Ministers have accepted that mobile phone masts can be built next to schools, despite radiation fears, in defiance of the recommendations of an official inquiry. The decision is expected to lead to an "explosion" of the masts at schools around the country.
In a crucial test case, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, has decided not to contest a judgment that risks to children's health cannot normally be taken into account in establishing where a mast is to be sited.
Yesterday the chairman of an all-party parliamentary committee on mobile phones said Mr Prescott's refusal to take the judgment - which will allow a mast to be erected near three schools in Harrogate, North Yorkshire - to the House of Lords declared "open season" for the mobile phone companies to put thousands of them up.
As reported in last week's Independent on Sunday, at least 8,000 new masts are to be erected around Britain over the next three years as the new 3G telecommunications system expands. Under exceptionally lax government rules, almost all of them can be erected without the need for formal planning permission, waiving normal democratic scrutiny. Mr Prescott's decision makes the position even worse. It means that even when masts do go through the proper planning process, only aesthetic issues such as their intrusion on the landscape can considered: the health risks, which worry most objectors, will be ignored.
There is increasing scientific concern that radiation from mobile phones damages the brain. Masts generally cause less disquiet, as people do not normally stand close to them.
Protesters point out, however, that those living or working nearby are exposed, involuntarily, for long periods. Children are more vulnerable than adults as their skulls are thinner and their immune systems less well developed.
The test case centres around a mast that three mobile phone companies are to build within 400 yards of Woodfield Community Primary School, St Robert's Primary, and Granby High School in Harrogate.
Radiation from the mast will be at the highest at the primary schools, as the "beam of maximum intensity" from the mast would fall on them.
Four years ago, a government inquiry, headed by Sir William Stewart - a former Government chief scientist - recommended that in such cases, masts should not be erected unless the school and parents agreed.
A year ago - after protests from parents - Harrogate council refused to give the mast planning permission on health grounds. The companies appealed, but a public inquiry upheld the council's refusal because there was "insufficient reassurance" that the mast would cause "no material harm to the children's health".
The companies then took the case to court. Mr Prescott supported the council, but the judge decided in favour of the phone companies. It was then the Deputy Prime Minister's turn to appeal, but last month the Court of Appeal also gave the mast the go-ahead, saying the planning process should only be allowed to consider "perceived health risks" in exceptional circumstances.
Mr Prescott came under pressure to take the issue to the House of Lords for a final decision, but refused to do so on the grounds that it was "unlikely" he would "be able to successfully argue that the case raises points of law of general public importance". The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister adds, however, that "it is considered appropriate to carefully consider the policy implications arising from the judgment when the transcript becomes available".
Protesters and MPs will be urging him to amend his planning guidance to councils, which fatally undermines his case by stipulating that permission to erect masts cannot be refused on health grounds.
Dr Peter Brooks, whose two daughters attend St Robert's in Harrogate, says the school lies directly in the transmission path of the proposed mast. Dr Brooks, a lecturer in engineering at Leeds University, is concerned that important technical data about the dangers were not presented to the Court of Appeal: "The public should have a say in what happens in their own communities. I don't feel our voice has been heard," he said.
His wife, Paula, said: "Until the safety of masts is known we'd like the Government to err on the side of caution. We would have loved the Government to appeal the decision. My husband was at the appeal hearing and felt that the Government didn't really fight. It was as if they wanted [the phone companies] to win.
"There has been tremendous support from our school but the school doesn't own the land. The land sits on council land. The education authority has been unhelpful. We felt very saddened by that."
Yesterday, Phil Willis - Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, and chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Mobile Group - called for a "significant change in planning law and guidance". Without it, he said, it would be "open season for mobile phone operators to erect masts near schools".
He expected an "explosion" of the masts on school grounds and playing fields as some of the few open spaces in urban areas, following the Deputy Prime Minister's "hugely disappointing" decision not to appeal to the House of Lords.
Mr Willis added that the Government, having received £22.5bn for their 3G licences, was "terrified" of the court cases that the companies might bring against it if their ability to erect the masts was brought under greater control.Reuse content