By Malcolm Prior
Council blunders have allowed dozens of mobile phone masts to win planning permission across southern England, a BBC News investigation has revealed.
On 68 occasions, councils have fallen foul of a legal loophole allowing masts to be approved if an operator is not sent an answer within a set time limit.
In 39 of those cases, the council had intended to object to the application.
A catalogue of errors has been uncovered across the BBC South region using the Freedom of Information Act.
They include decisions being sent by second-class mail instead of first, letters being given the wrong date-stamp, officers calculating the time period incorrectly, the wrong decision notices being sent out and officers forgetting to state clearly enough that the application had actually been refused.
Missed deadlines: worst councils
Horsham - 14 timesSouthampton - six timesOxford - six timesBracknell Forest - six timesBrighton - five times
The mistakes were revealed after the BBC News website made Freedom of Information requests to 41 councils covering Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset, the Isle of Wight, Oxfordshire and West Sussex.
The news of the extent of the mistakes has been met with anger by anti-mast campaigners.
Karen Barratt, spokesperson for action group Mast Sanity, said: "I think it's absolutely shocking. You expect your local officers to be efficient on what are very serious matters."
Mast Sanity's Karen Barratt said the numbers were "absolutely shocking"
Charmaine Despres has collected almost 900 petition signatures in protest at a mast which won permission after a council blunder made in Bournemouth, Dorset.
She said: "I'm not surprised to hear this because [the council officers] are a law unto themselves. They work for us, they are getting paid to do a job yet they are not doing that job properly."
Current legislation allows mobile phone companies to assume masts below 15m in height have been given planning approval if they do not hear in writing from a council within 56 days.
The council is legally obliged to write to the companies within the given time, outlining whether the mast actually needs prior approval and whether or not the council objects to its siting and appearance.
Among the various reasons given for the errors, Eastleigh Borough Council said "an oversight" meant that "documents were not date-stamped properly".
Arun District Council gave the reason that "although the letter was sent out in time, it was sent by second-class post" and East Dorset District Council admitted "the incorrect decision notice was sent out".
Horsham District Council admits to failing to contact the applicant 14 times, although it emphasises that in each case it only intended to inform the company that prior approval was not required.
A spokesperson said: "All subsequent applications in the last six years to date have been dealt with in time.
"We appreciate the current deadlines and consider that we have satisfactory measures in place to deal with all applications."
A spokesman for Bracknell Forest Borough Council said it "had not made any errors as alleged", saying legislation did not require the authority to get back to an applicant within the time limit if prior approval was not needed.
"There were six sites, going back between 1999 and 2002, where additional information was not required from the developer to approve the application.
"Under the "deemed consent" rules the operator was then able to go ahead and put up the masts as already agreed by the council," he said.
However, government planning policy guidance clearly states that councils should always get back in touch with applicants within the time limit regardless of whether prior approval is needed or not.
Oxford City Council has made the slip-up six times over the years but Michael Crofton-Briggs, the council's head of planning, said that only one of the masts objected to has so far been put up.
Campaigners across the region feel let down by their councils
He admitted: "The 56-day mechanism has been running for four or five years so we should have been getting it right.
"One time is one too many. I am not complacent about this at all."
John Silvester, spokesman for the Planning Officers Society, which represents those working in council planning departments, said: "Sometimes it can be genuine human error and people can make mistakes but there should be procedures in place.
"It's not rocket science to work out when the period finishes. Things should not be taken to the wire - they should be determined in good time."
Some believe the whole system of allowing operators to assume permission - an assumption rarely found elsewhere in the planning system - needs overhauling.
"We feel that operators have far too much freedom - they should have to go through a full planning process," said Ms Barratt.
Alan Sayle, development control manager for Southampton City Council, which has fallen foul of the time limit six times, said: "Is the legislation unfair? Yes, I think so.
"The decision should be made for the right planning reasons rather than because of some artificial time constraint."
But both the government and the UK's mobile phone network operators insist that the system is fair.
A spokeswoman for the Mobile Operators Association said: "The operators undertake the same amount of pre-application consultation on a proposed prior approval development as on a larger proposed full planning development.
"Local communities can, and do, comment on both types of applications in exactly the same way."
A spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister said: "Local planning authorities have the opportunity to deal with prior approval applications in the same way as a normal planning application, so long as they act within eight weeks."