50,000 more mobile phone masts to rise across Britain

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The Independent Online

Britain could be blighted with 50,000 more mobile phone masts in the next two years.

Britain could be blighted with 50,000 more mobile phone masts in the next two years.

Growing demand combined with installations needed to support the new third generation - or 3G - mobile networks mean that the present 22,000 masts will soon be unable to cope. In the two years to last September, the number of Britons owning mobiles grew from nine million to nearly 35 million. More than a million phones are being sold each month and millions more will be given this Christmas.

The projected tripling of the number of masts is certain to lead to fierce clashes over their siting. There is already a mounting public campaign, launched earlier this month, which brought together 100 local community groups seeking planning controls over phone masts so that health implications could be taken into account.

And the Tories will pledge in the new year to give local communities new powers to block the construction of masts, particularly near hospitals, schools and homes.

Industry sources said a company called Crown Castle International is now trying to buy sites for masts on behalf of mobile phone companies. Demand will also be swelled by the onset of 3G technology, providing mobiles with "always on" high-speed internet access and "rich media" such as video.

There are currently four major mobile providers involved in 3G development and a fifth, TIW backed by Hutchison Whampoa of Hong Kong, is in the running. Nigel Deighton, research director at Gartner Europe, said that to get the full range, companies like Orange would need between 10,000 and 12,000 base stations while others would need 5,000 or 6,000 each. A new player would have to find 10,000 or more locations.

Crown Castle International spokesman Stephen Arnold added: "We have regular contact with landowners of various sites and talk to them about what they're doing, to ask whether they'll pass over ownership to ourselves. Mobile phone companies are gearing up to provide third-generation services and they do need to have additional sites."

There is a fear that growing opposition to masts could create fights between mobile firms over the limited number of possible sites.

Masts under 50 feet do not need planning permission and even those well over 100 feet are not subject to the same stringent planning rules that apply in the US and the rest of Europe. Parents and residents' groups have begun to protest against masts after reports that radiation could be linked to health defects such as memory loss, epilepsy, sleeping disorders and "brain heating".

The television presenter Caron Keating last month launched a £100,000 battle to stop a mast being put up next to the primary school in Cornwall where her son is a pupil. Other protests range from Highbury and Bexleyheath in London to Burrelton, Perthshire.

Archie Norman, shadow Environment Secretary, said: "All over Britain there is a proliferation of mobile phone masts which are often ugly, poorly sited and raise serious concerns over safety." He predicted that over the next five years "there would not be a single location in the English countryside out of site of ugly masts".