Mobile phone masts are undemocratic

Go out in to the street and look at your fellow human beings. Any street. See how they walk, and how different it is from the way we used to walk around even 10 years ago.

No one takes advantage of a crisp autumn day to look at the changing leaves or the unexpected curiosities of the urban landscape. No one nods, or flirts, or even looks at anyone else. Everyone has the same drugged, internal, abstracted look: and why?

Because we are all on the mobile. We are either making a call – a call that could almost certainly wait until we get to a landline – and have the tool glued to our sweating ear. Or else we have it in our hands.

See how we heft it and coddle it. Watch how we stroke its smooth skin and wonder what use to make of it next. Shall we dial a number and disconnect, just to leave our electronic spoor? Shall we send a text, an emoticon, a pictogram?

Everyone has one now, in his breast pocket or her handbag, a chocolate-bar-sized dispenser of personal gratification. We can all have that buzz now, whenever we want: the comfort of a voice, the quick fix of external affirmation that we need to get us through the day.

Yes, the British people – make that the human race – have a new addiction that needs feeding. There are now 40,000 mobile phone masts in the United Kingdom, and a further 8,000 are likely to be constructed in the next three years.

Many of these masts, or “base stations”, are sited well away from human habitation – who cares about that mutant plastic tree by the side of the motorway? But as the national compulsion grows, the masts are sprouting in villages, in cities, and not least in a certain world-famous riparian town that annually hosts an important aquatic sporting event; and when the local people find that a socking great 15-metre phone mast is about to be plonked near their house, their school, their hospital, they mind, believe me, they mind.

And they are right to mind; but not, perhaps, for the reasons normally given. The other day I was chatting to some councillors in this world-famous riparian town, and someone said: Here, what about these mobile phone masts, then? What do you think about the dangers?

And I am afraid that the honest answer came bubbling out, which is that frankly I don’t think a mobile phone mast is any more threatening to human health than a tin of baked beans.

Something in my make-up makes me leery of public health scares. I thought the BSE panic was wildly overdone (do you see the CJD hospices on every street corner, as one of the nuttier doctors predicted?). And yet the panic alone, ably stoked by the Labour Party, cost the country about £5 billion and destroyed the livelihoods of many farmers.

If I understand things correctly, the radiation from a mobile phone mast is no greater than the radiation from an individual mobile phone. The emissions are hundreds, if not millions, of times lower than the levels insisted upon by international standards.

But with all due respect to my scientific training (biology O-level), I am not sure that I am the man to read on this subject. I have a hunch that the masts are safe; I have a hunch that there may be other statistical explanations for the clusters of tragic diseases that seem to be associated with these masts.

But the reality is that I do not have advanced knowledge of electromagnetic waves. As long as there is reasonable doubt – and the Government itself has said that the precautionary principle should be applied – then I cannot in all conscience insist that people’s fears are groundless. The calculation should really be a matter for them: to have either a mobile phone mast, an eyesore with an unknowable (probably infinitesimal) potential for harm, or the bother of not getting a signal on your mobile.

That is why it is infamous that, under the present rules, local residents have hardly any say in where these masts are sited. Under current planning law the telecommunications companies – the ones that paid £22.5 billion to Gordon Brown to use the spectrum – can shove the masts virtually wherever they like. Normal planning procedures do not apply, and the result is mayhem.

That is why I owe a big apology to my colleague Richard Spring, hero, Tory MP and unrecognised prophet. About six months ago, he tried to flog an article to The Spectator, in which he described the controversy. He did not assert that the masts themselves were causing illness; he merely pointed to some troubling illnesses among those who lived near them, and to the widespread alarm that the erection of these masts was causing. He made the good point that the controversy alone was damaging, since it blighted property values, and could make houses impossible to sell.

Like a fool, I took my usual stuff-and-nonsense anti-hysteria line, and told Richard that a spot of radiation never did anyone any harm, good for acne, etc. I did not publish the article. I now see that I missed the point: the issue is not my untutored views on safety; it’s about democracy. If it is the collective will of the people of a certain area that they shall have no mast in that area, then the decision should at least be taken by those who are elected by and accountable to those people.

The decision should be taken by people who can be shouted at in village halls, and if necessary booted out of office. Far too many decisions are now being taken away from such people, and put in the hands of the regional quangocrats. If people want the complete absence of risk, and no mobile signal, they should be able to express that preference democratically. Thanks to Richard Spring, that is the new Tory policy: all new masts to be subject to full planning procedures.

Boris Johnson is MP for Henley and editor of The Spectator
30/9/04

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16 thoughts on “Mobile phone masts are undemocratic”

  1. Boris,

    Good first post! I think the only consideration worth thinking about with phone masts is the aesthetic quality. The radiation emitted is, as you say, miniscule – so small that there is no possibility of harm. I am not aware that there is a statistical clustering of illnesses around masts. If so, it is almost certainly a polling artifact, created by fear and hysteria. Incidentally, the same is true of prescription drugs testing – ask someone on a clinical trial if they experienced any side effects and they will give you every ailment that it wasn’t worth bothering the GP with, from headaches, through nausea, to impotence. Same with masts – ask someone standing next to a phone mast if they are feeling 100%, and they will do the same. The problem will only be solved with some kind of double blind trial – we could erect some hideous empty plastic monstrosities around the country and see if people start keeling over?

