§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
As we all know, the mobile telecommunications industry is booming. By next year, it is expected that the number of mobile telephone subscribers will exceed 20 million. By the end of the decade, that figure could be nearly doubled. I support that growth; it is part of the communications revolution that is helping to sustain our economy in a uniquely long growth cycle, as it has done in the United States of America. However, that massive and rapid growth has thrown up a series of questions about how it can be accommodated without spoiling the environment which it is our duty to protect and enhance before we pass it on to our heirs.
Health risks associated with microwave radiation remain a matter of controversy. Today, however, I want to focus on the visual environment. The establishment of unsightly masts, which support more than a third of telecommunication base stations, is growing at an alarming rate throughout the country. No one seems to know exactly how many masts there are. If my constituency is anything to go by, there must be more than 10,000, and we are promised a doubling of their number despite the present 98 per cent. coverage, due to capacity increase and new technology.
The masts are invariably eyesores; they are an awful imposition on the surrounding landscape. Time and again in my constituency, masts have been erected in places where their towering existence has had a serious impact on people's quiet enjoyment of their environment and the surrounding scenery. My case files attest to the fact that they have become a permanent blight on the lives of those who live nearby.
The planning regulations have promoted rapid development at the expense of environmental concerns. Regulations have been drafted to assist mobile telephone companies, but those regulations have been aggressively exploited in order to build new masts. In my constituency, the actions of Orange have been an exemplar of corporate insensitivity, as they have repeatedly overridden the strong objections of local residents and local councils.
Now that the networks are largely completed, the planning process must be rebalanced in favour of the environment rather than unimpeded commercial development. As the Minister knows, planning policy guidance 8 is central to the planning process. Such is the guidance given in PPG8 that, even if masts are subject to the planning process, the final result is nearly always in favour of development. That guidance must be rewritten. Other regulations, too, should be examined so that it is no longer acceptable for masts to be built willy-nilly in the green belt or in conservation areas. All new masts for base stations should be subject to full planning permission.
Everyone agrees that base stations attached to existing buildings and structures are preferable. The refusal of owners of suitable sites to host a base station should therefore be investigated more closely if it is likely to lead to a mast development. We should also ask whether the operators have offered a suitable fee to the potential base station host. That economic test should include not only the cost of the alternative to a mast, but 191WH an allowance for the mast being an environmental offence, probably devaluing property and the quality of life of its neighbours for decades. If operators cannot satisfy the planning inspectorate that they have met those economic tests, permission for masts should be refused.
We must put in place every incentive to avoid mast development if other feasible technical solutions can be found. Masts should be the last option in a properly demonstrable sequential approach. Although I welcome the new mast database, information that I have gleaned from companies suggests that it is not yet working properly. With four networks, it is pathetic that only 30 per cent. of masts are shared. An average of one mast servicing two networks would be barely adequate. I asked the Director General of Telecommunications whether he intended to move to a robust target for mast sharing; I regret that his answer was no. I hope that he will think again before he issues his promised consultative document.
In making the case for tighter planning regulations for masts, I turn to an example in my constituency. Orange and Railtrack have abused the normal planning process in order to erect a 32m mast in a conservation area.
§ Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)
I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene. Yesterday, I had a meeting in the village of Glenboig in my constituency involving the company One 2 One. I experienced the same difficulty as the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that there should be far more consultation with local people? In my constituency there was none.
§ Mr. Blunt
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's intervention, which demonstrates that the problem affects hundreds of constituencies where companies have not taken account of local concerns. Let me give a classic example.
Local residents and the local planning authority were eventually powerless to prevent the development of the 32m mast in a conservation area, as Railtrack was able to exploit the mast's exemption from the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995—part 24 being applicable to telecommunications developments—for the eventual commercial benefit of Orange, in a pre-arranged strategy. In July 1997, Railtrack unilaterally erected a 32m mast—higher than the company required—on a railway embankment off Nutley lane in Reigate, claiming the benefit of permitted development rights. This dominated a residential area and the Somers road conservation area. A storm of local protest led to a number of my constituents—notably Susie Gamier, Jill Campbell, David Tinn, Anne and Gordon Forest and others too numerous to mention—becoming unhappily expert in mast matters as they led local protests against the mast. The local authority was deeply unimpressed by Railtrack's use of its power under the order. It formally 192WH expressed deep disappointment, called the lack of notification to local residents "unacceptable" and was not convinced that a mast 32m high was required. The local authority concluded:Railtrack merely considered cost effectiveness and at no stage were the amenities of the locality or nearby residents taken into account.Surprise, surprise! In March 1998 the local authority received an application from Orange to replace the Railtrack mast with a bigger, better—wider and more obtrusive—mast of its own. Had there been a commercial agreement that had influenced Railtrack's selection of the site and the erection and height of the mast and ancillary installation? Unfortunately for it, Orange's supporting statement to its application to replace the Railtrack mast is dated February 1997, six months before Railtrack put up its mast. That tells us the answer. Railtrack's actions in not invigilating Orange's plans for the replacement, which apparently formed part of a vital safety system, tell us what had gone on before the mast was put up.
