LONDON (ZDNet UK)Orange has backed down in its fight against Stockport Council and agreed to remove a mobile phone mast from the roof of a school by this summer.
The climbdown is believed to be the first time a mobile phone operator in the UK has agreed to remove existing phone masts, and could influence disputes elsewhere in the country.
There is increasing public concern about the safety of mobile phone masts, despite there being no proof that the radio waves they emit have any health effects. With the number of masts in the UK set to increase by at least 50 percent in the next 18 months, there are worries that attempts by local authorities to restrict the erection of new transmitters in their area may hamper the rollout of GPRS and 3G services.
It took the decision after the council threatened to take the mobile network operator to court to force it to yield to the wishes of parents and local residents. Orange had been refusing to remove the mast from Marple Hall School, despite the fact that its contract ran out in November 2000, claiming that the equipment was vital for maintaining service levels. It is now examining three alternative sites to relocate the mast to.
The victory -- effectively an out-of-court settlement -- means that Stockport is the first council in Greater Manchester to come to such an agreement with a mobile network operator. However, Orange is still refusing to remove another mast from a second Stockport school, Cheadle Hulme College, and this dispute is set to be decided by the courts in November.
Orange is refusing to discuss whether other schools could use this procedure in the future, and also refuses to say how many similar disputes it is involved in. Its attempts to install a transmission mast on Richmond Hill in London are being strongly opposed by local campaigners. In January it caused a storm of protest with its plans to erect a mobile mast on the roof of a London hospital.
Now that Orange has promised to remove the transmitter from Marple Hall School by 31 August, Stockport Council has agreed to withdraw its legal enforcement notice. The mast will probably be taken down during the summer holidays, and the council feels that the outcome shows the benefit of taking a firm approach.
"We started county court action to show Orange we were serious, but we were also prepared to negotiate. After discussions Orange asked to be given reasonable time to relocate the mast, and we were prepared to accept that," a council spokeswoman explained.
The council was encouraged in their tough approach by the large number of phone calls and letters it received from parents, local residents and school governors.
"Local people are pleased with this decision. They get to keep a good mobile phone network in the area, but they also lose the mast from the school, which there were many concerns about," said the council spokeswoman.
However, Stockport council will continue battling against Orange to attempt it to remove its transmitter from Cheadle Hulme College. As with Marple Hall, Orange's contract ran out last November, but in this case it is refusing to take the mast down. The company has issued a counter-notice against the council's enforcement notice, and the dispute will now be heard in the courts this coming November.
The Radiocommunications Authority, an agency of the Department of Trade and Industry, is currently auditing the emissions from base stations on schools. So far, every mast it has checked has been well within safely guidelines.