A mast makeover Things of beauty?

Telecom companies want a dramatic new look. Colin Blackstock reports
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RIVALRY between two of the biggest mobile-telephone companies has sparked a design war that could see telecom masts transformed from blots on the landscape to becoming part of the country's heritage.

Cellnet and Orange have begun plans to design and construct masts that are aesthetically pleasing. Both have launched competitions aimed at attracting new and innovative designs. They hope to provide masts that will come to be regarded much as lighthouses and windmills are now. An Orange spokeswoman said: "We're searching for ways to make the masts blend in to their environment and still be functional."

Deborah Churchill, assistant secretary of Save Britain's Heritage, said: "Things like red telephone boxes have become part of our heritage, but it really depends on the quality of the design. If they look really horrible, like electricity pylons, then they probably won't."

Orange recently launched its Millennium Landmark Initiative on the advice of, and under the patronage of, the Prince of Wales, while Cellnet announced the winners of its Royal Society of Arts student design awards and pledged to build two of the winning designs. A Cellnet spokesman said: "With this competition we tried to make the masts features in themselves. It allowed people to come at the idea of masts from a different viewpoint, something people in the industry don't necessarily think about. Most masts are usually mass produced, but these masts are bespoke, if you like."

One of the winners, Peter Tran, who designed his winning entry with fellow London Guildhall University student Stefano di Santo, said: "The mast is very environmentally friendly, and it really is quite beautiful. I really hope it does come to be regarded as part of the country's heritage." The design is a glass structure built around a steel frame, which will be lit internally to give off a glow in the evening. The other winning design, by University of Central England students Guy Seivewright and Jerome Booton, was a revolutionary tripod-style mast which can straddle a road or river.

The companies also stress that they are keen to talk and listen to communities where they are erecting new masts.

"It's very much an ongoing commitment," the Cellnet spokesman said, "and we do endeavour to talk to people in the community where we will be putting up masts. There are a small number of complaints about masts, but these are ongoing and we realise that we have to take the needs of the local community into account.

"We are looking to evolve mast design, and make our new masts much more discreet, and that's something I think you can see already from the early masts that were first built."

Critics, however, claim that the move to redesign masts are merely an attempt to deal with a lot of the bad publicity that the masts have created in smaller, more rural communities. Northern Ireland has experienced widespread protests over the erection of masts in small towns and villages throughout the province. Protesters have even blocked roads to prevent contractors getting to work.

Earlier this month in the Republic of Ireland village of Knock, famous for its religious pilgrimage, protesters successfully lobbied to stop a company erecting a mast that would have dwarfed the local church steeple.

Peter Barnett, spokesman for the Green Party, said it was surprised that the mobile phone companies had not taken the initiative sooner, but said that appearance was not the major issue about masts.

He said: "The design thing is good in terms of the masts having a more acceptable image, but people's main concern is the adverse effect on health, and it's time they started to address that issue rather than saying they don't cause any problems."