Council admits stamp blunder

HORRIFIED villagers are having a mobile phone mast built just yards from their homes – because a council tried to save 8p by using second class post, it was revealed last night.

HORRIFIED villagers are having a mobile phone mast built just yards from their homes – because a council tried to save 8p by using second class post, it was revealed last night.

Mid Suffolk District Council had refused planning permission for the 12 metre mast on the grounds it was a visual intrusion and of undue prominence in the countryside.

Council officers were meant to notify the communications firm 3 of the decision within 56 days of the application being made to build the mast at Stowupland, near Stowmarket.

But officials sent a letter by second class post costing 20p so it arrived a day past the legal deadline - making the refusal of planning permission invalid.

The letter would have arrived on time at the offices of the firm, formerly known as Hutchison 3G, if it had been sent first class at a cost of 28p

The firm is now claiming it has "prior" planning permission as it was not notified within the 56 day limit set by the Government to speed up the processing of mast applications.

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It is now building the mast which will be disguised as a telegraph pole, near the A14 dual carriageway. It will connect it to the phone network within the next two weeks.

Outraged villager Colleen Rose, 56, of Thorney Green, Stowupland said: "They might have saved eight pence on the postage - but we now have to live with this mast overlooking our homes.

"It is a mockery of local democracy that the mast can still be built even after local councillors refused permission for it."

Mother-of-two Theresa Fitzgibbon, 67, who lives 70 metres from the mast said: "I don't think there is any excuse for failing to notify the communications firm in time.”

Villagers have now made a formal complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman about the council's actions.

Mrs Fitzgibbon added: "We may be claiming compensation from the council - but that is not what we really want.

"But if we are awarded compensation, then the council might decide that it is cheaper to pay Hutchison to put the mast somewhere else.”

Mid Suffolk District Council spokeswoman Sally Easton said: "We had a duty to consider the planning application for the mast within 56 days

"We had to consult local residents and statutory bodies and the application was not turned down until about the 54th day.

"A fax was supposed to be sent to the firm notifying them of the decision, but it was not sent in this case. They were only notified by a letter with a second class stamp and it arrived on the 57th day.

"The applicant then informed us they were building the mast on the grounds of 'deemed' planning permission.

"It was an administrative mistake by the council planning department. We have apologised to the villagers and we have now reviewed our systems to make sure it will not happen again.

"At the time it was normal policy for planning matters to be sent second class. As a council we always have to look at ways of reducing costs.

"The firm is now within its rights to build the mast. Planning law has got to apply to everybody."

Robert Eburne, planning control manager for Mid Suffolk, said: "We have expressed some disappointment with the way that this firm has pounced on the council's mistake.

"We had hoped to negotiate with them to find a solution - but they say they are going to proceed.”

David Ruffley, the Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, said: "It was an administrative error and the council has apologised - but that is little comfort to my angry constituents and I share their disquiet.”

Philip Robinson, the East Anglia community affairs manager for 3, said: "We have fully complied with the planning legislation. The planning authorities have to communicate in written form to applicants within a statutory 56 day period and in this case it didn't happen.

"I am fully aware of the concerns of local people and there have already been a number of discussions with them. All our equipment fully complies with international standards and research points to mobile base stations not posing a health risk."

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