Byline: PAUL McKILLION
THE toughest planning control in the UK is on the verge of taking effect in Northern Ireland.
Environment Minister Dermot Nesbitt announced yesterday that all applications for masts, no matter what their size, will need full planning permission from the end of May, subject to scrutiny of the new legislation by the Assembly.
Critics of the legislation, in the mobile phone industry and business organisations, have described it as populist.
They say the Executive, which backed the proposed law last summer, and MLAs, who are almost certain to pass it into law in the coming weeks, are simply reacting to community concerns over mast radiation levels which, in most cases, cannot be addressed.
At the same time, they say it will lead to delays in crucial tele- communications investment in Northern Ireland.
The critics say that, under the new legis- lation, if an objection to a mast is lodged on the grounds of general worries about health, the Department of the Environment, which gets advice from the Department of Health on these matters, has to reject it.
This is because the radiations levels being emitted from all masts in Northern Ireland have been found to be well within international guidelines.
The DoE will have to abide by this assessment and reject the objection.
It is only when a proposed mast location is near to someone wearing a medical device, like a child's cochlear implant, that the planners will refuse the application, or enter into negotiation with the company about relocating the mast.
The new legislation will push mobile companies into being more sympathetic in the building and location of masts.
But, apart from the exceptions when medical devices are involved, it effectively means that, if it has no adverse visual or environmental impact, the mast can go up.
Mr Nesbitt argued that the legislation and accompanying planning policy statement will ensure that commun- ities can have more of a say and that mobile phone operators will have to listen.
The policy covers issues including development of infrastructure, mast and site sharing, visual and environmental impact, interference to terres- trial broadcasting and health.
"The planning policy statement is going to have neighbourhood notification and Press advertisement, go through a full process of deferral, and also the health matters are going to be taken into account.
"If we have got a full process of council discussions and deferrals, the health matters can be explained there.
"We are making it more open, more transparent within which health plays its part under the international guidelines.''
The DoE said there have been cases where mobile operators have slightly modified their plans in response to residents' concerns. …