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Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): Given the precautionary recommendations about schools, would it not be sensible for the Government to rule out applications that impact on school sites?

Dr. Cable: Yes, I agree. That was one of the conclusions towards which I was working, and I believe that it is the practice in countries such as the United States, which in many respects are much more permissive in their approach to technology, and much more cavalier about the environment, than we are. None the less, the US has a tough regime on schools, which I am sure is right.

The planning guidance is producing, perhaps unintentionally, much confusion among planning officials, councillors and local residents. They are frustrated because they understand that a precautionary principle applies and that there are health concerns, as yet unsubstantiated, but they cannot express those effectively through the planning process.

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): Does my hon. Friend accept that most local authorities wish to observe the

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precautionary principle? Because they do not think that Government rules allow them to do that in a way that satisfies residents, they often adopt strange devices such as moratoriums on council land. In the constituency that I represent, it is impossible to put a mast on the end of a pier because of current council policy. All that is a result of the fact that councils wish to implement a precautionary approach, but do not feel that planning law allows them to do that properly.

Dr. Cable: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The process works out in all sorts of ways. Residents who are concerned about health often argue their case in planning committees on the grounds of visual amenity, as that is what the planning system allows them to do. That is not a sensible way of judging the issue, and the process needs to be changed. I am not expressing only a personal view or the views of my colleagues, but those of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, an all-party group that has expressed itself trenchantly. It said:

I should like to crystallise the position by asking the Minister a couple of questions. Can she help to clarify whether health anxieties are legitimate grounds for consideration in planning matters? There is a great deal of uncertainty about that. Many councils and council officials believe, on the basis of Government circulars, that they are not allowed to take health considerations into account and that if they do so, they will be taken to appeal by a mobile phone company and lose the case because they are operating outside the rules.

The position is ambiguous. When the planning guidance was circulated, we saw a paragraph stating that health considerations were a material planning consideration, so it is clear that different factors are operating. I know that the Minister's inspectors have looked into some important cases, including those of Newport in 1998, Tandridge in 2000, and Thurrock, Stanmore and others, in which councils have turned down masts because of public anxiety about health and have won the appeal. I want to be as clear as possible about the exact status of a planning application that is rejected by a council because of residents' anxieties about health effects.

The other final consideration that I want to raise relates to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) about schools, which are a special case. There is a particular anxiety about schools, and in his report Sir William Stewart made it clear why that is the case. Children's physical development makes them more vulnerable to the biological effects of waves—if, indeed, those waves are damaging.

In particular, Sir William Stewart urged the introduction of a more stringent set of rules than the Government have evolved for schools. I think that he specifically argued that schools' agreement should be obtained to the arrangements being made, and that that was especially important when beams were aimed directly at a school. Whether or not that is the case, will the Minister explain the position of local communities that feel strongly about the vulnerability of schools, but cannot argue effectively in the planning process that an application be turned down, even when there is strong resistance?

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In conclusion and in drawing together the threads, it might be useful to summarise the consensus that exists, as this is not a party matter. The Local Government Association, which represents councils across the political spectrum, considered planning for masts recently and made this comment on the application of the precautionary principle:

That is a rather harsh judgment—indeed, it may be harsher than it should be—but the association expresses the frustrations of councils throughout the land.

I should like to suggest a way forward, as I hope that we have not heard the last word from the Government on planning guidance. They could indicate, in revised planning guidance, letters to councils or statements in Parliament, that they wanted to find a mechanism enabling residents and local councils who are very concerned about a sensitive planning application to turn it down without running into the difficulties that they currently appear to experience in connection with planning inquiries. Such a mechanism would not relate to narrow planning considerations, but would ensure that broader grounds of public anxiety are accepted as a legitimate reason for turning down an application. That would possibly also allow councils to grant planning permission that is time limited because of anxieties that the science will change.

The compensation for a concession to make it easier to reject some planning applications connected with mobile phone telephony could be to require local authorities to have a plan that makes it easier to roll out the mast programme throughout the country. In other words, they would buy into the roll-out across the borough, but allow specific applications to be tackled more robustly than is possible under current planning procedures. That is a balanced approach that would allow an element of give and take and tackle many of our constituents' anxieties.

