Railroaded by mast plan

Thousands of people in the North-East face living next to giant mobile phone masts because of a rail safety project.

Heather Connolly with daughter Charlotte

Thousands of people in the North-East face living next to giant mobile phone masts because of a rail safety project.

Two thousand masts are to be put up - five miles apart - in a £1.2bn Network Rail project to allow train signallers to communicate with drivers.

The Government-owned company does not need planning permission for the 29-metre masts even though objectors say they represent a health hazard.

The plan will affect communities along the East Coast Main Line and the Newcastle to Carlisle Tyne Valley Line.

It came to light when villagers in Bardon Mill, Tynedale, received notices saying one was to be built near their homes.

Heather Connolly, who lives close to the site with her husband James and their three children, aged between three weeks and four years, said: "You have to wonder if it is safe.

"With three young children, the health issue is a concern to us."

Villager Gordon Burn lives in a house that overlooks the station.

He said: "I was incredulous that they can just do this without planning applications.

"Network Rail said that was the best place for it, but it's yards away from where people and their young children live and close to the middle of the village.

"There is a suspicion they have quietly gone about it, hoping to get it up without any questions.

"It is going to dominate the whole village, the whole idea is absolutely crackers."

Fellow resident Martin Gaughan said: "We were offered no information and our house will overlook it.

"I just don't understand why they chose this site."

District and county councillor Colin Horncastle said: "I am going to get in touch with Network Rail and see if they are willing to talk.

"We have got to find out why they have chosen this site."

Network Rail is planning to put up 10 masts on the line between Newcastle and Carlisle between June and August, including five in Tynedale.

The company does not have to apply for planning permission because, under the Town and Country Planning General Permitted Development, it does not need the consent of local authorities.

The act, which came into force in 1995, simply says that companies must only inform the relevant planning authorities of what they intend to do.

Steve Gibbon lives on Station Road, metres away from where the mast will be put up.

He said: "There seems to be a loophole in the law that they are exploiting.

"The unbelievable. It looks to me as if somebody in some remote office has stuck a pin in a map without considering the impact on the community."

A Network Rail spokesman said: "We are sorry that people have concerns about the introduction of these masts.

"They are an essential part of a new system which will provide the UK's first train driver-to-signaller communication network.

"It fulfills a key recommendation from Lord Cullen's report into the Ladbroke Grove rail accident and will provide a safer railway for passengers."

He said: "It will only be used for railway purposes, is not a mobile phone mast and will be well within UK safety and international emissions guidelines."

He said the company's policy was to site the masts at least 100m away from schools, hospitals and residential buildings "whenever possible".

Helen Winter, director of planning at Tynedale Council, said: "The council was informed in writing by Network Rail in October 2006 of the specific details."

She confirmed that the Town and Country Planning Order 1995 meant no planning permission was required.

She said: "It was clear that the masts formed part of a national safety network and that Network Rail had carried out a rigorous site-selection procedure.

"In this context, Network Rail were informed that the council had no observations to make regarding the proposals.

"We would advise that those with specific concerns about the masts should take them up with Network Rail directly."

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Debate continues over phone site health fears Health fears over mobile phone masts have been the subject of heated debate for over a decade.

Risks to health have been played down by the Government and phone companies.

But campaign groups fighting the increasing prevalence of masts say the radio frequency radiation emitted poses a string of health risks, ranging from headaches and insomnia to cancer.

Anti-mast group Mast Sanity claim five international scientific studies show living near antennas can produce "significant ill-effects".

The row has led to a series of battles between the phone companies - who have to find enough sites for their third generation phone masts and transmitters - and campaigners who insist people's health is at risk.

Government experts have ruled that there is no clear evidence of adverse effects, but a series of reports have done little to assuage fears.

The Government commissioned a group of independent scientists to look into any health threat from mobile phones, and in May 2000, the Stewart Report concluded there was "no proof" that microwaves used to send and receive telephone calls were dangerous.

But the investigation did concede that exposure within guideline levels could create "biological effects" and be more damaging to children.

Experts also said exposure from mobile phone masts was at least 1,000 times lower than the amount received from using a handset.

In the wake of the report the Government funded a £7m research programme by the Radio Communications Agency into the health effects.

A further report by the Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation in 2004 found no evidence that mobile phones harmed health, but, said more research was needed before there could be absolute certainty.

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Line-side communities wait for news

Network Rail said last night it was unable to say exactly where the masts would be sited.

But villagers in Bardon Mill and Riding Mill on the Tyne Valley Line say they have been told there will be a mast near their homes.

In all, 10 masts are planned on Network Rail land along the 60-mile line which also runs through Stocksfield, Prudhoe, Wylam, Hexham, Blaydon, Haltwhistle and Corbridge. In the future, masts will also be put up on the East Coast Main Line, which runs through Berwick, Alnmouth, Morpeth, Cramlington, Longbenton, Newcastle, Gateshead, Birtley, Chester-le-Street, Durham and Darlington.

One resident in Riding Mill, who described the development as "very bad news" said there had been an increase in Network Rail vehicles driving to and from the station in recent weeks.

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The people versus the phone giants

Mobile phone masts have caused controversy across the North-East.

* May 2007: Teachers, parents and neighbours of a primary school unite with conservationists to fight plans to install a mast near St Margaret's Primary School in Durham.

* April 2007: North Tyneside councillors throw out plans to erect a mast in the Beach Road area of North Shields amid scores of objections.

* February 2007: Protesters hail a David versus Goliath victory after Vodafone UK loses its battle to put a receiver on top of Crawcrook Pentecostal Church in Gateshead.

* January 2007: A row erupted after T-Mobile bid to put a mast near the Grade II-listed Tynemouth Station, just a week after councillors rejected plans to erect one near the entrance to Cullercoats Metro. Campaigners said they feared Metro operators Nexus would continue to try to lease land at each of its stations.

* November 2006: Campaigners celebrated after plans to erect a 11.7m mast near a Grade II listed church were withdrawn. Hundreds of families were opposed to the plans by T-Mobile to put up the pole in a conservation area in Wallsend, North Tyneside.

* October 2006: Protesters fighting plans for a mast on a nightclub in Priestpopple, Hexham, were dejected after they lost their battle.

* August 2006: An O2 proposal to erect a 73ft mast next to a riverside footpath was rejected by planners after local people said it would be an eyesore at the centre of regeneration plans in Morpeth.

* May 2006: Planners agreed to allow a Vodafone antennae to be erected outside the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle despite objections from families and a leading engineer who helped design early masts.

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