LGA response to draft advice to local planning authorities on land-use planning and development giving rise to electromagnetic fields
The Local Government Association (LGA) represents all local authorities In England and Wales with a total population of over 50 million. It welcomes the opportunity to respond to the draft circular for issue jointly by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Department of Health, giving advice to local planning authorities on land-use planning and development giving rise to electromagnetic fields (EMFs).
Currently, there is no clear guidance to local planning authorities (LPAS) regarding development on sites close to EMFs, so an authoritative
statement from government - which the Association and its predecessor representative bodies have been seeking for some years - would be welcome. However, the timing of the consultation exercise is somewhat puzzling, bearing in mind the major studies that are underway, principally the UK Childhood Cancer Study, which is due to report later this year. In the absence of specific national planning guidance, some individual local authorities have taken what they considered to be sensible and precautionary measures by including policies in their draft local plans.
The government’s intention to provide a consistent context by issuing circular advice only serves to confirm the uncertainty of scientific advice. Unfortunately in its present form it fails to give clear guidance to local planning authorities, particularly regarding the use of policies which follow the ‘precautionary principle’. On the basis of the overwhelmingly critical responses received from local authorities, it is considered that, given the uncertainty among the scientific community regarding possible health effects, it is sensible to address public concerns and reduce possible risk by adopting the precautionary approach.
The draft circular should be revised to reflect this approach.
The Precautionary Principle
The LGA therefore calls for the 'precautionary principle' to be reasonably applied at local level by allowing restrictions to be placed upon new development within close proximity to power lines. Such a precautionary approach is advocated by Government in the White Paper 'This Common Inheritance’, PPG23 - 'Planning and Pollution Control’ and 'Sustainable Development - The UK Strategy’, which all include statements to the effect that whilst action must be based on fact, the lack of full scientific certainty will not be used as a reason for postponing cost effective measures to prevent environmental damage.
There are many striking examples of the damage caused by a failure to adopt a precautionary approach, despite no evidence of causal links at earlier stages. A precautionary approach would, for example, have ameliorated the effect of traffic pollution on the incidence of asthma in children; the effects of thalidomide; and the effects of smoking on the incidence of lung cancer. The furore surounding BSE serves as a salutary reminder, if one was needed, of the dangers of not adopting such an approach. It is surely unacceptable that the public’s health should be subjected to the possibility of compromise through the application of arguments which appear to be based on the need to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, a causal link in terms of absolute scientific proof.
The WHO document includes a section relating to "Prudent Avoidance and the Precautionary Principle" which seems to suggest that measures could be justified if they are simple and low cost. However, for the avoidance of doubt, this issue should be addressed clearly in the circular itself. Further comments on the WHO document are contained in later paragraphs.
The underlying message from both draft documents is that whilst a causal link between EMFs and cancer remains unproven, the possibility should not be dismissed (particularly with current public scepticism about scientific advice intended to placate public concern) but that advice provided needs to be robust, accurate and believable. However, the draft circular leaves the issue with too much uncertainty and a sense of disquiet about whether or not there is a health problem. Much attention has been focused on the possible links between EMFs and cancer and leukaemia; however, other adverse health effects (eg depressed immune functions, depression, disturbed sleep patterns, and headaches) have also been investigated. It would be helpful if the health issues were set out in more detail.
There is clearly a pressing need for the necessary research into the long-term public health issues to be carried out and completed quickly. Government should consider funding further academic research on the potential health links, such as that referred to later being undertaken at Bristol University, which is funded by the Department of Health.
In spite of the widely-quoted statement by the National Radiological Protection Board Advisory Group on Non-Ionising Radiation that "there is no convincing evidence of a causal link between exposure to EMFs and cancer", there are conflicting views about the scientific evidence available. Significantly, the NRPB's statement does not say that there is no evidence of a causal link, only that it does not believe that the evidence that does exist is "convincing". Also, paragraph 10 of the circular (in which the statement appears) fails to reflect the conclusion of the 1994 upplementary Report of the Advisory Group, which recognised that recent Scandinavian studies "do provide some evidence to suggest the possibility (ie that exposure to EMFs is a cause of cancer) exists in the case of childhood leukaemia" sufficient to justify further research. Also, last year the US National Institute of Environmental Services Working Group advised that "electric and magnetic fields like those surrounding electric powerlines should be regarded as a possible human carcinogen". In this context, it is difficult to see how the case for adopting a prudent precautionary approach can sensibly be refuted.