10.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing the debate on an important subject, which hon. Members and members of the public raise frequently. It is helpful to have a chance to clarify some issues. I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's specific points, which covered health considerations in the planning process, research, the role of planning and roll-out of a plan. There is little time, and if I cannot deal with all the points now, I shall do so in correspondence, if that is helpful.

Clarity is needed, and we have devised a careful presentation that is based on the well-known anxieties that have been raised. I appreciate the opportunity simply to rehearse the arguments. The Government have three key responsibilities for mobile phone masts. Our main responsibility is the protection of public health. Secondly, we must facilitate the roll-out of new and existing networks. Thirdly, we must protect the environment. The third responsibility relates especially to planning.

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The Government want to ensure that the public are able to enjoy the benefits that flow from a greater choice of service providers and a broader range of services. According to industry figures, more than two thirds of the total population of the UK use a mobile phone—around 45 million people. The growth in the mobile communications sector in the past 15 years has been remarkable and is set to continue. That creates pressure because of the demand for mobile phone services.

Mobile phones will not work without the supporting infrastructure—that is, the masts. Their siting causes the genuine problems on which I want to focus my comments. The issues tend to be the same, whether taken on a case-by-case or a roll-out basis. Whenever it is suggested that local authorities have a planning strategy for an issue that is not popular locally, the roll-out always becomes excessively difficult. If hon. Members consider waste incinerators, they will understand what I mean.

Hon. Members know about the Stewart report on mobile phones and health. On mobile phone base stations, the Stewart group concluded that the balance of evidence suggests no general risk to the health of people living near base stations because exposure is expected to be small fractions of the guidelines. However, there can be indirect adverse effects on well-being in some cases. I believe that the report specifically identified anxieties that can be caused when people are aware of masts in their areas. That explains the indirect effect on health. Gaps in scientific knowledge led Stewart to recommend a precautionary approach, which comprises a series of specific measures. Several people believe that the precautionary approach means a ban, but it clearly does not; the report did not recommend a ban on constructing mobile phone masts or the establishment of exclusion zones between masts and existing developments.

The Government accepted the recommended precautionary approach and are introducing a range of precautionary actions. Contrary to what people believe, almost every recommendation by the Stewart report, the responsibility for which covers different Departments, is being introduced. There is a slight variation on one planning recommendation, but only in procedure. The net effect on planning is almost the same. So, the idea that we are not complying with the precautionary approach is simply not borne out.

The things that we have done include: ensuring that all base stations meet the international exposure guidelines; setting up a national database with details of base stations; implementing a new £7 million joint Government/industry research programme; publishing leaflets; and auditing mobile phone base stations and masts to assess emissions, focusing on schools. The results from the first 100 audits carried out last year showed emissions ranging from several hundred to many thousands of times lower than the public exposure guideline limits.

The Stewart report suggested that lack of public consultation is a major grievance to the people who suffer loss of amenity when base stations are erected. It also suggested that many people feel excluded and disempowered by the current planning arrangements, and that the resulting frustration can have a negative effect on people's health and well-being. That is one of the indirect effects that I was talking about earlier.

For those reasons, the group recommended that changes to the planning arrangements were necessary, and changes were, indeed, made. I shall not go through the details of

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them all now, because I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is probably already aware of them. I will set them out in writing if he would like me to, but I want to move on to some of the other issues that he has raised.

One issue concerned the legislative arrangements that set out the procedure by which a planning application will be considered. Planning policy guidance note 8—known as PPG8—sets out the Government's policies on telecoms development. One of the important themes running through the guidance is the adoption of a partnership approach between the operator, the local planning authority and the local community. Careful consideration of the siting and design of a development should ensure that the right equipment is put in the right place in the right way.

In this context, the Government welcome the 10 commitments that the operators have made to adhere to clear standards and procedures which will deliver significantly improved consultation with local communities. In particular, the operators have pledged to provide their annual roll-out plans to local planning authorities each autumn. The Government strongly encourage operators and local planning authorities to carry out annual discussions based on those plans and on other information.

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