Draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does my hon. Friend agree that if the fee is inadequate for each local authority to recover its costs fully, under the Government's best value initiative each will be forced to adopt a minimalist approach? Would we not be doing our constituents a disservice by agreeing the statutory instrument?

Tim Loughton: I fear that my hon. Friend is correct, which is why I tend towards recommending to my colleagues that we vote against the statutory instrument. We know that, because of the extra bureaucracy of best value and assorted other things, the cost of planning applications to local authorities is greater. In my authority—I presume that it is the same across the board under best value—a ``bog standard'' planning application must be accompanied by a planning applicant's declaration of ethnic origin. Many other pieces of information that may be deemed to be subsidiary to approval for a planning application are also required, which is absurd. On the basis of the Minister's comments over the past 50 minutes, the constituents of all members of the Committee are not guaranteed a better service, and there is no guarantee of any financial incentive for better environmental practice by the mobile phone companies that pay the fee.

Mr. Don Foster: May I stiffen the hon. Gentleman's sinews in respect of how he may choose to vote at the end of our deliberation? Under the current fee structure, my local authority—he may accept that this is so for his local authority—loses £215 per consultation by attempting to consult on matters in the way that it thinks is appropriate. Under the new proposals, it will still make a loss, but a smaller one of £60. As the local authority will still make a loss, does the hon. Gentleman believe that it is likely to be able to improve the way that consultations are carried out, or will we continue in exactly the same way as now?

Tim Loughton: That is precisely the point that I thought that I had made, and I strengthened my own sinews by making it earlier in the debate. As I said, the result could be the status quo for the planning authority in the consultation process. I am not surprised by the figures mentioned by the hon. Member for Bath about his local authority of Bath and North East Somerset, which is Liberal controlled.

Mr. Foster: It is of no overall control.

Tim Loughton: Well, it may be of no overall control, but it has a strong Liberal interference. The area is very Liberal.

The Chairman: Order. A discussion about the political control of a particular local authority is not within the terms of the regulations.

Tim Loughton: I was quoting the amount of between £250 and £300 that the hon. Member for Bath mentioned that it would cost his authority to process an application. He claims that that is typical—I doubt it. There is little wonder that he said that the fee was insufficient and should be increased. It is an automatic Liberal reaction to want more stealth taxes, and to increase fees regardless of the service offered. Other authorities probably offer the service more cheaply. I have no doubt that my local authority, which has been in Conservative control since 7 June, will be able to offer the service more cheaply.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying very far from the regulations.

Tim Loughton: I apologise, but I am having a lot of fun in the process.

I turn to a simple question, the answer to which I hope the Minister will have at her fingertips to support the thrust of the statutory instrument. How many planning applications for mobile phone masts under 15 m have been subsequently withdrawn or greatly altered as a result of the existing consultation process? The real question is whether the existing consultation process, or even one that is extended to 56 days, has any result. Do not such feeble changes to planning regulations, for which there is a not so feeble increase in fees, have no teeth whatever?

Ultimately, the mobile phone company, in the absence of any substantial objection—within a limited band of substantial objections—can go ahead anyway. If it goes ahead on the basis of a sham additional consultation, and a sham increased notification, it adds insult to injury to the many thousands of constituents who are worried about the proliferation of mobile phone masts for health reasons or because they are an environmental eyesore. It is not good enough that the Minister is unable to answer the basic questions on which the fee increase is predicated, let alone questions about all the other great remits or environmental concerns referred to in the Stewart report, which, as we know, we shall not discuss again.

The Minister cannot answer basic questions about how much the applications already cost to substantiate whether the existing fee of £190 for applications for masts of more than 15 m is in the right ball park. How, therefore, can she expect us to vote through the statutory instrument to merit a 540 per cent. fee increase that may have a negative effect on the extent of consultation and notification, which is woefully inadequate at the moment? On that basis, unless the Minister can redeem herself in responding to those queries, we shall vote against the statutory instrument.

We want more effective regulation of mobile phone masts that is in tune with the concerns of local people, but the statutory instrument does the reverse. It does no service to our constituents and, in many cases—certainly in expensively run local authorities such as that of the hon. Member for Bath—it will merely help to lessen the losses made by planning authorities on such applications. That is not the point of the statutory instrument as I interpret it, but that is what will be achieved by the shoddy way in which the Minister has approached the matter.

