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Mr. Oaten: The Minister referred to the voluntary code and the 10 commitments. Will she give a commitment to review that code, perhaps in a year's time, to see whether it is operating effectively?

Ms Keeble: I am coming to that issue.

Discussions at this stage will provide an opportunity for operators and authorities to identify potential sites that will be acceptable to all parties. This will provide an early opportunity to discuss technical and environmental constraints, and to explore possible alternative approaches—in particular, the opportunities for mast and site sharing. That suggestion is frequently made by people who are concerned about this issue. If an operator is able at this stage to identify potentially sensitive sites, it may be able to adapt its strategy for an area.

PPG8 suggests that pre-application discussions should be carried out by the operators with local planning authorities and other organisations with an interest in the proposed development, such as residential groups, parish councils or amenity groups. Such discussions can identify possible conflicts of interest at an early stage. In particular, our revised guidance makes it clear that there is a duty on both the operator and the local authority to consult the relevant body of a school or college near to which a proposed mast is to be sited. Pre-application discussions between the operators and the local planning authorities will be particularly helpful in identifying which schools or colleges should be consulted prior to an application being submitted.

Evidence of the extent to which these consultations actually take place is mixed, as the hon. Member for Twickenham mentioned. I want to reassure him that the Minister for Housing and Planning and I recently met industry representatives to discuss their progress in meeting their commitments. The industry has made a great deal of progress in establishing the procedures needed to take this work forward. We have emphasised strongly the need for pre-application discussions and

21 May 2002 : Column 274

consultations with the local community, and the importance of listening to, and taking seriously, local concerns.

Dr. Pugh: If such a consensual plan can emerge and be agreed according to a roll-out programme between local authorities and mass providers, would local authorities thereby put themselves in a stronger position to refuse applications that fell outside that plan?

Ms Keeble: I will deal with that point in the time remaining, because it relates in particular to planning concerns and because I want to explain about the consideration of health issues. The Government attach importance to the implementation of the commitments but, in purely practical terms, it is important that local communities are consulted as well.

On health and public concerns, I will have to stick to the wording in front of me; if I stray, I will get into considerable problems with planning appeals and so on. PPG8 also provides advice to local planning authorities about taking into account health and public concerns about mobile phone masts. Our guidance is clear that health considerations and public concern can, in principle, be material considerations in determining applications for planning permission and prior approval. I hope that that gives the clear guidance that is needed. However, whether such matters are material in a particular case is ultimately a matter for the courts. It is for the decision maker, usually the local planning authority, to determine what weight to attach to such considerations in any particular case.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): Will the Minister give way?

Ms Keeble: No, because there is only one minute left.

That is how decisions have to be made, and those rules have to be applied to each case.

In conclusion, it is the Government's firm view that the planning system is not the appropriate mechanism for determining health safeguards. If there are health risks, they should be dealt with directly and not obliquely, through the planning process. As I have said, the Government are adopting a range of measures on a precautionary basis, as advised by the Stewart report. It remains central Government's responsibility to decide what measures are needed to protect public health. The Government will continue to keep mobile phone technologies under review in the light of further research. I have already mentioned the scale of the research that we have commissioned.

I believe that good planning for telecommunications will be achieved by the development of a partnership approach in all areas. That means parties placing a proper emphasis on discussions about future roll-out plans, particularly the localities involved, and on pre-application discussions to ensure that masts are sensitively and appropriately sited.

Question put and agreed to.

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