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The Minister for Housing and Planning (Mr. Nick Raynsford): Our Department has received a range of representations on planning arrangements for telecommunications over the past year. On 16 March, I announced a series of important changes to the planning system on the siting of mobile phone masts which significantly strengthen public consultation requirements.
Mr. Amess: Why have the Liberal-supported Labour Government not yet acted positively on the recommendations of the Stewart report? Will the Minister explain to my constituents how, in a heavily populated, tiny urban area, these monstrosities are being erected all the time? Local residents protest, the council tries to intervene, the matter goes to appeal, yet the masts stay up. Can we have some action from this rotten Liberal-supported Labour Government?
Mr. Raynsford: The hon. Gentleman is carried away by the flights of his own fantasies. I can assure him that the Government have acted on the Stewart recommendations. We have acted by strengthening the public consultation arrangements, and by ensuring that all base stations meet the international exposure guidelines; we have set in train an audit of base stations, starting with schools; we have set up a national database with details of base stations; and we are launching a new £7 million joint industry-Government research programme. Those are all actions undertaken by the Government to ensure that the public interest is safeguarded while we facilitate the continued roll-out of a mobile phone network on which 40 million people in this country depend.
Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the changes that he mentioned with regard to strengthening public consultation will remove the anomaly whereby a proposal for a mast of 15 m in height only requires prior approval from a local authority, whereas a proposal for a 20 m mast is subject to full planning permission?
Mr. Raynsford: Under the new arrangements that we have announced, all applications for ground-based masts will be subject to a consultation period of 56 days, which is the period for all normal full planning applications. For masts under 15 m in height, there will be continuation of the prior approval procedure. Under that procedure, if the local authority does not reject the proposal within the 56 days, consent is deemed. In every other respect, the procedure will be the same as that for full planning approval.
Mr. Raynsford: Our procedures ensure that the public have as full an opportunity to comment on any new mobile phone mast application as that which they have under the full planning procedures, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. The only difference is that if the local authority fails to reach a decision by the end of the 56-day period, consent is deemed. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would want all local authorities to deal with planning applications expeditiously, as we do. Provided that they do so, there is no difference.
Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion): I welcome the announcements that my right hon. Friend made in March, as, I am sure, do others. However, when he lays the final regulations that relate to those announcements, will he take into account the experience of my constituents in Mitre House, a block of flats in my constituency? My constituents found that they and the local council were powerless to prevent the erection of a mast on the roof of the building. Nothing less than full planning permission would satisfy the need for proper consultation.
Mr. Raynsford: I assure my hon. Friend that under the arrangements that we have announced, roof-based masts will also be subject to the 56-day procedure. Currently, a separate 28-day procedure applies in respect of such masts, so there is a significant improvement. The doubling of the consultation period should ensure that my hon. Friend's concerns in respect of his constituents' views about such proposals are dealt with satisfactorily.
Mr. Damian Green (Ashford): I cannot believe that the Minister is convincing even himself with this flannel. Clearly, he is not convincing any of his colleagues. On 31 July last year, he said that he was
Mr. Raynsford: As I recall it, the Trade and Industry Committee described our proposals in its most recent report on the subject as a carefully crafted compromise. That is exactly what they are. [Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen. They are a compromise because there are two conflicting pressures. There is concern among a very large number of our citizens who want to use mobile phones and want good reception. There are 40 million users. Equally, there is concern about
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): We are encouraging bus travel by a combination of policy and fiscal measures. They include: strengthened powers for local authorities under the Transport Act 2000 to improve the quality of bus services; statutory requirements to ensure that buses are fully accessible; guaranteed half-fare reductions for elderly and disabled people; a major boost to capital investment through local transport plans; and enhanced funding for rural and urban buses. That accounts for some £230 million over the next 3 years--a 35 per cent. increase on the subsidy paid by local authorities in 1997.
Mr. Grogan: Will the Minister congratulate all those in Selby district who are involved in implementing the half-fare bus pass scheme, which comes into force there, as in the rest of the country, on 1 June? More than 6,000 pensioners have applied for it already. The pass is valid not only in Selby but for destinations throughout North Yorkshire and parts of West Yorkshire. Given the huge success and popularity of the scheme in rural areas, is there not a case for considering whether such bus passes should be valid not only in pensioners' home areas but throughout the country?
Mr. Hill: I am delighted to hear of the welcome for the concessionary fares scheme in Selby; it is reflected throughout the country. Indeed, 7 million elderly and disabled people stand to benefit from the introduction of the guaranteed statutory half-fare travel concessions.
My hon. Friend's second point was about the interchangeability of concessionary passes. That subject has frequently been raised with the Government, and we have asked the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK to consider it. We look forward to receiving its recommendations in due course.
Mr. Don Foster (Bath): Does the Minister agree that if we are to encourage bus travel, it must be reliable, and decent travel information should be provided? Will he therefore explain why, since November 1999, when the Secretary of State set a target for reducing bus cancellations, they have rocketed to four times the target figure? Why has the Department published only a summary of the report that it commissioned about its plans for improving travel information? Is it because the
Mr. Hill: Obviously, the report is available to the hon. Gentleman; he has his own arcane means of acquiring such documents. I do not dispute that some cancellation figures have worsened, but they need to be set in the context of overall growth in the use of buses, especially in south-east England. All the signs are that the long decline in bus use which resulted from privatisation and deregulation under the previous Administration is coming to an end. We are confident of achieving our 10-year transport plan target of 10 per cent. growth and more passenger journeys.
Mr. Jonathan Shaw (Chatham and Aylesford): Does my hon. Friend know that later this year, pensioners in Medway will be able to travel for a 20p flat rate fare? Will he join me in welcoming that? It is not surprising that, while Liberal Democrat councillors were able to support Labour councillors in Medway, the Tories voted against the proposal.
Mr. Hill: I am not in the least surprised to hear of that Conservative opposition to an extremely positive measure. One of the great satisfactions of the half-fare concessionary scheme is that, for the first time, senior citizens and disabled people in Conservative-run local authorities will be able to benefit from half-fare concessionary schemes. Because of the rural bus grant, some rural bus services--2,000 nationwide--are running for the first time in Conservative-controlled areas. That is a commitment to the countryside that the Opposition never contemplated in their 18 years of misrule.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): However attractive concessionary fares are--and I support concessionary fares for the disabled and the elderly-- does the Minister accept that, whatever resources the Government put in to bus services, they will be inadequate to provide an acceptable quality of service in the more remote rural areas, and that the people who live in those areas will have to rely on their own cars? Does he accept that in many areas of the country, sufficient buses are not available to provide people with the quality of life that we all expect?
Mr. Hill: I certainly accept that bus services are not extant in many areas of the country. That is why recently, in Cornwall, I was delighted to announce the parish transport fund initiative, which will provide £15 million for parishes to originate their own transport schemes. Those could take the form of shared car schemes, of hiring in bus services for villages that have heretofore not been served by them, or of new taxi schemes in those localities. The announcement has been widely welcomed by the parishes, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take the message about this opportunity back to his own locality.
Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that many companies are considering ways of persuading their employees to make more use of public transport, especially buses, for getting
Mr. Hill: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. The Government are, of course, open to any proposal that serves to enhance the provision of public transport services. I know that many companies run their own coach services, which play an important role in a public transport context, although they are run specifically for the companies' own employees. The Commission for Integrated Transport has considered the issue of fuel duty rebates in connection with coach services, and I know that it will certainly take such matters into its future remit.