very nature. That is going to be a big issue if every operator is going to want a microcell network, particularly within residential areas, because it seems to me that the options for sharing are going to be extremely limited for that sort of technology.

  139. There is supposed to be a national database. Some people say it may not be worth that much but as local authorities you are also supposed to have a list of installations. Do you have that?
  (Mr Joyce) The guidance advocates that authorities have voluntary registers and, if I take my own authority in Leeds, we do have a voluntary register. The purpose of that is to alert prospective operators of potential mast sharing. It is literally the sites where we have planning permission or a determination has been approved, so that they can look around and possibly mast share. What it does not do is give you information about emissions. As I understand it, a national database would provide information about all masts with emissions so that members of the public can see from that information where masts were and what kind of emissions they were giving out, whether they complied with the ICNIRP guidelines. There are two different things here. One is about mast sharing; one is about emissions.

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