The planning process then wound its predictable route. There was a further storm of local protest. Reigate and Banstead borough council refused Orange's application on the ground that the mast would be extremely prominent, and detrimental to the visual amenities of the surrounding area and, in particular, the conservation area. The inevitable appeal to the Planning Inspectorate followed. The inspector conscientiously did his duty. He visited the site accompanied by representatives of the company and the local ward councillor, Councillor Ann Milton, who had been actively representing local people's concerns to the local authority.
Entirely predictably, the planning inspector gave permission for the mast in October last year. A key consideration in his conclusion in allowing Orange's appeal was the pre-existence of Railtrack's mast and the fact that it would allow mast sharing between Railtrack and Orange. The case is clear: Orange and Railtrack combined to defeat the intentions of the planning process towards a high mast in a conservation area. Railtrack's action was an abuse of its rights. It claimed it as a vital safety system, but then seemed remarkably disinterested in the inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Orange's plans and failed to specify certain requested details with any clarity. Railtrack was not justified in claiming the benefit of permitted development rights but, to quote its own publicity material, this was a way tobuild on the partnerships we have development with some of the UK's major telecom companies to increase profitability.Railtrack must now answer some questions, not least those put to it by Susie Gamier and Jill Campbell. What is the nature of the business and description of the business already developed, and about to be developed, with the telecom companies, utilising Railtrack's infrastructure? On how many occasions has Railtrack's use of permitted development rights been of advantage when selling access to its infrastructure? If Railtrack is not prepared to expose the nature of its relationship with the telecom companies, we are entitled to think that it is a racket, and the regulatory authorities should act accordingly in the public interest to withdraw and restrict Railtrack's rights.
193WH That is not the only example of Orange's poor practice in my constituency. The code of best practice, introduced in 1996, regarding prior approval procedures for applied mast and tower development states:If the planning authority raises reasonable concerns and requests changes to the appearance, landscape of siting of the proposed installation, the operator will try to meet these requests where possible.The code is intended to foster a co-operative approach, whereby the industry and its agents work closely together with local planning authorities and communities. Orange escaped from its legal obligations to accept minimal council requests to reduce the visual impact of a proposed mast at Shrimpsfield, Brighton road, Kingswood in an unseemly row over whether the council had met the 28-day deadline. We can see, therefore, how much respect Orange has for the opinion of local people. It is little surprise that the Gregorys, whose life has been blighted by the mast, report that the requested shrub cover is painfully thin and inadequate.
I recognise the efforts that have been made by other companies in recognition of the unsightliness of masts. For example, One 2 One has voluntarily ended its use of the 1995 order for future masts on greenfield sites when there is mast sharing. I have to admit my surprise that one company—Orange—seems to be the usual culprit in enraging local communities. When my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) learnt of this debate, he sent me a copy of his local paper, with the headline "Mast Fury". Again the culprit was Orange.
I largely accept the advice on the danger from radiation. However, on environmental grounds alone, the regulatory framework must be rebalanced now that operators have met the coverage targets set for them by the Government. A specific example is one that has arisen over a telecommunications mast in Banstead Woods in the Metropolitan green belt, which is an area of great landscape value, a site of special scientific interest and ancient woodland. However, for some reason, the woods are not classified as an area of outstanding natural beauty, even though they are certainly that. I hope that the Minister will agree with me and the Chipstead residents association that the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 should be amended to give areas such as Banstead Woods the same protection as areas of outstanding natural beauty.
I also look forward to Oftel's consultative document on mast sharing, which will be published this year, but I am concerned that there will be an absence of target-setting by the regulator. Planning obligations to secure mast sharing should be strengthened, but local communities must be sure that other base station sites have been tried and that proper offers are made to the owners of such sites, who can prevent an unnecessary mast from being erected.
