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Shooters Hill Mobile Phone Mast (Stoke-on-Trent)

Volume 594: debated on Thursday 19 March 2015

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to put on record my thanks to Mr Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate.

In the time available to me, I hope to catalogue what is sadly a list of incompetence, misdirection, deliberate misrepresentation of the truth, inaction, lies and alleged corruption that have surrounded the phone mast construction in my constituency since 1993. If an author thought about writing this case up as a book, he or she would be forced to publish it as fiction, because simply no one would believe such a catalogue of appalling behaviour could take place and could continue to be allowed to take place.

Our tale of despair begins back in 1974, when a radio mast was approved to relay information about water levels and so forth at the Shooters Hill reservoir.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Vara.)

The radio mast was a thin, whip-style antenna, and was effectively screened from sight. I am fortunate enough to have a photograph—not that I have pinned it up on my wall. As the Minister will see, it shows a tiny little mast.

Back in 1974, then, all was good, but in 1993 an application was made by Hutchison Microtel, on behalf of Orange, for a replacement of the existing radio mast at the reservoir site. It was, indeed, some replacement. What was built, supposedly to replace—I keep using the word “replace”—a thin radio antenna, was a 25 metre tower with microwave dishes and ground cabinets in a compound. I am fortunate, again, to have a photograph of what even a cursory examination shows is nothing like a thin, whip-like antenna. Was it owing to—dare I say—cock-up or conspiracy that the replacement mast was given permission by the council in 1993, with no reference to the planning laws that were in force at the time, no consultation with anyone, and no assessments or reports?

The icing on the cake, however, was the fact that the so-called replacement mast was not even in the same place. It was sited on recreational land behind the reservoir, rather than where the telemetry radio mast had been. The application form—I have a copy here—is simply wrong: it totally misrepresents what was being proposed. It is therefore not surprising that there was none of the compulsory publicity that was required by the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and none of the publicity required by the Highways Act 1980. There was no reference to development on the green belt, as required by planning policy guidance note 2, and no reference to the fact that a 25 metre mast would be deemed visually intrusive under PPG8, the fact that it conflicted with the statutory local plan under BP10, or the fact that it contravened GP5 of the City of Stoke-on-Trent Local Plan 1990-2001. Indeed, many more policies and laws were completely ignored. That too is not entirely surprising, given that the application did not reflect the reality of what was being built.

During the intervening years, local residents have tried time and again to get the council and Orange to accept that the mast was not built in accordance with the planning permission that had been granted. They have tried time and again to highlight the fact that the mast was built on a public right of way across recreation ground, but they have been thwarted at every turn. Even in 2011, Orange was still putting misleading information on its applications in respect of the site. For instance, it responded “No” to the question

“Can the site be seen from a public road, public footpath, bridleway or other public land?”

It is incredible that, even at that early stage, Orange was issuing information that misrepresented the facts.

In January 2008, a request was made to the local authority to use its powers under section 102 of the Town and Country Planning Act to require the removal of the mast. A report—no, actually an utterly misleading and factually incorrect report—was presented to councillors by the then planning team, advising them that the section 102 request should be denied. Emphasis was placed on the potential costs to the authority, rather than on whether the advice was right or wrong. Officers suggested that the council could incur large costs if it lost the case—if it was found that the mast was not in the right place, and was not a simple replacement for a whip-thin radio antenna—and that, if it won, it would have to pay for the mast to be relocated, which was utterly bizarre. At no point did the officers take account of the fact that the permission that had been given back in 1993 bore no resemblance whatsoever to what was actually built.

Time ticked on. In June 2008, the residents and I went to see the then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ask her to use the powers under Section 104 of the Town and Country Planning Act to issue a notice calling for the mast’s removal. I have brought the file of documents into the Chamber. It is a hefty file. Somebody asked if it was my speech; I was able to reassure them that it was not, but I could easily have made it my speech if I had had more than half an hour. This heavy file is the file of documents that were provided before the meeting with the Secretary of State, and they are pretty damning about what happened and set out clear grounds for ordering the mast to be removed.

Incredibly, however, it transpired that the civil servants had not properly considered the documents, but had instead advised the Secretary of State not to use the power under section 104. Their incredible logic was that the section 104 power had not previously been used and that she should not set a precedent by using it now. In the 10 years that I have had the good fortune of representing the people of Stoke-on-Trent South in this place, I have sometimes wondered why we pass laws if we are not going to use the powers that Parliament approved because we cannot be the first to use them. That is nonsense.

