The issue has come to a head because of the rapid expansion of the mobile- phone network, which has doubled in the past five years, sprouting a rash of masts, poles and transmission dishes in sensitive landscapes. About 2,000 masts have been erected, 600 of them free standing, and the network is expected to grow by another 15-20 per cent by the end of the decade.
However, the boom in mobile phones - there are 6 million users now and another 6 million forecast over the next 10 years - has focused attention on a gap in planning law which means that developers do not need planning permission from the local authority.
Under the "Permitted Development Rights" exemption, councils are virtually powerless to prevent masts from being erected if they are less than 15 metres (50ft) high.
Although the exemption does not apply in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), councils there must observe Government guidelines which support the development of telecommunications in the interests of economic growth. The document - Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) 8 - says traditional conservation policies are probably "irrelevant" to telecommunications.
Earlier this month, planners at Basingstoke and Deane council in Hampshire cited the document as a reason why they could not refuse permission for a 15-metre Vodafone mast - later reduced to 12 metres - at Beacon Hill on land owned by Lord Carnarvon next to the A34, despite "tremendous" local objections.
The hill, part of the North Wessex Downs AONB, is visible 25 miles away and is topped by an Iron Age fort. The Council for the Protection of Rural England argued that under the Government's own planning guidance on sites of archaeological importance, it should have been protected. Vodafone says that the mast is at the bottom of the hill and has been "colour coded" - painted brown - to blend with the landscape.
However, even if the council had refused permission, Vodafone might have been given the go-ahead on appeal. In a recent case in the Chilterns, another AONB, a planning inspector overturned refusal of permission by the local council and said a mast could be erected on a 700ft-high ridge near the Ridgeway footpath because it was Government policy to encourage mobile phones.
Neil Sinden, a planner with the CPRE, described PPG8 as "permissive and extremely deregulatory" and said it gave telecommunications "a much wider freedom from effective planning regulation than most other sectors of industry".
The CPRE says the impact of masts on the countryside is often "devastating ... there is little sign of a co-ordinated and systematic approach ... in many instances, separate masts owned by different operators can be found within a short distance of each other".
One industry insider told the Independent on Sunday that many mobile- phone operators deliberately erected masts higher than 15 metres without seeking planning permission, relying on councils not to prosecute when the breach of law came to light.
The four main networks - Vodafone, Cellnet, Mercury and Orange - often refuse to share sites, and thus avoid duplication of masts, because of "short-term commercial reasons", he added.
The cash incentives offered by the networks have also proved divisive. Vodafone declined to disclose what Lord Carnarvon is paid for the mast on Beacon Hill but said a yearly rental of pounds 1,000-pounds 3,000 was typical for rural sites.
Critics of the system include Tim Yeo, the former Conservative Environment minister, who recently launched a fierce attack in Parliament on mobile- phone masts. The Government has now drawn up a code of practice requiring operators to give more notice of their plans.
Despite promising to clamp down on abuses, however, it has now published proposals which would result in an extension of permitted development rights, allowing larger satellite dishes and radio-telephone aerials to be erected on buildings without planning permission. According to the Department of the Environment, protection of the landscape must be balanced against "unnecessary burdens on industry".Reuse content