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Telecommunications Masts (Railways)

Volume 405: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2003

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12.32 pm

:I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to restrict the permitted development rights of railway or light railway undertakings in respect of telecommunications masts.

The restriction would have the effect of requiring rail undertakings, including Network Rail, to seek full planning permission before erecting masts more than 15m high, in common with other companies erecting masts. That would enable proper democratic scrutiny and give time for local people to engage in the process.

The masts are required to relay data and voice communications. The work includes the installation of a new signalling system known as the train control system and will allow the introduction of automatic train protection—the highest level of rail safety available. Clearly, I do not argue with that, but I do argue that a failure to require full planning permission means that Network Rail can site masts of any height anywhere it likes on rail land, with consequent loss of public confidence and, indeed, public outrage when inappropriate siting leads to loss of visual amenity and loss in the value of homes.

Network Rail currently engages in a notification process for masts higher than 15m and, I understand, up to 33 m. The consultation that takes place is very limited; even precise locations are made available to the public only on application to the appropriate body—that is, if they can find out in the available time which body that is.

In Cheadle, the first mast, at Ravenoak road in Cheadle Hulme, was notified to residents on 16 December 2002—not a good time for most families. At least one of the most affected families was missed out. The notification was headed "West Coast Modernisation, Notice of Forthcoming Works—Carr Wood Park".

Carr Wood park is some half a mile away. It turns out that it had been the preferred location, as it is screened by trees. In fact, the mast has been put next to a railway bridge where the arrangement of housing is such that about 100 homes have a direct view of the 20 m height of the towering monstrosity. The worst-affected residents' home is 16 m from the base of the 20 m high mast, with no screening whatsoever. That is roughly 65 ft of mast—twice the height of an ordinary house. Network Rail could not have chosen a worse site.

In another case in my constituency, at Smithy Green, the notification letters were delivered to households only after work had begun. It was a mistake, but that is in no sense consultation. Under the law as it stands, however, Network Rail does not have to notify residents at all, so mistakes do not count. I now understand that Network Rail has plans for 33 m high masts in national parks and open countryside, and plans to bring in more than 5,000 in total.

I have been in communication with Network Rail, the local authority and the Department of Transport, and I have written to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. A very unsatisfactory situation emerges. Network Rail claims that its permitted development rights when notifying the local planning authority come from part 11 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995. The Minister of State, Department of Transport, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr. Spellar), indicated in a reply to me that part 17 of the order was the relevant part. A more recent letter from him said that either might be relevant. I quote:

"Part 17 is used for some works, but part 11 is the more important for those relating to track, bridges and stations."

My Bill would amend both parts 11 and 17 for the avoidance of doubt.

Guidelines about masts and their erection published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs make it clear that visual amenity is to be the major factor in determining the position of masts. When the right hon. Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) was a planning Minister at that Department, he said:

"It is vital that the masts which enable the service to be delivered"—

he was talking about other telecommunications companies—

"are designed and sited sensitively so that their environmental impact is kept to a minimum and that local people have a better chance to have their say."

I understand from the Department for Transport that those guidelines, which apply to every other mast company, do not apply to Network Rail. That is extraordinary—all the more so, given that the design of masts that are being erected makes the structure appropriate for additional operators. In addition, prior to its demise, Railtrack entered into contracts with various telecommunications companies to provide them with sites. Should Network Rail wish to provide sites for other operators, full planning permission will be necessary. However, the whole world knows that it would be almost impossible to say no once the mast has been there for some time.

The Minister of State has been helpful in suggesting that local authorities can apply for

"the removal of a particular permitted development right and require an application for planning permission by submitting to the Secretary of State an order under Article 4 of the General Permitted Development Order."

However, my local authority in Stockport points out that Network Rail would contest that on a case-by-case basis and that the local authority would have to demonstrate why the location should be treated differently from elsewhere. The procedure would prove to be lengthy and expensive, and is expected to be used only in exceptional circumstances.

My argument is that we have a loophole in the law that requires closing. The public deserve better than this, and at the very least should be enabled to see that their local elected representatives and the local planning authority can protect their amenity in the same way as is expected with all other telecommunications companies.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Patsy Calton, Vera. Baird, Norman Baker, Tom Brake, Mrs. Annette L. Brooke, Sue Doughty, Mr. Don Foster, Paul Holmes, Julie Morgan, Mr. Andrew Stunell, Ann Winterton and Mr. Crispin Blunt.

Telecommunications Masts (Railways)

Mrs. Calton accordingly presented a Bill to restrict the permitted development rights of railway or light railway undertakings in respect of telecommunications mast: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 June, and to be printed [Bill 107].