Public Perception of Danger
Genuine public perception of danger is a valid planning consideration, although the weight to be given is a matter for the body determining the application taking into account the particular facts in the case, but the draft does not directly tackle the growing public concerns about EMFs from a planning point of view. There is concern about the lack of any clear and authoritative national guidance on the extent to which EMFs should be treated as a material planning consideration. Equally the circular is not clear on how authorities should weight EMFs in the preparation of planning policy and determination of applications. Public concern over health and EMFs is a world-wide concern and seems likely to increase and different countries are taking precautionary action. For example, in Australia and New Zealand, EMF generating development is not allowed within certain distances of schools.
The potential effects of people spending considerable periods of time below power lines cannot be ignored. The Government has given firm guidance on issues of ‘weight’ in other circulars, such as Circular 1/97 on Planning Obligations, and a similar approach should be followed in the final version of the circular.
The advice in paragraphs 5 and 7 is rather misleading in its reference to NRPB guidelines which limit exposure to EMFs, since these are directed at far higher (electric shock) levels of exposure than those with which the public is generally concerned where power lines and mobile phone base stations etc are concerned. The final version of the circular should be explicit in this regard.
The LGA objects to the statement in paragraph 24 of the draft circular that there is no need for LPAs to include policies in their development plans covering overhead power lines, underground cabling and power station development. This is contrary to the latest draft revised PPGl2 which advocates the integration of sustainable development issues in development plans. It is surprising that in the context of a plan-led system, the draft circular is suggesting that development plans should not seek to include policies relating to proposed new overhead power lines, underground cabling over 20kv or power generating stations of over 50 mw generating capacity, which are determined by the DTI.
On the latter point above, the question which might also be asked, given the emphasis on "joined-up government", is why the DTI should be exempted from plan-led decision making. In modernising local government, there is an impetus towards a community plan-led system with much greater emphasis on listening to public issues and concerns.
Limits and standards
The LGA supports limits on emissions/ radiations and consultation with residents within half a mile of the proposed site. At this stage and until there is greater consensus within the scientific community about the links between EMFs and cancer, these could be advisory limits. The LGA is disappointed that the draft circular does not recommend specific levels of exposure and does not support a policy of prudent avoidance which in some cases, has been successfully challenged at Local Plan Inquiries. European countries and Australia and New Zealand have stringent cordons sanitaire, even though they have significantly lower levels of maximum exposure than in the UK.
The draft circular does not appear to rule out the use of cordons sanitaire, and this is to be welcomed. However, more explicit guidance would be helpful on the circumstances in which their adoption would be reasonable, including on the size of such a cordon in different circumstances. In the absence of any clear guidance, the adoption of differing separation distances by local authorities would be open to challenge, whereas what is needed is a consistent approach.
Role of Other Bodies
Of assistance to LPAs would be more information on the interaction between the Health and Safety Executive and developers. The Circular should refer to this relationship more fully in order to assure the public and local authorities about the degree of control over potentially harmful EMFs. The circular should also set out clearly the responsibilities of other bodies such as the NRPB, and those responsible for licensing Telecode Operators under the Telecommunications Act 1984. There should be a requirement for the submission of full details of EMFs by operators as part of any planning submissions.
The statement in the Summary (page 2) that "No adverse health effects have been found to occur in people exposed to these everyday background levels (of EMFs) is surely questionable, given the widespread exposure to EMFs in Western society.
Research published last year by Bristol University (funded by the Department of Health and the Medical Research Council) appears to show that traffic pollutants interact with EMFs in proximity to power lines, thereby increasing the risk of cancer for those living nearby. The results of such research is considered to provide ample justification for applying a precautionary approach to further development close to or under power lines.
Again - to reinforce the point made earlier regarding a statement by the NRPB - the implication of the ICNIRP's statement (with regard to base stations, mobile phones and the risk of cancer) (page 18) "that there is no clear evidence for such a risk but that the results of some experimental studies merit further investigation" is worrying in its use of the qualification "clear" to "evidence". If there is nevertheless some evidence of a risk (albeit not a "clear" risk in terms of scientific causality) surely a more cautious approach in land use planning terms is warranted where further development is concerned.