Wordsworth country fights phone masts

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The Independent Online

William Wordsworth, who made the Lakelands famous with his vision of tranquillity and solitude, may soon find himself resting in the giant shadow of a 35-metre telephone mast.

The telecoms giant NTL has outraged locals and tourists alike with its plans to erect the mobile phone pylon on a hillside terrace above the village of Grasmere where Wordsworth is buried in St Oswald's church.

The result has been a fierce battle between the cable company and the Lake District authorities - who argue the mast will have a "profound and negative" effect on the area - culminating in a public inquiry. Much rides on the result, as it will establish a precedent for erecting masts in every national park in England.

The Lake District is already bombarded with applications from mobile phone companies. Last week the national park threw out an application for a 29-metre telecom mast at Greythwaite, near Ulverston. Vodafone put in five applications, including one for a 29-metre mast at Skelwith Fold, near Ambleside, while Orange wants to improve coverage in the Arnside area after planning permission for a mast in the village was refused earlier this year. The latest proposal was rejected by the Lake District National Park Authority because it is convinced the structure would be visible above the tree canopy that surrounds the village.

It has come at a crucial time. Only last week a government report into the health hazards of mobiles called for the masts to be subject to stricter planning controls. Following concerns over the safety of Britain's 20,000 mobile phone masts, the report by the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, which is chaired by former government chief scientific adviser Sir William Stewart, called for all masts to be subject to full planning permission. At present, masts less than 15 metres high do not need permission.

The proposal at Grasmere was to replace an existing television mast a mile south of the village with a new, higher mast that would continue to provide television transmission but also service the four mobile phone operators. It would be visible to walkers following a ridge from Wordsworth's former home, Dove Cottage. "The new mast is bulky and intrusive," said Norman Atkins, area planning leader for the park authority. "The area is the quintessential Lake District, with fells, lakes and a village nestling at the bottom of it with its church spire."

NTL said that a new mast was essential and that the proposal offered the least impact to the countryside. "We are trying to get companies to share masts so we have to make them slightly bigger. We think one larger mast is better than three or four new masts."

The inquiry at Grasmere is only the latest in a series of applications in Britain's most popular national park. In the past four years mobile phone companies have submitted 45 proposals to erect masts in the Lake District National Park. The park authority, which is responsible for all planning decisions, has rejected 27 of these and approved 12. There have been a further 46 applications to alter existing masts.

The park authority says it must follow government guidelines on the potential danger to children. But it recognises that the debate over their visual impact is complex. "We're not opposed to mobile phone technology," said Mr Atkins. "But it is difficult to weigh the benefits of the explosion in telecommunications with the possible detriment to the landscape. There are some proposals that we feel would have a profound and negative impact on the Lakes."

The Friends of the Lake District has also expressed disquiet. "There have been an awful lot of applications," said a spokesman. "Anything strident just defeats the purpose of having a national park."

A spokesman for Vodafone, which has 14 masts in the park, said the company recognised it "had to keep visible intrusion to an absolute minimum" but said it also had a responsibility to improve reception.

He said: "There are working communities in the Lakes including farmers, vets and agricultural suppliers who have the right to the benefits of mobile technology. It can also be useful in an emergency."

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