I hope that there will be greater co-operation between the cellular operators and others to minimise the need for more masts to be erected. The operators tell us that we can expect twice as many masts in the future. That is not acceptable. The Minister must use her powers to protect communities from the telecommunications operators and the privileges that they currently enjoy, and occasionally abuse. I hope that we shall hear of her intention to rebalance the regulatory framework in the direction that I have suggested.
194WH 12.43 pm
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Beverley Hughes)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on securing this Adjournment debate and on giving the Chamber an opportunity to discuss this important matter, which exercises the minds of many hon. Members. I thank him, too, for his courtesy in giving me notice of some of the issues that he would raise. That was helpful in allowing me to respond as fully as I can.
The hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the way in which the number of telecommunication masts has increased in the past few years. That is a reflection of the significant growth nationally in the mobile communication sector over the past 15 years. There are now 24 million subscribers in the UK. In other words, 40 per cent. of the population now have a mobile phone. That market is expected to continue to grow.
As the hon. Gentleman recognised, the Government want to encourage and facilitate the roll-out of a modern national telecommunications network. We want to ensure that the public can enjoy the benefits that come from a greater choice of service providers and a broader range of telecommunications services. An efficient and modern network brings a number of important social and economic benefits, helping, for example, to create a climate conducive to business development and providing ready access to different kinds of communications services in both rural and urban areas.
We accept the hon. Gentleman's argument: the drive to develop the telecommunications network with its attendant base stations, masts and antennae must be balanced with the Government's other priorities and commitments to the achievement of environmental objectives. That is not an easy balance, but we accept that a balancing needs to take place. Planning policy guidance for this form of development set out in PPG8 provides the framework. As we have made clear, we attach great importance to keeping to a minimum the environmental intrusion caused by the telecommunications network development. The land use planning system provides the tool for trying to strike that necesary balance.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I cannot comment on the individual cases that he raises or any of the allegations that he makes about the motives and intentions of particular companies, but I can discuss the planning issues that are relevant in those cases. I hope that that will be helpful. The general planning arrangements are that larger telecommunications developments, such as masts higher than 15m, will require a fuller planning application. Relatively minor development is permitted by the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, referred to as the GPDO. Permitted development rights generally have been approved by the House and apply throughout England and Wales. Generally, they benefit a large number of bodies in both the public and the private sector including, for example, householders and statutory undertakers, as well as licensed telecommunications operators.
Part 24 of the order grants a range of permitted development rights for telecommunications code system operators who are licensed under the 195WH Telecommunications Act 1984. Those rights allow operators to carry out specified development, subject to certain conditions and limitations, without the need to make a full planning application to the local planning authority. The GPDO approach incorporates essential environmental safeguards. I should emphasise that there are special provisions regarding the installation of any mast in key designated areas such as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and sites of special scientific interest. In those areas, the installation of any mast does not enjoy permitted development rights under those orders, but development is subject to a full planning application. That allows more detailed consideration of the different aspects, including the environmental aspects of the proposals.
The main safeguard under the GPDO is provided through the prior approval precedure and that gives the local planning authority an opportunity to consider the siting and appearance of telecommunications masts. We made important amendments to the procedure last year so that operators are now required to post a site notice to publicise a proposal to erect a ground-based mast, in order to provide the public with a clear opportunity to comment to the local planning authority on its siting and appearance. If the local authority considers that the proposed development would have a detrimental effect on local amenities it can refuse approval, but authorities are advised to explore if possible the scope for modifying the siting or appearance to accommodate acceptable arrangements before doing so.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned in particular the permitted development rights given separately to statutory undertakers. Permitted development rights enable statutory undertakers such as rail operators to carry out certain developments without making a planning application. Normally, it would be unreasonable to require statutory operators providing a service to the public to make a planning application for every essential development. Local authorities would be inundated with planning applications, and the efficiency of those operators would be needlessly compromised, with consumers having to bear the resulting costs. If Railtrack had to apply for planning permission every time that it needed to carry out essential safety, maintenance or enhancement work on the rail network, that would at the very least impose serious delays and at worst create unacceptable risks for rail customers.