In August 2011, Orange submitted an application to undertake further development within the compound at the bottom of the mast, but this was disguised as a repositioning of existing cabinets, and a deal was done with council officers that the supposed repositioning would clear the way for the reinstatement of the public footpath that had been built over and therefore the council would be off the hook. Once again, city council planning officers misled councillors, telling them they could not consider anything about the site other than whether or not to approve the repositioning of the cabinets. Councillors on the committee were told that they could not raise the lawfulness or otherwise of a phone mast that was not in the same location and looked nothing like the radio mast it was supposed to replace. Unsurprisingly, the councillors accepted what the officers told them and approved the repositioning.

I do not know whether you have ever repositioned anything, Madam Deputy Speaker—perhaps the settee in the living room at home—but to my mind when someone replaces two cabinets with three, albeit in a different place, that is not repositioning. That is like moving the settee from one side of the room and repositioning it with two settees on the other side of the room. Again, that is absolute nonsense.

More time passed and the local residents put forward another application to the local authority for use of the section 102 order, based this time on the fact that the mast was on land now covered by village green legislation, but once again the council officers presented a flawed report, based on the flawed 2008 report. The officers refused to go back before the 2008 date and used as the basis of their new report the conclusion that everything in the 2008 report was factually correct. There was no independent review of the facts, and once more councillors were advised to reject the section 102 request.

So over the last couple of years, local residents and I have been arguing with and trying to persuade EE— Previously Everything Everywhere, previously Orange—to do the right thing and remove the mast, which should not be where it is and should not look like it does. To our delight we began to make some ground and finally—amazingly, after a lot of work and effort—EE agreed to decommission the mast and remove it, but then there were months and months of delay and we began to fear we were being misled yet again. Each time we spoke to the representative from EE we were reassured that decommissioning was on track, but then we would not hear anything again. Then the representative would come to see us, or go straight to see the residents—sometimes dropping in to see me first or afterwards—or see us jointly. Time and again we were assured that everything was on track, and that there had been some delays but everything was moving forward. Then there were months on end when we could not get hold of anybody—nobody from EE would respond—but then the representative would again appear.

Latterly, when we did speak to them we were told there were technical problems with handing off the service to other masts in the city, and that there were problems with EE, quite understandably, wanting to make sure their customers were not going to lose signal and would still be able to use their mobile phones. Despite all the years of, frankly, lies and deceit we were still prepared to be reasonable and said, “Okay, absolutely, we don’t want people to suffer loss of connectivity. We want to be reasonable. We’ve been treated very badly, and the residents have been treated appallingly for decades, but if there is a time-frame and work going on to overcome these difficulties and technical issues, we will be patient.” So we waited.

Then, on 23 July last year, the mast was switched off. “Wonderful news”, we thought. “Fantastic! Now, all we need is for this eyesore, this thin, whip-style mast that is in the wrong place, to be removed, and 30 years of wrong will at last be put right.” So we asked when the mast was going to come down, and we heard nothing. So we pushed again and again, repeatedly saying, “You promised to switch the mast off and you’ve done it— fantastic! That is great news. When are you going to take it down?” Again, there was delay and a wall of silence. The representative announced that he was leaving the company—we were concerned about that for a while—but that everything was fine and on track.

So, when would EE fulfil its final promise and remove the mast? To our horror and disgust, we have been told that the mast will not be removed. Apparently, there was never any plan to remove it. What we were told time and again over all those months about supposed technical problems and difficulties, along with the reassurances, was simply a way of spinning out time. There were never any plans to remove the mast.

Has EE no shame? Why has there been lie after lie, compounded by misinformation and misrepresentation and appalling behaviour? Sadly, previous council officers in the planning team—I stress, previous council officers—were happy to go along with anything and did not want to rock the boat. Time and again, this community has been let down. EE kept its word by switching the mast off. Why will it not now keep its word by actually removing the mast?

I appreciate that this is a difficult issue for the Minister to pick up now, but I hope that he has some words of comfort for the community at Shooters Hill, off the Sandon road, in my constituency. I hope he will get in touch with EE, ask its representatives to meet him if there is still time—I know we are only a week away from Dissolution—and tell them that this community has suffered for many years. It has been misled, abused and lied to time and again—keep your word, EE, and remove the mast.

I have left the Minister plenty of time to reply and I am sure he will not need anywhere near all of it, but I hope he will take on this issue and approach EE on behalf of the residents of Shooters Hill to see whether we can finally get the mast removed. Who knows—we might even invite him to the party we have been planning for years.

It is a great honour to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to reply to the excellent speech from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello). In my speaking notes, he is described as “my noble Friend”, so my Department clearly takes a different view, and I bow to their respectful description of him.

