Tuesday, 1 March 2005
Dáil Eireann Debate
Mr. Gormley: I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this matter. I very much regret that the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, is not here this evening to answer.
The proposal to install a mobile phone base station in Ardee House, Ardee Road, Rathmines, arises from a review commissioned by the Minister’s Department “to assess the suitability of the State property portfolio for use in the mobile telecommunications sector”. The idea is to charge mobile operators for a licence to install and operate telecommunications antennae on public buildings. It appears that the very first public building to be the subject of such a licence is Ardee House, an OPW building that houses the Central Statistics Office. It is the location that is the real problem, since Ardee House is close to some of the major schools in the area. It is directly adjacent to St. Mary’s College and Junior School and also close to St. Louis High School. The proposed installation will be within metres of the school buildings and grounds of St. Mary’s College. It seems clear to me that the Department or its consultants did not consider the proximity of those schools in assessing Ardee House for its suitability and that the proposal must be withdrawn immediately. I say that not simply because of the great disquiet expressed to me by my constituents but because of the latest findings by the UK independent expert group on mobile phones, also known as the Stewart group. It clearly supports the application of a precautionary principle that should rule out this proposed installation.
Before I get into the health concerns that it raises, I will say a few words on planning. I raised this issue by way of a question in December 2004. In his reply, the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Parlon, stated regarding this installation: “Licensees will also be required to fully comply with normal planning regulations.” I suggest that reply is rather disingenuous as the normal planning regulations in this case are the Planning and Development Regulations 2001, which exempt this installation from the normal planning process. In other words, the rules are that there are no rules. The normal planning process affords members of the public the opportunity to make observations on developments which affect them. In this case, neither the public nor the local authority can make any such observations.
The issue of planning in regard to telecommunications equipment is a key element of the Stewart report. Although it refers to the planning regime in force in the United Kingdom, the issues are largely the same in this State. In this respect, the recommendation of the independent expert group is unambiguous. It recommends that all base stations, including those with masts under 15 metres, be permitted development rights, that further erection be revoked and that the siting of all new base stations should be subject to normal planning processes.
It is worth noting that the Planning and Development Regulations 2001 specifically exclude schools, child care facilities and hospitals from the schedule of buildings on which antennae can be installed without planning permission. This would appear to be a sensible precautionary measure given that, as the Stewart report points out, children will absorb more energy per kilogram of body weight from an external electromagnetic field than adults. However, the siting of a base station adjacent to a school makes this precaution worthless.
In reply to my colleague, Deputy Sargent, in the House last year the then Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources stated that in the particular case of an installation on the upper floor of a building, the aerials emit electromagnetic energy laterally away from the aerial installation. He further stated that the position which receives the lowest emissions from such an installation is directly underneath it. That was by way of reassuring us that the installation of a base station on the upper floors of a nursing home would have no adverse health effects. It follows from the Minister’s statement, however, that we should be more careful of what is next to buildings on which such equipment is installed.
The independent expert group makes this point, specifically in regard to schools. The Stewart report states that because of the way in which emissions are beamed, a macrocell base station located near a school may cause higher exposure to pupils than if it were placed on the roof of the school building. In other words, mobile phone masts near schools, as in this instance, are more of a cause of concern than mobile phone masts on school buildings.
In these circumstances, what is the point in excluding schools from the planning regulations if we are to allow these antennae to be installed next door to schools without planning permission? Again, the Stewart report addresses this issue and makes a recommendation that the agreement of the school and parents should be obtained in cases where the beam of greatest RF intensity from a base station would fall on any part of the school grounds, whether this station is located on school grounds or nearby. In this instance there has been no consultation with the school or parents. Parents are completely in the dark about this proposal.
I emphasise that the reason for applying a precautionary principle in this case is not simply to ease the concerns of residents and parents but to take account of the fact that there is, as of yet, a paucity of scientific research on the effect of emissions from these installations. This is acknowledged in the Stewart report which notes that despite public concern about the safety of mobile phones and base stations, rather little research specifically relevant to these emissions has been published in peer-reviewed scientific literature. If the Minister goes ahead with this installation, it is nothing short of reckless.
Over the past few years, the Commissioners of Public Works have received an ever-increasing number of requests from mobile phone operators to install equipment on State property. These requests were dealt with on a case by case basis and the commissioners did not have a standard approach to dealing with such requests.
To develop a consistent and standard way of dealing with these requests, the commissioners appointed telecommunications consultants Vilicom Limited to assess the suitability of the State property portfolio for use in the mobile telecommunications sector and to act in an advisory capacity to the commissioners in their dealings with mobile telecommunications operators. This was also done in support of Government policy on the roll-out of 3G mobile technology and as part of the commissioners’ transforming State assets programme.
A standard agreement, which sets out the terms and conditions under which operators will be allowed to install equipment on State-owned properties, has been finalised. Any mobile phone operator granted such a licence will be required to strictly comply with all relevant health and safety Acts, operate within current standards and EU regulations and adhere to the guidelines on exposure limits to emissions issued by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection.
This compliance with health and safety legislation etc., required under the licence agreement, also applies to any future relevant legislation or regulations and ICNIRP guidelines. Licensees will also be required to fully comply with normal planning regulations.
Part of Vilicom’s role as consultants to the commissioners is to ensure that all equipment installed is constructed in accordance with all the relevant legislation in the first instance and to randomly test sites thereafter to ensure compliance is continuous.
I assure the Deputy that it is only within the strict framework outlined above and detailed in the licence agreement that the installation of telecommunications equipment on the State building on Ardee Road, Rathmines, has been approved.
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