Permitted development rights are important to the process of statutory operators fulfilling their duties to the public in the most efficient and cost-effective way, but that does not mean that Railtrack or any other statutory operator enjoying permitted development rights may do whatever it likes. For example, in relation to the exercise of such rights under part 17 of the GPDO, any development undertaken by the railway operator—including masts—on its operational land must be needed in connection with its operations: the movement of traffic by rail. It cannot exploit that power for non-railway-related purposes. Recent circulars from my Department provide guidance to the statutory operators on the use of permitted development rights, making it clear that local planning authorities should be informed of any proposal likely to have a significant effect on amenities or the environment.
196WH The Department is aware of concerns about statutory operators' use of permitted development rights. A report on departmental research into the use of permitted development rights by statutory operators concluded that, in general, the system of permitted development rights is operating satisfactorily, but it made several recommendations for improvement, including arrangements for consultation with the public and local authorities, as mentioned by both the hon. Member for Reigate and my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke).
In addition, the report identified several concerns in relation to rail operators, including the installation of communications masts; the impact of permitted development rights on light pollution; felling trackside trees; car parking at railway stations; and the scale and appearance of new buildings and structures. At the moment, we are considering whether to address those concerns by issuing new guidance and revising the GPDO. Members' views are therefore timely.
The hon. Member for Reigate was anxious about the number of telecommunications masts. We believe that it should be kept to an absolute minimum, consistent with the provision of an efficient national network. Our policy is that masts and sites should be shared, when appropriate, and we are taking steps to encourage that. Indeed, conditions attached to operating licences granted by the Secretary of State include a requirement to investigate mast sharing in the consequential manner requested by the hon. Gentleman before seeking to put up any new mast.
When the GPDO was changed last year, we issued new policy advice in a circular setting out our view that operators should give the local planning authority evidence of having considered the use of existing masts, buildings or other structures before seeking permission to erect any new mast, whatever its size. With evidence on the suitability of alternative sites, the operator can, at an early stage, discuss with the local planning authority whether a shared mast would be the preferable solution for a proposed development. Information from the radio sites databank that the mobile operators set up last year should help in those discussions. I accept the point that the databank needs to be more effective, but when it is, it will assist the identification of mast sharing opportunities and facilitate a strategic approach to the provision and siting of masts.
The Department has recently published a consultation paper on the rating of telecommunications masts that are shared by multiple operators. The growth of shared sites has caused uncertainty in their rates assessment. The proposals would remove that uncertainty by providing that shared mast sites receive only one rates bill, thus making it easier for operators to share masts. In addition, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the Office of Telecommunications, Oftel, intends to issue a consultation document on mast sharing later this year. I understand why he wants that document to be as robust as possible—to maximise the potential for mast sharing.
As well as base station location, sympathetic design has a key role to play in minimising the impact of telecommunications development on the environment where it must take place. The Government are encouraging operators to work together to investigate 197WH the use of new technologies, materials and designs that will allow masts better to complement their surroundings.
The range of approaches that different companies have adopted shows that there is no such thing as a universally acceptable design solution, not least because good design is a subjective concept, but there remains an important place for some simple measures, such as early consideration in the development process of the use of planting and landscaping to help to screen the impact of developments in a local environment.
Careful consideration of the siting and design of a development should ensure that the right equipment is put in the right place. How to arrive at that solution is a further strand in striking the right balance, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, between network roll-out and protecting the environment. The Government firmly believe that telecommunications development is best advanced through the adoption of an effective partnership approach. I know that that is a hackneyed term, but I have not found another. Such an approach would involve operators, local authorities and, through them, local communities in a meaningful way. I fully accept the points that the hon. Gentleman made about that, and we want that part of the consultation arrangements to be strengthened. The code of best 198WH practice on prior approval procedures for mast development, published by the Department, underpins such a co-operative approach. A working party representing local government and the telecommunications industry drafted the code, which is now being updated.
I have outlined the different policies and initiatives that we are implementing to strike the right balance between network roll-out and the protection of the environment, and to achieve better use of existing sites, masts, buildings and other structures for locating antennas. The research recommendations on the statutory undertaker's permitted development rights, to which I have referred, will help us to address the various concerns.
The hon. Gentleman referred to many of those concerns, including the installation of telecommunications masts and their relationship to permitted development rights. We hope that the different parties will work together to achieve that balance. I am grateful to him for raising those issues—especially as it was timely to do so in the light of our considerations—and for his contribution.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to One o'clock.