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Telecommunications Development and Masts

Telecommunications development can often be controversial, usually because of appearance and health issues.

Phone Mast

Networks and operators

Each mobile telecommunications operator needs its own network of radio base stations to provide a service. Coverage areas known as 'cells' can vary in diameter from under 1km to 20-30km.

Phone mast disguised The base station comprises a number of antennas, microwave dishes and equipment cabins, which enable mobile phones to connect to each other and to the BT exchange. The antennas and dishes can either be placed on freestanding masts or on buildings. Some of the smallest base stations are built into street furniture or are disguised as burglar alarms fixed to walls.

Where base stations are located

Central government keeps a register of base stations nationwide. See the Ofcom Sitefinder website.

The council seeks to ensure that:

  • all phone operators comply with all Local and Central Government policies and guidelines
  • full and proper consultation is carried out with all parties
  • development is designed sensitively so as to minimize the visual impact
  • radiation levels are kept as low as possible and in any case, below the ICNIRP.

Planning requirements

Not all developments require planning permission. Government legislation permits a variety of installations to be installed without permission from the council.

Examples include:

  • Smaller masts or installations on buildings, an application for prior approval is required.
  • Larger installations, such as masts over 15m tall, or for development in a Conservation Area, a full planning application is required.

The consultation procedure is similar in each case. It involves letters to local residents and usually a site notice. This gives concerned parties an opportunity to express their views to the council. A decision is usually made within eight weeks of the application date.

The council has to consider applications in accordance with the criteria within the development plan (Welwyn Hatfield District Plan 2005, policy R21) and central government policy (mainly contained in section 5 of National Planning Policy Framework.

Central government has also published a code of best practice on mobile phone network development.

Telecommunications in Welwyn Hatfield

Welwyn Hatfield's development has resulted in a number of constraints, which affect all forms of development. These include conservation areas, listed buildings, the green belt and the density of residential development.

For these reasons, great care has to be taken in the choice of location for masts and antennas. This has to be balanced against the increasing demand for mobile services and the government's desire to provide the technology to meet that demand.

The council encourages pre-application discussions with the operators to ensure that all options are explored. This should enable applications in unsuitable locations to be discouraged early on. Discussions continue when an application is submitted, often in an effort to minimize the visual impact of the proposed installation.

Operators are encouraged to place antennas on existing masts or buildings, to reduce their visual impact. Where this is not possible, a new mast may be the only option. The council will ensure that this is sensitively designed and that use is made of existing or new screening, such as trees, fences or buildings.

Great care is taken when choosing locations for masts and antennas. It must be balanced against an increasing demand for mobile telephone services and the government's desire to provide the technology to meet that demand.

Health issues

Base stations, just like mobile phones, emit radio waves, or electromagnetic fields (EMFs).

Despite several studies, there is no conclusive evidence about the safety or otherwise of EMF's, although this is an increasing source of concern for people.

This type of radiation has been around for many decades and includes power lines, broadcasting transmitters, VDU's and television sets.

The most significant recent study concludes:

  • "1.17 The balance of evidence to date suggests that exposures to RF radiation below NRPB and ICNIRP guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population.
  • 1.18 There is now scientific evidence, however, which suggests that there may be biological effects occurring at exposures below these guidelines.
  • 1.19 We recommend a precautionary approach..."

Source: Stewart Report: 'Mobile Phones and Health' Last updated October 2001.

Central Government policy, which Local Authorities are required to comply with, is contained in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Paragraph 46 of the NPPF states:

Local planning authorities must determine applications on planning grounds. They should not seek to prevent competition between different operators, question the need for the telecommunications system, or determine health safeguards if the proposal meets International Commission guidelines for public exposure.

*The ICNIRP Guidelines are a set of radiation levels proposed by an international body. These are used as the maximum recommended levels of radiation for base stations. With every application, the operators now have to include a 'Certificate of Compliance' with these ICNIRP radiation levels. Without this certificate, the application would not be determined.

All base stations are now designed to be within the ICNIRP guidelines. The Government undertook a series of independent tests of radiation levels from base stations and found that most operate at a fraction of the defined levels.

As a result of a recommendation within the Stewart Report, a research program was set up to investigate health aspects of mobile phones and related technologies. The findings have been published within the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme.

The Department of Health has information on health issues.

Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council will continue to encourage operators to build stations sensitively and as far away from schools, hospitals and residential areas as possible.

Operators are normally happy to discuss concerns directly.

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