5.22 pm

Ms Keeble: The hon. Gentleman seems to think that the regulations are being introduced to support planning processes that are already in place. That is not the case, but I am not sure that he realises that. The point of the increased fee is to make it possible to change the regulations and introduce tighter procedures, which he professes to support. Otherwise, there is a real risk that the new procedures will be introduced without any money to back them up. There has been no dissension in the Room with regard to introducing new regulations that provide more protection for the public interest and more opportunity for members of the public to have a say in what happens about mobile phone masts. In addition, people who want a better service from their mobile phones have an interest in the erection of mobile phone masts. Two conflicting interests must therefore be satisfied.

If we are considering a new procedure for mobile phone masts that were not previously subject to regulation, we must look for parity with another fee that is charged. In relation to the procedure for masts of less than 15 m, the parity that we sought was with the fee charged for those of more than 15 m. That seems absolutely straightforward. That system is indeed under review, but we must still look at parity. Otherwise, we will end up charging more for the smaller masts than the larger masts, which would be a nonsense. It would be an even bigger nonsense to expect local authorities to introduce new and unnecessary procedures and not expect them to see any financial return. That is what would happen if the hon. Gentleman voted against the measure. I do not understand how he could then broadcast to his constituents that he supports their right to have a say in such sensitive issues, which people rightly or wrongly perceive to be connected with their health, when he is against providing the opportunity for the local authority to charge a fee. That would be the logical consequence of what he is proposing. He must redeem himself and be consistent.

Tim Loughton: The Minister has still not answered the question. What better consultation and increased notification will happen as a result of the measure? She said that the fees should be seen in tandem with the better regulations that are being introduced, such as the national database and the emissions surveys of mobile phone masts. In my understanding, neither of those regulations are the responsibility of local authorities. If they are, they will cost them a lot of money. Apart from the time of the consultation, what will local authorities have to do with the new regulations?

Ms Keeble: Continuing research is being done into the health implications, but we are not dealing with those implications this afternoon. We are discussing the planning process and planning system. The new regulations are not themselves being debated this afternoon, as they will be introduced through a different process. We run the real risk of introducing tighter regulations, which everybody wants, without having agreed any commensurate fee structure. That structure is important, and I am sure that most members of the Committee think that it is important. Clearly, the hon. Member for Bath thinks that it is important, because he said that the fee should be much higher. On the other hand, the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham suggests that he will vote against the regulations, which would mean no fee at all.

The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said that no information had been given on how the consultation and notification would be improved by the measure. The simple answer is that when the new regulations come into force—which is not yet, because we are simply talking about the fee structure at this point—they will apply to phone masts under 15 m, which are presently not regulated at all.

All the proposals that we are introducing in that respect are new and represent a real improvement for members of the public. Notices were not required to be put up before—nor was information required to be given to school governors, which everyone knows to be a major issue. The measure relating to the extension of time also represents a real improvement on current arrangements. Those changes, which were announced on 16 March, which are not yet in force and for which we are discussing only the fees this afternoon, represent a considerable strengthening of the planning arrangements for telecom masts.

The consultation arrangement for masts of 15 m and below will be exactly the same as for masts above that height, when the new regulations are introduced. To give local planning authorities more time to consult local people and consider their views, we are increasing the period for authorities to decide application for prior approval to a uniform 56 days. That is double the period that they have now to consider masts on buildings and 50 per cent. longer than the existing period for ground-based masts.

In recognition of the extra work for local authorities, the fee would increase from £35 to £190. That represents a five-fold increase to give local authorities the resources that they need to do all that extra work. We are placing great emphasis on the importance of proper consultation, not just once an application has been submitted but in prior discussion, so that operators, local authorities and local people develop solutions in partnership. The changes that we intend to make strike the right balance by improving consultation with local people, ensuring that the decision-making process is not open-ended and giving the 43 million people who use mobile phones the service that they want.

Question put:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 4.

Division No. 1]

Bayley, Hugh
Clark, Paul
Efford, Clive
Griffiths, Jane
Keeble, Ms Sally
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Perham, Linda
Woolas, Mr. Phil

Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Foster, Mr. Don
Green, Matthew
Loughton, Tim

Question accordingly agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2001.

Committee rose at twenty-nine minutes to Six o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Butterfill, Mr. John (Chairman)
Bayley, Hugh
Clark, Paul
Clifton-Brown, Mr.
Efford, Clive
Flook, Mr.
Foster, Mr. Don
Francois, Mr.
Green, Matthew
Griffiths, Jane
Keeble, Ms
Ladyman, Dr.
Loughton, Tim
Perham, Linda
Woolas, Mr.

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