Councillor’s ‘immense frustration’ as mast safety is excluded from planning remit

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A COUNCILLOR who supported the installation of a lamppost-style communications mast in a residential area of Galashiels has this week admitted he shares the frustration of neighbours concerned about the health implications of the structure.

And Nicholas Watson, leader of the Borders Party, believes the remit of Scottish Borders Council’s planning committee is too narrow in determining such controversial proposals.

Last week, we reported that a 16-signature letter had been sent to local MSP Christine Grahame by residents in the Magdala Terrace area asking her to apply pressure to the council, as well as applicant Orange PCS and the company’s agents, to supply a written and legally binding assurance that the 35ft mast, to be sited at Sanderson Court, would be “100 per cent safe”.

And while Ms Grahame said she hoped to encourage the council to monitor the health impact, SBC maintained it has “no further role in the matter”.

Last month, the planning committee voted 10-2 to approve Orange’s application on one of 15 sites the company had considered in Galashiels.

Members heard that agents for the firm had submitted a declaration that its installation and equipment would comply with International Commission for Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection guidelines on public exposure to radio frequency radiation.

And that undertaking, according to SBC planning officer Carlos Clarke, meant it was not necessary for such radiation, even though it had concentrated the minds of objectors to the proposal, to be treated as a material planning consideration. Mr Clarke did, however, concede the residents’ health risk concerns were “understandable”.

Last week Allan Strang, one of the objectors from Halliburton Place, wrote to express his concerns to Councillor Watson, believing he had seconded the motion calling for approval of the planning bid.

“In fact, it was Kelso councillor Tom Weatherston, who seconded the motion, but I did, indeed, support the proposal,” said Mr Watson in his reply to Mr Strang.

“I appreciate that one objector asked for a written assurance regarding health risks before the committee considered this, but planning officials do not usually answer queries if they are made as part of an objection to an application,” explained Mr Watson.

“I appreciate this can be annoying and I know it must also be annoying to be told that the safety of such installations is not a matter for the council as the planning authority, but is a matter of national government policy.

“It is a bit like considering a planning bid for a shop: the council’s duty is to judge where it is suitable in terms of building design and neighbouring uses. It is not our duty to make sure dodgy goods are not sold when the shop is operational. That falls under sepearate legislation.

“The trouble is that these different duties are set out in statute and if SBC stepped outside its statutory role, especially where planning is concerned, the applicant would appeal and we would have little or no control over the application.

“Councillors have to stick purely to ‘material planning matters’ and I personally find this immensely frustrating and I do believe the remit of planning committees is too narrow to address concerns such as genuinely held local fears over health risks from telecommunications masts.

“Not long after I was elected in 2007, a colleague and I looked into the safety or otherwise of these installations. Although no-one can be sure – and I accept this may be a reason for adopting a cautious approach – the evidence presented about the dangers was certainly not conclusive.”

Mr Strang said yesterday he now intended writing to council leader David Parker and chief executive Tracey Logan to ask for the safety assurances.

“The council may not have a legal responsibility to take safety risks into consideration or to monitor any emissions, but perhaps they should abide the spirit, rather than the strict letter of the law, and give constituents the assurances they demand,” said Mr Strang.