Anger over church deal for mobile phone masts

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The Independent Online

The church of England faces a series of rows with parishioners after backing the installation of mobile phone masts on church spires and towers.

The church of England faces a series of rows with parishioners after backing the installation of mobile phone masts on church spires and towers.

A deal has been struck with the company Quintel S4, which will act as an "approved installer" and pass on payments from the telecoms companies of up to £10,000 a year for each mast. Five networks are seeking locations for masts to provide the forthcoming 3G services for mobile phones.

For the telecoms companies, which are facing strong opposition in many places to proposals to install masts, cash-strapped churches appear to offer an ideal answer.

But protests from residents, which have already stymied some plans for masts on church property, seem inevitable. So far 5,000 churches out of 16,000 have said they would be interested in having masts, and 200 have done local deals.

The Church of England insisted yesterday that any agreements were the decision of the local priest and of the parish councils.

A spokesperson said: "All the church will do centrally is provide advice on how to go about making the decision, such as on environmental, health and conservation grounds. We don't tell them it's bad or good. But if they do want one then we can tell them that that there's a company which has said it will work within the guidelines we have set."

But the unofficial approval for masts is sure to trigger renewed local opposition, which has been increasing because of fears that the microwave radiation the masts emit could harm people living or working in the vicinity.

Although the Stewart report to the Government last year on radiation from mobiles said there was no evidence of harm, it was careful to point out that too little was known to be certain. More research is under way.

Action groups were dismayed by the church's decision. John Hunt, of Mast Action UK, which advocates "safe siting" of masts, said: "I had thought that we were negotiating, or at least providing them with guidance, about what to do on this front. Ultimately people have a choice as to whether they expose themselves to using mobile phones, but parishioners living near an aerial in a church have no such choice."

The deal would tear churches apart "between the carrot of regular, easy money, and the divisiveness the masts will cause within their communities", he said. Mr Hunt added that there was "no absolute guarantee that churches would not become liable for damages should mobile phones and masts subsequently be proven to be hazardous to health".

Local opposition has already forced St Barnabas Church in Beckenham, Kent to drop its plans to install a mast for Hutchison 3G. Eric Richard, an actor in The Bill, led the opposition, saying: "The vicar said the church believed the project to be safe, but the Government would not be spending millions of pounds researching what effect radiation has if that were so."

Quintel S4 declined to comment on the reports. The company, a joint venture between the government's defence research agency, Dera, and a property company, says it has technology which may mean that one site can be used for many masts.