The Government has granted Licences to a number of major mobile telephone companies to provide a service to their customers covering much of England and Wales. These companies are called 'Telecommunications Code Systems Operators' (TCSOs). In order to ensure that the companies can achieve the targets set by the government, regulations guiding the erection of all masts, antennas, dishes and equipment cabinets were originally set out in The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 (the GPDO). There have been successive modifications to this Order over time, and the present Regulations came into force in August 2001. The control over development by TCSOs is included in Schedule 2, Part 24 of the GPDO. It gives wide ranging authority, called 'Permitted Development' rights, to the operators to carry out their operational development without the need for planning permission.
Some controls over such development are built in to the GPDO so that an opportunity can be given to the Council and to residents to consider and respond to the consultation from the operator concerned. Each year the operators 'roll out' their likely requirements for the next year in terms of perceived gaps in their service to particular areas and likely locations for the erection of masts. For their part, the operators generally discuss their requirements with Council officers before any formal submission is made. They have all signed up to a Code of Practice under which they review all potential sites and grade them according to a 'traffic light' model taking into account to the circumstances of each case. Matters which are taken into account include proximity to schools and houses.
When a formal submission is received by the Council, every effort is made to advise the people most likely to be affected. However it should be recognised that in many cases the development is 'permitted' under the terms of the GPDO and the regulations only allow the Council to formally respond on matters of siting and design. The Council cannot question the need for the development, nor can it take into account issues of public health. The government has been quite specific about this. They have published Planning Policy Guidance Note 8 (PPG8), which states, among other matters:
'Health considerations and public concern can in principle be material considerations in determining applications for planning permission and for prior approval. Whether such matters are material in a particular case is ultimately a matter for the courts. It is for the decision-maker to determine what weight to attach to such considerations in any particular case.
However, it is the Government's firm view that the planning system is not the place for determining health safeguards. It remains central Government's responsibility to decide what measures are necessary to protect public health. In the Government's view, if a proposed mobile phone base station meets the ICNIRP guidelines for public exposure it should not be necessary for a local planning authority in processing an application for planning permission or prior approval, to consider further the health aspects and concerns about them.'
The ICNIRP referred to is the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, and the commission has set down safe limits for radiation emissions. Every TCSO is required to meet this standard and every submission to the Council is required to contain a formal statement of compliance with the standard.
You might have heard about the 'Stewart Report' into 'mobile phones and health'. This was commissioned by the Government who accepted the precautionary approach recommended therein but only to a limited extent. In PPG8 the Government states that the report does not provide any basis for precautionary actions beyond those already proposed. In the Government's view, local planning authorities should not implement their own precautionary policies e.g. by way of imposing a ban or moratorium on new telecommunications development or insisting on minimum distances between new telecommunications development and existing development.
Planning permission and Prior Approval
The need for 'Prior Approval' arises where the proposal meets the 'Permitted Development' criteria and in such cases the operator has to give notice to the Council of his intention to carry out the work. For its part the Council has to respond within a certain period, either indicating that Prior Approval is not necessary, or to require the submission of a formal planning application. The Council must take account of any comments received from the consultations carried out with local residents and other groups. It has to be emphasised, however, that in the majority of cases, there are no grounds on which the Council can raise objections, and where there are objections these can only be under the headings of 'siting' or 'design'.
Planning permission is always required where the installation exceeds 15 metres in height and in a number of other specific instances, and the Council can, and has, refused applications where there are clear reasons to do so.
The Council has a policy of encouraging several operators to share a particular installation, called 'mast sharing'. There are several major telecommunications masts in Hastings and St Leonards and a number of principal buildings also have several operators' antennas on them. Having said this, however, many people will have noticed the increase in smaller monopole masts sited on public footways and in the public domain. This is due to the increased complexity of the Third Generation mobile phone network which has tighter 'cells' and a narrower operating bandwidth. This means in practice that a relatively higher number of such smaller masts is needed, and almost all of these are 'permitted development'.