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Mr. Speaker: With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

Constitutional Law

Question agreed to.



Trowbridge Courthouse

10.26 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): I am privileged to present a petition against the closure of Trowbridge courthouse. The petition bears the signatures of 2,000 people from west Wiltshire.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Mobile Telephone Masts

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

10.27 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce an Adjournment debate on the subject of mobile phone masts, which I know is of concern to many Members. I recall that we have had several Adjournment debates on the subject, secured by my hon. Friends the Members for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) and for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) among others, and that the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Ms Shipley) introduced a ten-minute Bill on the matter.

There is growing concern on the issue. The Trade and Industry Committee report of March 2001 is probably the best overall summary of the politics, the economics and the technology involved, but the issue is not going away. I do not want simply to reiterate all the old arguments. Many of the scientific data are well summarised in the Stewart report, which remains the standard work on the subject. Much of the policy debate revolves around the Government's planning guidelines. I shall try to take the issues a little further.

I am prompted—I guess that in such Adjournment debates, most of us are—by local concerns. There are currently three big controversies in my constituency over mobile phone masts. None has been generated by politicians; they are very much grass-roots protests. I shall describe them briefly to give a flavour of what many of us are encountering in our constituencies.

One controversy concerns residential development at the edge of my constituency in Hampton. On a field immediately adjacent to a group of houses, Orange and BT Cellnet are trying to erect a mobile phone mast. The land happens to lie in the borough of Hounslow, which is adjacent to my borough, and the residents, with my support, have protested because of the planning problems associated with the application—the visual intrusion as well as anxieties about health.

Hounslow council turned down the application. Within days the mobile phone companies lodged appeals, and there is a fatalistic worry among the residents that the deep pockets of the telecom companies will prevail, despite the fact that there is ample room for manoeuvre: there is a large field, and the residents are perfectly happy for the masts to be sited on its far side. None the less, the pressures from the companies are inexorable.

In another case, Orange is trying to put up a mobile phone mast on a busy road where residents are already concerned about environmental impacts. Again, the matter is going before the council; it already has a recommendation for rejection, I believe, and we expect the case to go to appeal.

Most serious of all, and timely in view of today's debate, is the mobile phone mast erected immediately adjacent to St. Edmund's school in Whitton; I handed in a petition against that with 1,000 signatures this morning. The maximum intensity of the beam was directed at the school playing field, and staff, parents and nearby residents are incensed. Moreover, they have now discovered that Orange, the company promoting the mast,

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assumed that planning permission would be automatically granted, so did not even begin to apply for planning permission before it started to erect the mast.

Mobile phone companies have a 10-point code of conduct, but in my experience it is rarely applied or communicated to the contractors who carry out the work on their behalf. By contrast, most of the residents whom I encounter view the problem in a broad context, so I do not want to present it in a Nimby spirit; they fully accept that decisions have to be made on the basis of sound science and that there is a need for a national network. I want to focus on the way in which the planning system accommodates highly sensitive applications that arouse strong feelings, because it is not clear that it can do that at the moment.

I do not want to reinvent the wheel, but I shall start with the science. The Stewart report has been discussed endlessly, and it represents the current conventional wisdom. It is fair to say that its conclusions are subtle, complex and rather confusing for many ordinary people. I have picked out some key conclusions; taken together, they tell an ambiguous story.

The companies always quote the basic conclusion of the expert group in the report:

Later, the report states:

The subtlety of that conclusion is surprising; it would have been easy for Professor Stewart and his committee to say, "Let's be brutally rational; there isn't a risk, so let's just proceed. People are misguided and are worried about myths, not a serious problem." However, Professor Stewart did not say that; he hedged his bets. I read in the evidence that he presented subsequently to the relevant Select Committee that he was scarred by the experience of the BSE affair. He was aware of the risks that science might reveal in future, so in his results he presented the need for a precautionary approach. Residents are picking up on that and are concerned about health effects, although there is no hard science to justify their reservations at present.

I should like to pose two questions to the Minister. If she answers them, that will help me to deal with my constituents' worries. How are the Government responding to and monitoring the scientific data as they come in? I have read some of the literature on the vast website on masts. Some interesting experiments are taking place. Work done in Switzerland has alarmed the Swiss and led them to introduce extremely restrictive conditions for mobile phone masts. Work has been done in Germany on the impact on livestock. I do not know whether those studies are good or bad, or whether they have been subject to tough peer review, but clearly the science is advancing. I would be interested to know how the Government intend to evaluate such results as they emerge, and at what point the conclusions of the Stewart report might have to be modified.

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A further related question is whether the Government are monitoring and analysing the effects of the changes in technology. One of the interesting smaller points in the Select Committee report was the reference to the fact that in Finland, Nokia is developing a new type of technology for wireless telephony which dispenses with masts entirely. It is miniature technology, and it is up and running.

This month I noticed in Scientific American, which my scientific son insists that I read, a reference to something called UWB technology—a wholly new approach to short-range transmission, which could change altogether the way in which the wireless system operates. It would be useful to have some mechanism for understanding the extent to which that technology changes the assumptions on which current policy is based.

I shall now proceed to the issue of planning guidance, for which the Minister is directly responsible, and the extent to which it has helped or hindered residents who are concerned about the problem. I appreciate that there is some difficulty with the way in which planning guidance has emerged. A group of scientists under Professor Stewart said that the planning conditions needed to be changed, but as we know, planners are not qualified to judge science. That dilemma presents a fundamental difficulty.

When the Stewart report was published, the Government undertook

The Minister will probably acknowledge that there has been a partial movement in that direction. The 15 ft masts are now subject to longer periods of consultation, but the prior approval procedures still apply. They are not subject to full planning clearance procedure. There is a narrow requirement, which is welcome, that schools should be consulted, but there is not an obligation to meet the requests of schools if they choose to make them. That is the problem of my residents in Whitton. The school has been consulted and has expressed its unhappiness, but there is no way in which the mobile phone company can be forced to meet its concerns.

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