Sir Michael Anthony Ashcroft, Knight, KCMG, having been created Baron Ashcroft, of Chichester in the County of West Sussex, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Parkinson and the Lord Blyth of Rowington.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty): My Lords, local planning authorities in England already have powers to control outdoor advertisements, including those in the countryside. Last year my department consulted on proposals to improve the regulations and announced the outcome in June 2000. Similarly, the planning regime for telecommunications masts in England already includes mechanisms for the protection of the environment. My department is currently consulting on possible changes. Responsibility for these matters in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland rests with the devolved administrations.
Lord Judd: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply and declare an interest as vice-president of the Council for National Parks. Does my noble friend agree that the countryside is one of our most precious assets and that psychologically it is becoming increasingly important in the pressurised age in which we live? Therefore, does he agree that it is unfortunate to see increasing evidence that the countryside is being spoiled by more advertising along the roadside and by a growing number of radio masts across the country? Can he bring together the companies which deal with radio masts to discuss how their task can be undertaken with a more strategic and sympathetic approach? Will he also throw all his weight behind strengthening the resolve of local authorities to deal firmly with those who want to allow more advertising to take place on roads and in the countryside?
Local authorities in the countryside and elsewhere already have strong powers in relation to roadside advertising. Road safety issues also arise in connection with advertisements which are situated close to the roadside. Local authorities should observe their obligations in that respect as well.
Lord Renton: My Lords, is the Minister aware that planning authorities have not done enough to prevent garages and petrol stations from bearing the most garish advertisements which interfere with the beauty of the countryside? Will he send a memorandum to all of them to deal with that matter?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the rules which cover planning permission for garages and the items which they can display are fairly tight. I believe that local authorities are aware of their responsibilities in that respect. If a particular aspect of that issue needs to be addressed, I should welcome further information from the noble Lord and would certainly undertake to look into it.
Lord Bridges: My Lords, is the Minister aware that mobile telephones have become an essential tool of modern life but that they convey environmental problems? Can the Minister state fairly precisely when the revised version of policy planning guidance no. 8, which concerns the power of local authorities in considering applications, will emerge? Will he consider a further improvement to make it possible for the planning authority to question the applicant about the operational need for such stations? At present the applicants decline to answer such questions and say, "It is an operational matter and it must be up to us". Therefore, an attempt to persuade two companies to share the same site, to modify the height of a mast or to consider a practical improvement almost invariably will be rejected. In the district where I live, 20 or more planning applications have been received in the past few months. Therefore, local authorities are simply unable to cope.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, local authorities have the power to cope. Certainly, that number of planning applications has been received in other areas and has been dealt with relatively well. It is for the operators and local authorities to consider together the best location and design to produce the minimal impact on the environment. Local authorities can control the site. They have adequate powers and can control planning permission for the appearance of masts. If it
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, having taken a decision that no mast would be erected on any school ground, Stockport Borough Council turned down an application by the Stockport Rugby Football Club for one to be located on its premises? Is he further aware that, following, I understand, very little investigation into the matter and little consultation with the local residents, an inspector from the Department of the Environment overturned that decision? Finally, will the Minister give an assurance that, accordingly, an adequate investigation will be carried out into the protests of the residents who have written to Mr Michael Meacher and into the inspector's decision?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I believe that my noble friend will be aware that it is very unwise for Ministers to make commitments in relation to planning decisions which may yet be subject to ministerial engagement. I am not aware of the details of that particular case. However, I am aware of the fact that special precautions need to be taken in relation to telecommunications masts which are close to schools. The Stewart inquiry made that point, and if the main beam affects schools, special precautions will need to be taken. I am sure that all planning authorities are aware of those restrictions.
Lord Monro of Langholm: My Lords, although the Minister is saying all the right things about the countryside, the problem is that, day by day, more and more masts are being erected. Real leadership is required, as is a lead to the local authorities to stop giving permission for all those masts, which I believe can be found at the top of nearly every hill between here and the Border.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, as I have said, local authorities have those powers. We are consulting as to whether such powers are correct. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, that that consultation will continue until the final version emerges, which should be reasonably rapid. Local authorities already have strong powers. In this age it is necessary for the people who live and work in the countryside to have access to the best of modern telecommunications. The question is not whether to ban masts but to ensure that they do minimal visual and environmental damage.
Lord Bridges: My Lords, I do not wish to correct the Minister, who is responsible for these matters. However, perhaps I may refine his reply. It may be true that local authorities have the power to turn down applications but they do not have the authority to negotiate improvements, which is what is needed.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the Government are not directly involved with this experiment. I understand that Westminster City Council is considering a possible trial of some paving stones containing titanium dioxide but that the idea is at an early stage. We shall be interested to learn of any results in due course.
Lord Campbell of Croy: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Provided the stones meet the essential requirements for sound and solid paving, do the Government foresee a useful possible role for them in urban areas in removing pollution caused by motor traffic? I believe that everybody would support that, and that it would be welcomed.
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