Info superhighway crashes into Chilterns: British beauty spots are being sacrificed to a technological revolution

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The Independent Online
THE telecommunications revolution has begun to scar some of Britain's most beautiful landscapes.

Planning laws designed to protect the countryside have been overridden in the rush to promote mobile telephone networks, cable television and the information 'superhighway'.

New planning guidelines, introduced in the mid-1980s and reinforced two years ago, are at last producing the results feared by environmentalists but indirectly encouraged by the Government - a proliferation of highly visible 'clutter' on prominent and sensitive sites.

The latest controversy has come in the Chilterns, where a planning inspector has given the go-ahead for a radio mast for the recently launched Orange mobile phone network. The installation, which will also include two transmission dishes, six pole antennae, equipment cabins and a Tarmac access road, will be erected at Nuffield Hill, a 700ft ridge which is a few yards from the historic Ridgeway long-distance footpath.

Nuffield Hill is in the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) and commands 60-mile views to the Cotswolds. The proposal was unanimously opposed by local groups and both district and county councils, but the inspector overruled them, pointing out that it was now Government policy to encourage mobile phones.

'Say goodbye, then, to a centuries-old vantage point high in the glorious Chilterns, and say hello to the brave new world of communications equipment, thanks to Government policy supported by the planning inspectorate at the expense of logic and commonsense,' says Jan Barnard, chairman of Nuffield Parish Council.

However, Nuffield Hill is only one of thousands of sites where masts and other hardware are being installed. Four companies - Vodafone, Cellnet, Mercury and Orange (which was launched in April) - are locked in fierce competition over a lucrative and fast-growing market, which this year helped Vodafone, the market leader, to sales of pounds 850m and profits of pounds 363m.

Orange is aiming for a 25 per cent share of the market by 2000, and plans a total of nearly 1,500 'base stations', where calls are received and transmitted. Some of these can be camouflaged - on hospital roofs or clock towers, for example - but in hilly areas masts are needed for good reception.

By last year the networks had erected an estimated 600 masts but the total is growing fast.

In Shropshire, Vodafone and Cellnet sited three masts within half a mile of each other in a green belt. Orange, formerly Hutchison Microtel, was accused of 'environmental vandalism' over a proposal for a mast next to an important Neolithic and Bronze Age site in Scotland.

Angry householders faced with masts at the bottom of their gardens have also formed the League Against Vodafone Aerials. Vodafone's target is 1,700 masts nationally.

The industry claims that only one in 10 masts generate complaints and says it tries to make them unobtrusive. However, planning changes mean that objectors are virtually powerless.

Under so-called permitted development rights, for example, the companies are allowed to erect masts 15 metres - about 45 feet - high without seeking permission. Many firms are also allowed to bypass normal planning procedures by the grant of a licence from the Department of Trade and Industry.

The DTI, under Michael Heseltine, has been an enthusiastic promoter of telecommunications. Neil Sinden, planning campaigner for the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), says the DTI's licensing system is 'toothless'.

New Govermment planning guidance also favours the spread of telecommunications, pointing out their 'national significance' and saying traditional, 'old-fashioned' conservation policies - the use of vernacular materials, for example - are probably irrelevant.

Mr Sinden last week described the document - planning policy guidance (PPG) 8, issued in 1992 - as 'extremely deregulatory' and said it gave telecommunications 'a much wider freedom from effective planning regulation than most other sectors of industry. We are now seeing the huge wave of applications (for installations) we anticipated two or three years ago.'

The same latitude has been granted to companies laying cables for the 'information superhighway' - the fibre optics technology which enthusiasts claim will transform work, entertainment and shopping. Cable firms operate under DTI licence and have been granted the same rights to dig up pavements as the gas and electricity companies.

This month evidence has emerged to back up claims by environmentalists that cable-laying may result in the death of thousands of street trees. A survey in Havering, London, found that more than a third of 90 trees checked by the council had roots severed by trenching machinery. The survey was prompted by the sudden collapse of apparently healthy trees.

According to the Royal Town Planning Institute, many problems are caused by the transfer of monopoly planning powers, once exercised only by British Telecom and the utility companies, to a multitude of firms 'competing to put their own equipment up'.

The RTPI wants the Government to insist on more shared installations.

At Nuffield Hill, the Orange mast will be erected a few yards from the garden of the rector, John Shearer. Mr Shearer last week described it as an eyesore but said he had not opposed it out of self-interest.

'The view from my windows is a secondary matter. The most important thing is the effect on the many hundreds of thousands of people who come here to enjoy the fine views and the peace and tranquillity of an unspoilt hill-top.

'The whole of society has got too frenetic and overwrought. We need places like this to get away from mobile phones,' he said.