Page last updated at 05:41 GMT, Friday, 7 August 2009 06:41 UK

Tougher phone mast rules proposed

Map of 3G mobile phone geographic coverage in the UK and Wales
This map shows 3G mobile phone geographic coverage in the UK as a whole, and Wales, by the number of operators. Source: Ofcom

Tougher planning rules for new mobile phone masts could be introduced in Wales.

Campaigners have welcomed the move, but mobile phone operators claim that it could damage Wales' digital future.

At present, new masts under 15m (49ft)tall are automatically erected unless councils object to them within 56 days.

But a report by academics commissioned by the assembly government has recommended that all masts should be subject to full planning permission.

The siting of mobile phone masts has been a controversial issue in some areas over the past few years, with worries particularly over health and the impact on house prices and the local environment.

Kath Sayce
We weren't given enough time to object and we would have preferred a lot longer
Kath Sayce, anti-mobile phone mast campaigner

Many groups have protested against plans, and the report acknowledges the current planning system of what is known as "prior approval" is confusing for councils, companies and residents.

The report, commissioned by Sustainability Minister Jane Davidson, who has overall responsibility for the planning system in Wales, recommends simplifying the process.

However, mobile phone companies are concerned that if the new proposals are approved, it could be more difficult and costly for them to get permission to put up masts in Wales, putting it at a competitive disadvantage with other parts of the UK.

Mike Dolan, the executive director of the Mobile Operators Association, said this could damage the roll-out of 3G fast mobile internet, and impair Wales' digital future.

"It's important that there be continued investment in Wales in this infrastructure so that mobile phone customers can have the services that they rightly deserve," he said.

But Kath Sayce, who protested against a mobile phone mast in Maesteg, in Bridgend county, said: "We weren't given enough time to object and we would have preferred a lot longer, a lot more consideration to be given to the communities, whether another location could be looked at".

Mobile phone masts
Mobile phone masts under 15m do not need full planning permission

The campaigners won their fight to stop the mast being erected on top of Maesteg Rugby Club after the club agreed to not proceed after becoming aware of public opposition.

The academics from the University of West of England in Bristol, who worked on the review, acknowledged the public perception of health risks linked to the masts.

But their report said no research so far suggests radiofrequency exposure from mobile phones damages health.

'Costly process'

Under the new proposals, health would remain a material consideration in decisions on whether to give planning permission for phone masts.

But, as now, if emissions from masts are within internationally recognised standards, this cannot be a reason for refusal.

The report does raise some concerns that if many more requests for planning permission for mobile masts are determined by councillors, then they could respond to pressure by refusing masts on the grounds of public concern rather than planning criteria.

The mobile phone companies would then have the option of a judicial review of the decision, which could then overturn the councillors decision, which would be a lengthy and potentially costly process.

A spokesperson for Ms Davidson said she would study the report and make a statement on the matter in the autumn.

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