Aerial bombardment

Almost every vista in Britain now contains a mobile phone mast - an object unknown to us a decade ago. Graham Ball on the invasion of the metal towers
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The Independent Online
"Call me on my mobile." They are all saying it - plumbers and builders, doctors and solicitors, your boss and possibly your friends. The brick-shaped monster of the 1980s, mocked as an affectation of the self-important, has become a neat, convenient little tool of everyday life that you can pick up for just pounds 9.99 (plus line rental).

But to make possible all those crackling conversations in unlikely places, another price is being paid. In the past few years, scarcely hindered by planning laws, four mobile phone companies licenced by the Government have been marching up and down Britain spiking the landscape with tall and often unsightly aerials.

Nowhere is immune, from church towers to officially-designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. They line the motorways and crown office blocks. They loom over suburb, street and dale. Their proliferation is so loosely regulated that even the Government does not know how many there are. Evidence collated by the Independent on Sunday, however, suggests that new masts are going up at a rate of three to five a week. And, according to our survey of operators, more than 7,600 masts have already been built with a further 3,000 still to come.

In little pockets across the country, small groups have resisted the masts, but still they march on. This week the Council for the Protection of Rural England will call for restraint and urge a more thoughtful approach. The Association of District Councils says the situation is "extremely unsatisfactory" and is demanding change. But still the masts go up. Each of the four companies, remember, is constructing a separate network covering 90 per cent of Britain.

The Government insists it is balancing the needs of the environment with those of the economy. But has it got the balance right? Do we have to have towers dotting the landscape? Or are the phone companies getting away with vandalism?

It wasa mobile phone call that finally convinced environmental campaigner John Gandon that he was on the winning side. Mr Gandon, along with a group of conservationists and residents from Ide Hill, Kent, gathered to witness a display intended to convince them of the need for a mast in the midst of their village.

"The phone company's public relations department had set the whole thing up. They drove a cherry picker onto the site to give us an idea of the scale of the thing and one of their people was just explaining how important the mast was because we were at the centre of a telecommunications black hole, when her mobile phone rang."

The public discovery that Ide Hill was not a black hole after all was not in itself enough to stop Mercury pressing on with its plan for a tower, but it put heart into the protesters. The battle of Ide Hill is typical of the struggle now being waged to save the best of our countryside from aerials and transmitter towers.

On one side stands the resistance, local groups for the most part, amateur and unfunded. On the other the fastest developing wing of a powerful industry, professionally led and extravagantly wealthy. Traditionally it is the role of local government to hold the ring and see to it that the relevant rules and regulations of the Town and Country Planning Act are observed. But not in this case. Legislation framed in the 1980s handed the mobile phone industry the power to by-pass the normal checks and balances.

In a bid to make Britain one of the most technically advanced societies in the world, the Government has given the new telephone companies - Cellnet, Vodaphone, Mercury One 2 One and Orange - the right to build aerials and transmitters up to a height of 50ft anywhere they choose. Planning bodies are powerless to stop them. At Ide Hill, the fight revolved around a plan for a 77ft mast, complete with aerials and dishes. The campaign gathered strength from the moment that mobile phone rang. Waged vigorously throughout the summer of 1995, it attracted regional publicity and eventually secured a spot on Radio Four's Today programme.

"We believe that we were the first community to make a fuss big enough to attract national as well as local attention and that this was instrumental in convincing Sevenoaks council to turn down the application," said Mr Gandon. "That inopportune call made it is clear to us that the tower was not really necessary at all. There is a small population in these parts and for all its ugly enormity the mast was only capable of covering a radial area of 2.8 miles. The phone company has now left us in peace and has apparently decided not to lodge an appeal."

But should such a campaign have been necessary? Ide Hill, a delightful and largely unspoilt village, is within the Metropolitan Green Belt. It has woodlands which have been classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and it has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Protection enough from the worst ravages of industrial blight, one would have thought, but not from the mobile phone masts.

Environmentalists, conservationists and planning professionals are increasingly con- cerned. Hence this week's initiative from the Council for the Protection of Rural England.

"There are two major areas of concern," said Susan Heinrich of the CPRE. "Firstly it seems apparent that some operators are not fulfilling the terms of their licence. They are revealing their plans in a piecemeal fashion and not explaining their intentions for a region or for a county- wide area for example." The effect of this is to deny planners and environmentalists the chance to see the bigger picture and to challenge overall strategy.

"Secondly, we are particularly worried about the lack of public consultation. As things stand, in the vast majority of cases, there is no statutory requirement to inform the public. The onus is on local authorities at district level who have extremely limited powers and just 28 days to notify and consult with the public."

Under the rules, masts measuring 15m and under are exempt from normal restrictions and regulations and can be built on the basis of a "prior agreement" of permission, which means in effect that an operator need only inform a local authority of its intention to erect a mast and need only consult on the design and precise siting.

