Calls for transparency on mobile phone masts

Local coverage with Mast Sanity prominent and a decent MP standing up for our rights.

Andy


This is a good example of a local paper fully on board. Congrats to them. This took up most of the front page.

Yours, JO'B


West Sussex Gazette

Calls for transparency on mobile phone masts

By JEANNIE KNIGHT and CLARE HAWKIN

March 9th 2006

West Sussex MP has said that it is no longer acceptable for the government to sweep people's concerns about phone masts under the carpet.

The comments were made by Nick Herbert at a House of Commons debate on Friday (March 3) at the second reading of the Telecommunications Masts (Planning Control Bill) proposed by MP David Curry.

His remarks came in a week when a leading campaign group, Mast Sanity, claimed that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister was in collusion with the Department of Trade and Industry and watchdog OFCOM, ignoring calls by councils, MPs, MEPs and phone mast campaigners, as well as their own advisors for planning controls, to prevent further despoliation of the country by the telecoms industry.

The group claimed that two separate requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act has been ignored and secret high-level meetings had been held with mobile phone operators.

Mr. Herbert, who represents Arundel and South Downs, said that while mobile phones were important, people were concerned because the siting of masts for them was outside of the planning process.

"In the eyes of our constituents masts can affect people's health, particularly when they are sited close to schools and medical facilities, without any proper consultation with local communities.

"As my Right Honourable friend the member for Skipton and Ripon and other members have explained the problem is that the siting of such masts is effectively outside the planning process. No proper consultation with communities therefore takes place and people feel disenfranchised from the decisions that are taken."

The new bill has proposed that any new masts would be subject to full planning permission and that health concerns should be taken into account when applications are considered.

"The principle of the bill - that local communities should be properly consulted over the location of masts - must be right," said Mr Herbert. "For too long there has been a creeping attitude that the government knows best and a process whereby too many decisions are in effect taken out of local control and away from local communities."

He said that the government should support the principle behind the bill and be willing to discuss it in committee.

It has been suggested that 3G technology - the technology that provides a faster service to handsets and other features, including internet access - will require up to four times as many masts as at present. This would result in 135,000 more masts in the country - 200 for every constituency. Currently 85 per cent of people in Britain own a mobile phone with more than 35.000 phone masts throughout the country.

Mr Herbert added: "The issue will not go away. We must be capable of achieving a sensible balance."

Mast Sanity said there was currently no regulation of the mobile industry in this country. Indeed, one of the requests denied under the Freedom of Information Act was for the findings of the study, which focused on how the Mobile Operators comply with the self-regulatory Codes of Best Practice and Ten Commitments.

Campaigners believe that one of the reasons that the study has not been released by the government is because of the auction of licences for the new broadband regime this week, which completely by-passes local planners and the public.

A report that very probably states that greater planning controls are needed would not go down very well when a regime to expand broadband, which has no planning controls whatsoever, is about to be introduced, it suggested.

A request under the Freedom of Information act was made to OFCOM for statistics on the number of phone masts in Wales. This has also been met with a wall of silence.

"The refusal of these requests, and the arrogant and unaccountable manner in which they have been denied are just the tip of the iceberg," said Mast Sanity trustee, Amanda Wesley.

"Our democratic and human rights are being violated by the conduct of the ODPM, OFCOM and the DTI. One has to ask if the Freedom of Information Act or any report commissioned by the government is worth the paper it is written on when they only seem prepared to release information that will not expose or embarrass them. The same applies to the Litchfield Report and the Stewart Report, both of which included the removal of permitted development rights, along with other recommendations which were ignored. This government seems concerned only with protecting the commercial interests of the mobile phone industry, no matter what the impact on ordinary people is."

Mast Sanity also believes that enormous pressure was put on MPs to snub the Telecommunications Masts (Planning Control) Bill debated in the House last Friday, when it was presented by David Curry for its second reading.

"This was the third attempt to get a Private Members' Bill through parliament to tighten planning controls on phone masts, yet here we were again with MPs coming up with the same excuses as to why they couldn't attend on Friday. They are in parliament to represent their constituents and it's about time they made a stand and stood up for the democratic rights of their constituents. If MPs didn't turn up on Friday then they can't look their constituents in the eye and claim to support a precautionary principle," said Mast Sanity press officer Sian Meredith.

