Phones good, masts bad

Most people can't survive without their mobiles, but many aren't so keen on the masts which support the technology. JANAKI MAHADEVAN looks at community concerns over their siting

There are more phones than people in the UK, according to the Mobile Data Association. But not everyone is happy about having the technology on their doorstep, judging by the response to a recent planning application by Orange to erect a phone mast in Furzehill Road, Borehamwood.

The plan met with strong opposition from residents and was rejected at a council meeting on December 19. Council officers stressed their decision to recommend refusal of planning permission was based on the appearance of the mast and the impact on trees.

Nevertheless, the volume of letters and petitions submitted to Hertsmere Borough Council showed that much of the opposition from the public was down to fears over health risks.

Although there have been many studies into the effects of mobile phone masts, a definitive answer has still not been produced over the possible health implications.

First published in 2000, the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) report, chaired by Sir William Stewart, found that the risk of falling ill as a result of exposure to masts was low. But it also stated: "We recommend that a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies be adopted until much more detailed and scientifically robust information on any health effects becomes available."

The report, as part of its cautionary advice, suggested that base stations should not be placed near schools because children may be more vulnerable to any adverse affects of radiation.

Penny Swallow, 54 who lives in Howard Drive, Borehamwood, wrote to the chief executive of Orange objecting to the planned site for the mast.

She said: "The fundamental problem lies with planning regulations which were designed to kick-start the telecommunications industry 20 years ago, but which now only serve to override genuine local, environmental and safety concerns about where best to place phone masts.

"The council has very little discretion over the location of phone masts, and national planning diktats, issued from Whitehall, explicitly prevent the council's planning committee from taking health concerns into account.

"The end result is a feeling of powerlessness and frustration among our community, living under the threat of unwanted and badly located masts such as the one suggested for Borehamwood."

Planning officer Chris Lewcock said: "In one sense the Government has put a duty on us to assist the companies and to try and accomodate them.

"We have been quite lucky so far in Borehamwood with having big buildings to put masts on. But as the demand increases the operators are having to search for new sites.

"On health grounds local authorities are obliged by the Government to accept certification from the operators that they meet the requirements of the relevant national and international authorities. It is not our job to certify that.

"People are accepting the risks by using the phones themselves, which pose a much larger risk than the masts."

With the growth of new mobile technologies such as the 3G networks which allow users to download from their phone, have instant messaging and email exchange, it is inevitable that more technology will be needed in residential areas to support these services.

A spokeswoman for Orange said: "People are using their mobile phones for much more than voice calls and due to the low power of these masts, the infrastructure has to be placed where people are actually using the services.

"Orange complies fully with all regulations and, in fact, operates at hundreds of times below the set guidelines. People should not worry about living or working near this mast; they are safe and you can walk right up to them. We have to appreciate that in order to use mobile phone services, there is a network that needs to be in place to support those demands.

Omega people should worry about. See under:

"The current proposal did fail and Orange has not yet decided whether or not to appeal this decision. We will hopefully make a decision in the next few months."

Anxieties about health and visual impact are unlikely to be calmed.

Borehamwood councillor Frank Ward said: "We are here to protect the community not to comply with the edicts of Government.

"I accept that we all use mobile phones and that technology demands response.

"We have to accept that we have a part to play in the increasing technology. But as long as there is a modicum of risk I will not support the siting of this technology in a populated area."

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