[holding answer 23 January 2007]: All ground-based masts are already subject to planning control. For masts under 15 m in height, a prior approval application is required. If the local authority considers that the development will pose a serious threat to amenity, it is able to refuse approval. For masts over 15 m in height, a full planning application is required. In reality, the prior approval and full planning application processes are very similar. The prior approval for masts under 15 m simply means the local planning authority has only eight weeks in which to decide the application. In addition, when the Government published the revised planning policy guidance 8, we strengthened public consultation requirements for prior approval so that they are exactly the same as applications for planning permission.
Network operators estimate that only around a third of installations are under their permitted development rights. These installations are, by definition, the smallest and most discreet of developments. The current arrangements also encourage network operators to install smaller apparatus on existing buildings and structures wherever possible, which minimises the environmental impact of such developments. Furthermore, simply because these small developments do not need planning permission does not mean that there is no public consultation. The Code of Best Practice that was produced jointly by central and local government and the mobile phone industry is clear that operators will assess every potential site and rate it using the “Traffic Light Model”. The Traffic Light Model allows a site to be rated according to its likely sensitivity in terms of environmental, planning and community considerations. This model determines the level of public consultation that will be required if the site is selected for the installation.
Each autumn, the Mobile Operators Association sends every local planning authority the details of the five operators’ network development plans for their area. These are called roll-out plans. Roll-out plans are the principal means for the operators to inform local planning authorities of their network development plans for the forthcoming year. It is good practice for local planning authorities to have discussions with respective operators. These discussions can ensure that local issues are addressed at an early stage and make sure that the most appropriate solutions are found for individual developments. I wrote to all MPs at the end of last year to bring their attention to the latest round of roll-out plans and to encourage them to find out whether their local planning authority has had discussions with operators following receipt of these plans.
It is important that local planning authorities focus their attention on those developments that will have the greatest impact. We believe that, in this case, we have the balance between impact and scrutiny right. Nevertheless, we are keeping this under review in consultation with the operators and other key stakeholders.