"There is growing anger among ordinary people. These cosy chats behind closed doors between the Mobile Operators Association and their members and the government, aimed at promoting and protecting the unique perks enjoyed by the industry are undemocratic. We need a serious investigation into the activities of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, OFCOM and the DTI, and the industry now to stop this disgraceful state of affairs from continuing," she added.

During the parliamentary debate MPs were told that while exact figures of masts were not known, it was estimated there are 50,000 base stations in the country, with as many as 300 in some local authority districts.

Concerns were expressed about the 'Christmas tree effect' when numerous other masts were added to a base station, without need for further planning permission.

Following last Friday's discussion in parliament of almost two hours, the debate was adjourned and will be continued this coming Friday.

A spokesman for OFCOM said: "There is no secret about the number of masts. Anyone can look them up county by county on //www.sitefinder.radio.gov.uk .

"We have not had any inquiries under the Freedom of Information Act from Mast Sanity itself. To say whether we have answered queries, we would need to know the name of person who made any inquiry." Residents in East Preston have outlined their concerns after mobile phone company Vodaphone approached the local church about installing a 3G mast in its bell tower.

The plans for St Mary's Church are being handled by QS4 technology, which is part of the Qinetiq defence group and works on behalf of the Church of England. It specialises in designing and installing mobile phone masts in churches and has been involved in hundreds of applications across the country. There are currently 500 churches across the country which have had mobile phone masts installed in them.

Bill Scott of QS4 said that the company's job was to liaise with the mobile phone companies and churches and between the church and residents.

"The CoE asked us to represent them in order that full consultation could take place with local residents," he said. "The church was worried that mobile phone companies were not carrying out as much consultation as they should.

"Masts in churches are much less obtrusive and on the whole people do not mind them as much as normal mobile phone masts. Churches are often the tallest buildings in an area and so are very good places to install masts."

Mr Scott said that the consultation was more involved when a church was concerned than for other mobile phone masts and that it would only go ahead if people in East Preston agreed with it.

St Mary's Parochial Church Council has provisionally approved the mast and is now waiting for the results of consultation.

The extra equipment needed for the mast would be hidden in shrubbery on Station Road.

Two attempts by Orange to install mobile phone masts in the village were blocked last year by Arun District Council.

One resident, who asked not to be named said she was unhappy with the plans. "I was brought up to believe the church to be a sacred place for one to commune with God - I feel it is being abused if masts are allowed to be fitted within it and in its grounds."

There are currently 496 masts in West Sussex, consisting of 355 GSM masts, 31 Tetra and 110 UMTs.


This was accompanied by the following editorial comment:

Masts must be put on hold for now

Mobile phone masts have somehow become part of our countryside and townscapes without the majority of people having had the chance to voice their approval or disapproval.

By stealth the masts have proliferated, and there seems little likelihood that their spread can be halted. As Arundel and South Downs MP Nick Herbert says, the government has swept people's concerns under the carpet. It is time for these concerns to be taken seriously.

Doubts persist over the safety of clamping your mobile phone to your ear at regular intervals, but that's your choice; you can inflict it on yourself if you so wish.

That choice is denied communities when it comes to the siting of phone masts. If there are safety implications - and there seems sufficient concern from different quarters that there might well be - then it is a safety implication for all of us, regardless of whether we are mobile users or not... and most of us are.

As such, the sensible way forward would be to have a moratorium on erecting new masts anywhere near settlements of people until there is conclusive, independently verified evidence that they are not detrimental to people's health.

As things stand no one can categorically rule out the possibility these masts, some years down the line, will be found to have damaged us in some way.

And all this before we have even mentioned the aesthetic downside of having a prominent hunk of metal near your home.

There is endless pussyfooting over the degree of concealment, and, indeed, some new masts are totally unobtrusive. But that's missing the point: Just because it's well hidden, it isn't necessarily safe.

We must proceed with caution for the real cost won't remain hidden for ever.

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