As my wife and parliamentary colleagues will tell you my mobile phone is rarely turned on. In the House of Commons it remains steadfastly turned off in my desk and when I am doing one of my frequent walks around London I rarely consider taking the mobile phone with me.
However I fully realise this places me in the minority. This ever present piece of modern communication is a great benefit to parents who feel secure knowing their children are in contact; the young who delight in constant conversations and texts; the self-employed who never want to miss a call and England’s football stars who never want to miss an opportunity for money, fame ?..or other notoriety!
The use of mobile phones continues to grow and there is a need for increased capacity for all the phone operators. With such a level of demand no one foresaw only a few years ago the requirement for so many phone masts creating the communication zones within which cellular phone traffic could operate efficiently.
As the requests for the erection of more and more phone masts build so it is becoming increasing apparent that the planning system for mobile phone masts is in urgent need of an overhaul. Regulations which were designed to kick-start the telecommunications industry twenty years ago, only serve today to override genuine local, environmental and safety concerns about where best to place masts.
Westminster City Council at the moment has very little discretion over their location, especially for ‘Tetra’ masts and those planned by Network Rail. National planning rules explicitly prevent the Planning Committee of any local authority taking health concerns into account ? even though an independent panel of scientists urged caution on their location back in 2000 especially near schools. The end results are feelings of powerlessness and frustration among those living (quite literally) under the threat of unwanted and ill-advisedly located masts.
It is estimated that, under third generation technology, there could be as many as 100,000 more masts being sited across the country, in addition to new ‘Tetra’ and Network Rail masts. I believe that all mobile phone mast developments should require full planning permission, so that local councillors are clearly accountable and answerable for where masts are located. In my own constituency in Westminster I know this would mean a proper concern would be shown for residents and especially around schools, hospitals and old people’s homes.
With such responsibility councils would be allowed to take health concerns into account such as near homes, hospitals and schools whilst mast operators would be required to demonstrate that any development does not result in unacceptable damage to a visual amenity or harm environmentally sensitive features.
Virtually all of us wish to be able to use a mobile phone, but this does not mean masts should be constructed without any regard for the consent or well-being of local people. The mobile phone operators have roared ahead on the back of a massive demand from users, especially here in central London. I believe that now it is time to call a halt to the widespread scattering of such masts and bring each future construction under planning control. The tide of progress should not be stopped, but equally that progress needs to be made in a way that works for local people.