8,000: The number of new phone masts to be erected across Britain

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Thousands of highly controversial new mobile phone masts are to be erected throughout England and Wales without democratic scrutiny, after the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, last week reneged on a promise to make them seek full planning permission.

His decision flies in the face of recommendations by an official government inquiry, a parliamentary committee, and the country's local authorities, - as well as an earlier ministerial statement - and is bound to cause anger among scores of local campaigns against the masts.

Some 40,000 masts around Britain service more than 50 million mobile phones, and at least 8,000 more are due to be erected over the next three years as the new3G telecommunications system expands. They are increasingly being resisted by local people, partly because they are unsightly, but more often because of fears over their effects on health.

Evidence that radiation from mobile phones may affect the brain is growing. Studies in Sweden suggest that it may result in young people going senile in their forties and fifties, and four years ago an official inquiry - led by the former government chief scientist Sir William Stewart - concluded that "widespread use" of the phones by children should be "discouraged".

Masts emit far less radiation than phones, causing much less concern. But protesters retort that people living near them are exposed to them, involuntarily, 24 hours a day.

Under extraordinarily favourable arrangements, phone companies can erect masts up to 15m high in England and Wales without having to get formal planning permission. They merely have to notify the local council and are allowed to assume that they have the go-ahead if it has not formally been refused within 56 days.

Overworked local planning departments struggle to deal with the applications in time, and there are many cases where companies have gone ahead and erected the masts despite the council's opposition, because news of the refusal has reached them shortly after the deadline.

This loophole does not exist in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where masts have to receive formal permission. In 2000, the Stewart inquiry said: "The siting of all new base stations [masts] should be subject to the normal planning process."

In its formal response two years later, the Government said it was "minded to introduce a requirement for full planning permission for all new telecommunications masts, as public consultation is an integral part of the planning process".

This summer the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mobile Phones urged the Government to implement the measure, which is also backed by the Local Government Association, representing councils. Mr Prescott's office let it be known that he was planning to introduce new measures before the end of the year.

But in a parliamentary statement on the issue on Thursday, one of his junior ministers, Keith Hill, failed to announce any change in the procedures. He merely urged local authorities and phone companies to discuss future plans for masts before any firm proposals were made. That is already supposed to happen. However, the phone companies admit they held these discussions with fewer than one in every six councils in 2002 - and had regular annual meetings with only 2 per cent of them.

'We were gobsmacked when we saw the mast'

The first the villagers of Bardsey knew of T-Mobile's plans to erect a mast on the top of a hill in the middle of rolling Yorkshire countryside was a screwed-up public notice found in a hedge next to the village pond.

But they still had plenty of time to object - which they did - on the grounds that the mast was not needed. The villagers pointed out most of them already owned T-Mobile phones due to the good reception. They could also object on grounds of its visual impact and health concerns.

Leeds City Council agreed, and permission was refused. But almost exactly two years ago the villagers were astonished to see a lorry carrying the mast stuck in some mud.

"We were gobsmacked when we saw the mast next to the village pond," says Chris Nunn (pictured above, with her children), a GP who lives in the village. "How could T-Mobile do this without planning permission?"

T-Mobile did so through a planning loophole. If no decision has been given to a mast company within 56 days then permission is considered granted.

Although Leeds made the decision within the time frame, T-Mobile did not get the letter until some 24 hours after deadline. Leeds issued an enforcement notice, but T-Mobile appealed to a planning inspector who ruled on its behalf. The villagers are now taking the case to the Court of Appeal.

"T-Mobile wanted to plug a gap along the A58 - even though you are not supposed to use your mobile while driving. The council has been stuffed. The Government makes special rules for special people," says Ms Nunn.

A spokeswoman for T-Mobile said: "We did identify a need to improve coverage. There are passengers who may be using phones, or there [may] be a need to use a phone [in] emergencies. Planning law is clear that notification must be made within 56 days."

Andrew Johnson

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