"That Seanad Éireann expresses its concerns following recent reports in relation to the proximity of telecommunications structures to domestic dwellings, schools, hospitals and child care facilities and calls on the Government to review the existing national guidelines in relation to the proximity of telecommunications structures to domestic dwellings, schools, hospitals, child care facilities, workplaces and amenities and empowers the Radiological Protection Institute to carry out monitoring of the emissions from telecommunications masts and other installations that emit ionising and non-ionising radiation."
This motion was first tabled by Senator Bannon and has been on the agenda for some time. Anyone in rural Ireland knows that the greatest pressure from rural communities comes when it is proposed to erect a mobile telephone mast. There is conflict in respect of masts. When a mobile phone company decides on a particular location, it causes furore and there is a public meeting. The usual issues raised are devaluation of property, health concerns and the visual obtrusiveness of masts. Communities have a vocal lobby even in rural communities that do not have mobile phone coverage, where the strength and emotion of public feeling sometimes surprises me.
In County Limerick, An Bord Pleanála is adopting a different strategy. On three occasions it upheld the council's refusal in respect of the erection of a mast. The main reason given was the visual obtrusiveness of the mast. The Government amendment to the motion refers to the WHO and health concerns. The jury is out on potential health risks of mobile telephone masts. As a result of the Planning and Development Bill in 2000, exemptions were granted to the planning process, particularly when the OPW is involved. Mobile telephone masts can be placed in Garda or Government buildings.
In Abbeyfeale a giant mobile telephone mast was erected. The people protested but I had to inform them that they had no way of protesting. Limerick County Council was not involved because it was erected by the OPW. The Commissioner of the OPW stated at a meeting last February that masts were a lucrative source of revenue.
We should consider the legislation in this case. In 2000, we sought to stimulate telecommunications activity and introduced this exemption in the planning and development code. There is one law for Garda stations and Government property and another for masts on private land.
I understand why communities are annoyed. Mobile telephone masts are visually obtrusive. Lip service is paid to the co-location principle by telecommunications companies. The mast erected at the Garda station may have antennae for transmitters, which the mobile telephone companies can access on a group basis. ComReg informs me that 4,505 masts have been erected, of which 250 are co-location masts. Co-location is not happening very often.
Nobody is putting the jigsaw together. There is a brief reference to mobile telephone masts in county development plans. County development plans should have a section devoted to telecommunications. Mobile phone companies should provide local authorities with an indication of priorities for location of masts.
In recent times an application for a mobile telephone mast in Kilmeedy was appealed to An Bord Pleanála. The mast would dominate the small village. A member of the community suggested placing the mast in a nearby forest, where it would not be visually obtrusive. In Norway, dead and growing trees are used to camouflage masts. There is overall a lack of coherent planning in respect of mobile telephone masts. There is a protest organisation which travels the country meeting people who protest against masts, including people who say they have been affected by the electromagnetic activity of the masts. When one listens to them, it is hard to dispute the bona fides of their experience.
Statistically a few people are prone to the effects of mobile telephone masts but there is no certainty on the health issue. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources which is investigating this matter. I read recently of an objection to a mast in Dalkey, County Dublin, which was successful. The objector told a mast installer that in rural areas where there was a small population, a heavier density mast could be erected which would blast out over much of the area. I do not know what he meant by "blasting out". Is he referring to blasting out magnetic rays?
In the definitive document on mobile telephone masts, Sir William Stewart in the United Kingdom advocated the precautionary principle while recognising that there is no certainty on the health issue. He believes that masts should not be located near primary schools because the electromagnetic emissions might affect young children. This motion refers to defining the distance from areas of population density, community centres and communities of houses and schools at which to erect a mast to obviate people's escalating concerns.
A person who allows a mast be erected on his or her land can arouse a wave of local emotion which can divide a community but may have been tempted by a substantial financial inducement from the mast operator. Will there be a forest of masts throughout the country to accommodate 3G? In the United Kingdom the 3G licences were recently sold for £22.5 billion. This is big business. There are approximately 35,000 masts in the United Kingdom whereas we have 4,000. Does anybody know how many we will have in 2007-08?
I move this motion on behalf of people who are concerned about the erection of masts. Mobile telephones are a different issue on which medical research has raised many concerns. The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and local authorities should encourage co-location. In a small area near my home there are at least three different masts. There is no justification for that. It is irresponsible and unfair to the communities in that area that these should be erected beside them.
Such communities are entitled to their concerns because while the amendment tabled by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources may offer reassurance on the health issue, when I built a house not so long ago, I was told to install asbestos fire retardant in the garage. We know now, however, about asbestosis, especially given the claims about the basement of Leinster House. Who would have said 30 or 40 years ago that asbestos would affect people's health? It is now a serious concern in respect of lung cancer.
An EU directive was issued in 2004 in respect of magnetic rays and magnetic resonance imaging, MRI, to the effect that people should not be near these rays over a long period. The United Kingdom will implement the directive in 2008. I do not know when it will be implemented in this country but talks must be held with medical authorities about taking precautions when using MRI equipment.
The Government must take stock of the situation, hold consultations with the telecommunications companies, consider the virtues of co-location and think seriously about where these masts should be erected. It would be remiss of me not to raise this issue because I constantly go to community meetings, attended by members of the Minister of State's party, where we all voice the same concerns. I have researched the subject in detail, including the UK and Scottish experiences.
Scotland has scenery similar to that in Ireland but in 2001 it provided that there must be planning permission for every mast. Eight weeks is the timeframe for planning decisions here and in the United Kingdom but in Spain and Austria the timeframe for a decision on a mobile telephone mast is 180 days, allowing time for consultation. Here there is no matching between the Department, the mobile telephone companies and the communities involved which all work at different purposes. No mobile telephone company initiates consultation with communities before placing an application to erect a mast. The company enters discussions only when the community puts the gun to its head asking that somebody meet it. The company then quotes scientific advice to allay the community's concerns and offers reassurance on health matters.
I would like the Government to examine this motion carefully in the context of structural changes that would allow for the proper use of this technology because I am not happy with the piecemeal approach it is adopting.