It is interesting to hear the issues the hon. Gentleman has raised, and I have no doubt, given the cogent way he put his argument, that the mast is a source of enormous aggravation and annoyance to his constituents in and around Shooter’s Hill. It was painful to hear about the 30 years of hurt, although I am pleased to learn that they have never stopped dreaming of a solution, so let us see if we can make some progress.

The roll-out of mobile phone infrastructure is a vexed question. Those of us who use mobile phones—that pretty much encompasses most of the population of this country—get very frustrated when we cannot get a mobile phone signal, but it depends, of course, on a mobile phone mast and mobile phone cells.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I appreciate that, having given him a lot of time to reply, I am now taking some of it back. I absolutely agree with what he has just said, which is why the residents were prepared to be extremely reasonable, despite the 30 years of hurt, as he describes it, and wait until such time as EE was able to make sure that people did not lose signal.

I would not want my general remarks about mobile phone companies to be in any way construed as criticism of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. That certainly was not my intention. I was simply setting the scene.

We have recently reached a groundbreaking deal with the mobile operators that will increase mobile phone coverage to 90% of the geographical area of the country, in contrast to the current measure, which uses the coverage of premises in the UK. At the moment, the target is 98% of premises, but geographical coverage is much wider. In some instances, the benefits that the siting of a mobile phone mast can bring in terms of coverage can be outweighed by the loss of visual amenity caused by the mast. Despite years of deployment, their design has not moved on to one that could be described as aesthetically pleasing. Shooter’s Hill appears to be an egregious example of this, and it is important that local communities should have a say in where mobile phone masts are placed.

The Shooter’s Hill mast is owned by the mobile operator EE, which, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, has gone through a number of iterations. EE is the result of the merger of Orange and T-Mobile, which explains why the mast was previously operated by Orange. It is no longer broadcasting a mobile signal in the local area. However, that does not mean that the mast is redundant equipment, and it cannot be removed immediately. It continues to be part of EE’s wider network operations. Three other masts in the vicinity rely on the Shooter’s Hill mast for point-to-point wireless backhaul. That involves taking data back to the centre to ensure that people get good connectivity. For as long as the mast is providing this backhaul function, it is entitled to remain in situ. I will explain more about that in a moment.

The immediate removal of the mast would address residents’ concerns about its impact on the visual amenity, but it would lead to a loss of coverage for a much larger proportion of the local community because of the backhaul function that I have described. There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. EE’s future investment programme will enable the mast to be removed. EE plans to upgrade the hardware on the three sites that are dependent on the mast. I hope that this is not going to be like the other promises that have been made to the hon. Gentleman and his constituents; I hope that this one will not be broken. Following the upgrade, EE will be able to remove the Shooter’s Hill mast. The company’s intention is to remove the mast no later than September 2016, which is some 18 months from the date of this debate. I appreciate that residents would like to see it happen more quickly, but I understand that the necessary upgrades on the other sites are significant and will take time.

If the Shooter’s Hill mast had been redundant, there would have been two ways to secure its removal. There are provisions covering this in part 24 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995. Communications providers are required to remove infrastructure that is no longer needed, and to restore the land to its former condition or a condition acceptable to the local planning authority. Failure to comply with a part 24 condition would be a breach of planning control and in those circumstances the local planning authority in Stoke could have invoked part 24 and forced the removal of the mast. Where the equipment is installed on private land, the electronic communications code also provides for landowners to serve notices on communications providers requesting a mast’s removal.

To a certain extent, we have made a bit of progress in this debate.

I sense that the Minister is coming to a conclusion. I am grateful to hear what he says, because at no point has EE mentioned to us that it has these plans for September 2016. We could have saved ourselves an interesting afternoon, although it is always a pleasure to have such debates. It is a shame that EE did not tell us that, because all it has told residents is that it has no plans to remove the mast. That is welcome news, but, as the Minister said a moment or two ago, let us hope that this is a reality and not yet another myth.

I was going to say to the hon. Gentleman that I texted the chief executive of EE this afternoon. I have not received a reply, but I said that I was replying to this debate and was rather surprised that I had not been contacted by EE about it, although clearly my officials have spoken to the company.

I shall take up the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of a meeting. We have only a few working days left, but that need not delay us in seeking a solution. When I hear back from the chief executive, I will see whether I can arrange for a senior representative of EE to consider the matter in some detail. Given the number of masts that a mobile operator operates, one would not expect the chief executive or his senior management team necessarily to have detailed knowledge at their fingertips of a particular infrastructure issue, but I shall ask them to consider it and send a senior representative to meet the hon. Gentleman. I will meet him as well if time can be found in both of our diaries. We are, I think, a week away from Dissolution, but I am sure that we can find a 10 or 15-minute slot in which finally to nail down this important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.