    The ‘precautionary principle’ makes for extremely dangerous decisions, by the way. The British public, God bless them, are woefully ill-informed when it comes to scientific matters. Witness the precaution taken over MMR vaccines, leading to measles outbreaks across London, for example. Although I’m all in favour of people deciding things for themselves, it doesn’t excuse the tyranny of the majority being imposed on those who quite like making mobile phone calls and not dying from medieval diseases.

    As for this being an issue of democracy, well isn’t the fox-hunting ban an issue of democracy? The people of England have spoken, and they demand a ban. But you’re on the other side of this argument, if I’m not mistaken? Or can we leave the ban up to local people in local areas, where they can be shouted at in town halls? The collective will can be a dangerous thing to unleash if you’re on the wrong side of it.

    Regards

  2. You’ve picked the wrong people to ask. The problem is /too much/ democracy – in this case, central government, which knows it’d be voted out post haste if it left people’s mobile reception to the destructive whims of NIMBYs.

    The real solution, as to so many other modern problems, would be the simultaneous repeal of planning permission and compulsory purchase. Let the landowner decide!

  3. I would add my congratulations but regrettably I think we are responding to Boris the serial tree killer rather than e-Boris the e-phemeral!
    But I do agree with the article. Wy shouldn�t local people have the last word on whether or not to allow obtrusive structures nearby? Perfectly reasonable, no?
    Re. mobile phones: there is an assumption that all new technologies are equally valid and are being introduced uniformly all over the world. On the contrary (in my opinion) the way technology is used is determined by the underlying culture. Mobile phones have been a huge success in Britain, probably more than anywhere except Japan. Maybe as a kind of poor man�s computer? Text is definitely a poor relation of email.
    Are mobile phones essential to progress? Do they improve the quality of communications? I doubt it. They just happen to be useful when you are meeting someone in the middle of town.

  4. But Boris, what happens if the network companies shove their masts within travellers illegally built enclaves – thoughtfully carbuncled onto the side of a few picture postcard English villages?

    In recent cases, Judges have appeared to side with the travellers – even though they have built without planning permission – local anger that they were there at all, falling property prices etc.

    So much for the ‘collective will of people from a certain area’……

  5. Wouldn’t it be possible to put one really, really big mast in just one place in the country, instead of all of these irritating smaller ones? Maybe 2000 metres high. I suggest we put it somewhere fairly central, southern, and already overrun with tourists. Henley, perhaps.

  6. I think that the broader point made in the article is very good – greater local control. But if this is the case, why not support regional assemblies? Or, more to the point, why not make this the whole basic theory upon which the next election campaign is based? The Tories lack a big idea, and their current policy pronouncements help Labour in promoting the image of an opportunistic knee-jerk party. “Do away with speed cameras – stop coursework – don’t shake Mugabe’s hand – mobile phone masts” – they never seem to fit together and never sound particularly convincing. Boris – great article as always – but can you tell me, when are the Tories going to present a more convincing bigger picture?

  7. The main reason for opposing regional assemblies is that to make them worthwhile (because central government will only release limited power) they are being given powers currently residing at a lower level eg. County councils – in other words in some areas they are a centralising measure, not a localising one.

  8. If people want mobiles then they have to put up with the masts. It’s that simple.

    Does anyone ever ask these anti-mast groups if they have a cellphone ? Of course not because they would be exposed as hypocrites and not poor put-upon, downtrodden members of the Great British Public ™.

  9. Boris,
    I agree, it is once again the governemnt infringing upon the rights of the people. The whole 3G thing has seemed to be nothing but a money spinner for the Government who need to find increascingly different ways to raise more funds for Mr Blair’s varying international ‘projects’. And here was me thinking they could just use the money they were screwing out of the students for that…
    Good Post, I look forward to reading more..
    -Pete

  10. Richard Spring is my MP (West Suffolk). I’ve learn more about what he’s done for his constituency and conservative policy in this one article than in all the years’ he has been MP.

    As far as I could gather from the local paper, all he does is take down, put up and modify speed humps.

  11. For anyone that is interested, the National Radiological Protection Board has a good page describing the effects of base stations (http://www.nrpb.org/press/information_sheets/mobile_telephony/base_stations.htm), which seems fairly comprehensive.

    I would take issue however, with what Andrew said in a comment about the tyranny of the majority stopping phone masts. With apparently over 80% of the population possessing a mobile phone, the phone user is hardly in the minority. Ultimately phone masts are here to stay as the majority don’t want poor or patchy reception.

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