Aerial warfare in Constable country

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The Independent Online
I don't quite know how to tell you this, but - after years of rather self-righteousness resistance - I now carry a mobile phone. Worse, I sometimes use it on trains. And I curse (usually inwardly) at being cut off when the train runs into an area without the signal.

Confession is in order because - as a call from a reader, George Williams, reminded me last week - the countryside pays to enable people like me to annoy our fellow travellers: more than 10,000 ugly masts are progressively being constructed in prominent spots all over the country to relay our conversations, and fill in the "black holes".

Mr Williams is a district councillor in Constable country on the Suffolk- Essex border, where Orange wants to erect a 90ft-high mast overlooking Dedham Vale, on the very boundary of the supposedly protected Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The council refused it planning permission, but the company has appealed to the Secretary of State - now John Prescott. The appeal goes before a landmark public inquiry the week after next.

The company is likely to win, for mobile-telephone masts are governed by special planning rules, grotesquely stacked in their favour. If less than 45ft high, they don't need permission at all. If they are bigger, councils are instructed to "respond positively" to proposals, to be "alive to the special needs" of the development, and not to question the need for the "service" provided - while only "taking account" of advice on protecting the landscape.

"The dice," writes Mr Williams, merrily mixing metaphors, "are heavily loaded against us. The Government must level the playing- field."

o JOHN Constable is, indeed, doing more to put ministers at the newly combined Departments of Transport and the Environment on the spot than any modern pressure group. The Salisbury by-pass - which would ruin a Constable-like view of the cathedral (though not the one he actually painted) - is the first test of their roads policy. Dedham Vale will show how keen they are to protect the countryside.

Michael Meacher, the new environment minister, visited Salisbury twice before the election and said that Labour would halt the scheme and set up a review process as the start of a new approach to road- building.

Keith Vaz, then Labour planning spokesman, went to Dedham Vale before the election and committed himself to reviewing the loaded rules. (Mind you, he also promised to put down an Early Day Motion which never materialised.) Now passed over for office, he has put down a question to John Prescott asking if he plans to tackle the issue. Constable, no doubt, will be awaiting the answer, to see if he can stop revolving in his grave.

Oh, here's something totally unconnected, which will, I am sure, have no influence on Mr Prescott, any more than it did on a refusal by John Gummer, his Tory predecessor, to meet the protesters. Mr Li Ka-Shing, the Hong Kong-based head of Orange's parent company, is reported to have given pounds 1m to the Conservative Party.

o MEANWHILE, perhaps some hope. Remember that two weeks ago I was worrying about the stalemate on negotiations for the follow-up summit to the 1992 Rio conference which takes place in New York next month - and wondering whether the new government might help break the logjam?

Almost unnoticed, while launching his foreign policy mission statement, Robin Cook, the new Foreign Secretary, said that Britain would aim "to provide a lead for agreement on firm, tough targets at the forthcoming UN conferences."

And the Queen's Speech announced a White Paper on changing policy on aid and development. Straws in the wind? Like Constable, I will be waiting with interest.

o NEXT month's summit has perhaps the most tedious title even the UN has yet produced - the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on the Overall Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of Agenda 21 and Related Outcomes from the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.

Beat that. At 33 words it is more than twice as long as my previous champion - the Convention to Combat Desertification in Countries Experi- encing Drought and/or Des- ertification, particularly in Africa. (I especially like the "and/or"). This reminds me of Arianna Stassinopoulos-Huffington, once ungalantly described as so boring that you fell asleep before she had finished telling you her name. And that was before she hitched on the Huffington.