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Tuesday, 7 May, 2002, 14:54 GMT 15:54 UK
Concern over church phone masts
Phone masts
Protesters have raised ethical concerns
Controversial plans by the Church of England to help parishes strike deals with mobile phone firms wanting to site masts on church steeples are due to be unveiled within days.

Church authorities are finalising the details of a national framework to help parishes negotiate agreements with phone companies.

We will not be compelling anyone to have an aerial

Alexander Nicoll
Church of England

But the scheme has sparked opposition from people who believe masts should be banned from churches for both health and ethical reasons.

Some anti-mobile phone mast campaigners fear the radiowaves they emit are linked to ill health.

Among those opposed to the idea of siting masts on churches is actor Eric Richard, who played Sergeant Bob Cryer in The Bill.

He is reportedly protesting against plans to site a mast in a cross on top of a south London church near his home, and has called the proposals "immoral and obscene".

'Parish decision'

The Church of England says the national framework will help many of its 16,000 parishes decide on the issue.

Phone masts
Many people fear masts are linked to ill health
But it will still be down to individual parishes whether to allow the masts to be put on their churches, according to head of internal communications Alexander Nicoll.

Parishes had been asked to consider joining a network of interested churches to negotiate deals with telecommunications companies that had achieved Church of England "preferred status".

So far 5,000 churches had replied they were interested.

Mr Nicoll said it was hoped the terms of the agreement would be finalised within days.

"Individuals in parishes are not necessarily experts in negotiating telecommunications deals," he told BBC News Online.

'Imaginative designs'

"We will not be compelling anyone to have an aerial.

He stressed the framework was not being set up as a fundraising initiative, but was aimed at bringing organisation to an "ad hoc" system.

Money raised from the masts will be ploughed back into the community, helping with vital projects like church roof repairs.

The latest church at the centre of the debate - St Barnabas in Beckenham, south London - is considering allowing mobile phone company Hutchison 3G to put a transmitter inside its glass fibre cross on its church roof.

Phil Willis
Phil Willis: Calling for wide consultation
The Bill star Eric Richard told the Times newspaper: "I'm not a Christian and I don't belong to any organised religious group but I think that selling the symbol of Christianity of God on Earth to Mammon is the height of hypocrisy."

But the vicar of St Barnabas, the Reverend Peter Marr, told BBC News Online there had been both religious and secular support for the move.

"Far from being visually intrusive the proposed design is undetectable hidden within a cross high up," he said, adding that "imaginative designs rarely go uncriticised by a minority".

"We have been encouraged by religious and secular support for this project at the same time being aware of the expression of health and other concerns.

"As a parish church we have taken appropriate advice and would not continue to consider this matter if we felt that the fears expressed were justified".

No decision had yet been made on whether to go ahead with the project, he said.

Research findings

A spokesman for Hutchison 3G said that there was no scientific information that radiowaves from base stations affected health.

This was reiterated by Nicole Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Federation of the Electronics Industry.

She said the industry complied with international guidelines on base station emissions.

And research by the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, chaired by Sir William Stewart, had shown on balance there was no evidence to suggest that there was a risk to public health from base stations.

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis, chairman of the all-party group on mobile communications, has taken up the debate over base station locations in his Harrogate constituency.

He is concerned that any decision to site base stations on churches will take into account the views of the wider community, not just the parish.

"It is right for churches to try to allay fears over mobile phone masts rather than confront local communities for the sake of putting money in church coffers," he said.

See also:

11 Apr 02 | Northern Ireland
Phone mast laws 'toughest in UK'
04 Mar 02 | Education
School phone mast emissions 'low'
11 May 00 | Health
Mobile phone research ordered
01 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Calls for phone mast crackdown
11 May 00 | Scotland
Planning change call for phone masts
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