Government attacked over mobile mast rules

Opposition MPs are concerned that local councils won't be able to prevent a mast being built on a local school or hospital

The UK government has been accused of giving in to the mobile phone companies after warning local councils against imposing restrictions on the siting of new phone masts.

Under the latest planning rules, councils have been told that they should not ban mobile masts from their land, or refuse to allow masts to be built on or near schools or hospitals. Opposition MPs said the restrictions were wrong, and suggested that pressure from the mobile phone industry -- which is currently struggling through a slump -- had encouraged the government to draw up the rules.

Liberal MP Phil Willis claimed on Thursday that the government has caved in to pressure from mobile phone companies. They are thought to be concerned that more severe planning rules could make it harder for them to build successful 3G mobile networks -- a process that will require the erection of many tens of thousands of new masts -- even with mast sharing. Willis is a long-time opponent of the building of masts on sites such as school and hospitals.

According to Friday's Financial Times, the Conservative party is also unimpressed with the government's approach. Shadow environment spokesman Damian Green is reported to have said that the new rules removed "a potential weapon" from local authorities.

In response, a spokesman for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, defended its position, pointing out that councils now had a 56-day consultation period, and were encouraged to consult a school's governing body when a mobile operator expressed interest in erecting a mast on top of a school.

Under the revised guidelines, which were announced in March, councils should not take health concerns into account. "It remains the Government's firm view that the planning system is not the appropriate mechanism for determining health safeguards. If a proposed development meets the appropriate guidelines it should not be necessary for a local planning authority, in processing an application, to consider the health aspects further," said planning minister Nick Raynsford recently.

Faced with significant public concern over a perceived health risk from mobile phone masts, some councils have already been taking action against mobile phone companies. Kent County Council hit the headlines at the start of this year by announcing that it would not allow masts to be built on its land -- something which Green claims would not be allowed under the new rules.

Stockport County Council was forced to threaten Orange with legal action in order to get it to remove a mast from a local school.

There is no clear indication as to the strength of public opinion over mobile phone masts, but protest body Mast Action UK claims to be made up of over 200 local campaigning groups.

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