The CPRE is not alone in its disquiet. The Association of District Councils, which represents around 300 local authorities, is also lobbying for a change. "It has been our policy for some time now for the smaller 15m masts to be brought back within the ordinary planning system," said the ADC's senior planning officer, Gavin Wilson.

"We believe that there is a very strong case to argue that operators should not be allowed to build sites without proper consideration. Over the past three to four years in the town and country planning field, there has been a consistently high level of concern about this issue expressed by officers and coun- cillors alike. Our members get complaints from the public relating to masts erected 30ft to 40ft from residential front doors and the local authorities are powerless to do anything. It is extremely unsatisfactory."

To defuse claims that it had sanctioned a free-for-all, the Department of the Environment published revised guidelines for planners and the industry in 1992. This, however, offers little comfort to conservationists as it reiterates that councils should respond positively to mast building proposals, especially where their location is constrained by technical considerations. Both the CPRE and the ADC remain convinced that the regulations are still tilted far too much in favour of commercial considerations at the expense of the environment.

Even when it comes to the taller masts, where normal planning procedures still apply, the phone companies are getting their way. Some of the aerialsstretch 80ft up into the skyline, but where local authorities have in the past denied permission for them, the operators have appealed to the Department of the Environment and have usually won the right to proceed in the face of local objections. As one operator has put it: "We usually appeal as a matter of course ... under the Government guidelines it is difficult for the planners to say no."

The CPRE, which has co-ordinated opposition, has estimated that as many as two out of three such cases have been won by phone companies on appeal.

While the burst of building continues, Britain has been moving steadily into the world's big league of mobile phone markets. With more than 6 million subscribers and another 6 million predicted to sign up over the next decade, we are already the biggest market in Europe and are outstripped in global terms only by the United States and Japan.

Various bodies are concerned with regulating this exploding market in Britain. Oftel, the telecommunications industry watchdog, is charged with ensuring the emergence of a competitive market. The Department of Trade and Industry issues and polices the terms of the operators' licences, and the Department of the Environment is responsible for planning regulation. Not one of these bodies, however, has compiled figures for the total number of mast sites which have been, or are about to be, developed.

The Independent on Sunday operator survey indicates thatCellnet already has 1,450 sites and plans to construct another 350 masts. Vodaphone has 2,558 and plans a further 2,000 over the next three years. Mercury One 2 One has more than 700 with an undisclosed number still to come, while Orange has 3,300 sites in operation or planned.

Do we really need four separate and competing networks like this, with all the duplication of masts that they have brought? It is a policy that has led, in a notorious case, to one local authority, in Dedham in the picturesque heart of Constable country on the Essex-Suffolk border, being petitioned simultaneously by all four operators, each wishing to erect its own mast in the district.

The root of this problem is both historical and ideological. In 1983, when the Government framed the legislation to enable the mobile phone networks to develop, it was decided that competition and the development of an open market was to be the priority. The Conservative government was determined to ensure that no monopoly or duopoly should be allowed to control the lucrative new market.

Consequently the Department of Trade and Industry was charged with ensuring that as many operators as could be found with sufficient funding should be encouraged to apply for licences. The first two were Cellnet and Vodaphone, which started building their networks in 1985. They were joined in 1993 by Mercury and in 1994 by Orange. With the cost of completing a nationwide network currently put at pounds 1bn, it is not thought that any more rivals will join these four in the foreseeable future.

In March, the Department of the Environment, sensitive to mounting criticism claiming that the system was running out of control, published new guidelines in the form of a Code of Best Practice that urges operators to reduce the duplication of aerials by examining ways of sharing new masts.

No evidence yet exists to show how successful this voluntary code has been. It appears, however, that some operators have been more co-operative than others. Cellnet claims that 70 per cent of its sites are shared, mostly with BT. Vodaphone shares 200 - or fewer than 10 per cent - of its installations with other operators. Orange estimates that one in three of its sites are shared while Mercury One 2 One says its policy is to share sites wherever possible.

The operators point out, however, that sharing has a drawback. To accommodate more than one set of aerials, the masts have to be taller and, therefore, probably more unsightly. Faced with the choice, some local authorities have found that two or more low-level sites are the lesser evil.

And when it comes to aesthetics, it seems, there is nothing like owning a mobile phone to change your view. A survey of attitudes among the public revealed that phone owners tended to think the masts "powerful and effective" and even "well designed and attractive". Non-users - which is still nine out of ten of us at present - were more likely to say that they were "ugly and obtrusive".

Whatever we think, and whatever we say or do, the masts are here to stay, and it looks as though almost half as many again will be punctuating the skyline within a few years. So every week or two, somebody new will experience what happened to Michael Hobbs, a cable maker in Southampton who got home one evening to find a "toasting fork" towering over his garden, just a few feet from the fence. "I was absolutely furious," he said.

The masts will probably be around for another 20 years, by which time satellites will have made them redundant.