We protest

Good article today - Kate Figes who was Greenham common campaigner is now on a phone mast campaign. Sian

We protest

The last time Kate Figes was involved in activism was at Greenham Common. But when she heard that a mobile phone company planned to erect a mast near her children's school, she started dusting off her placards

Wednesday February 16, 2005

The Guardian

Its good to feel the energy and anger of activism once again. It's 20 years since I joined thousands of women to cut the fence at Greenham Common. Now, like thousands of other angry parents up and down this country, I am picking up my placard once again. Twenty years ago, it was about the threat of nuclear weapons; this time it's a 3G mobile phone mast that Orange seems determined to erect on top of the fire station in Stoke Newington, a densely residential area of north London with three primary schools nearby. It had made me very angry - so much so that my children and I spent last Saturday morning demonstrating outside the fire station with other local parents.

I realise there is something rather tragic about an old campaigner rediscovering her zeal only when her children are directly threatened by something - and a theoretical threat to boot. But it has happened, and the fact is that this is an issue that has stirred up an enormous nest of angry parents, all across the country, from all walks of life - many of whom have never protested against anything in their lives. Local newspapers from Cornwall to Scotland carry stories each week about local campaigns against masts going up in residential areas and near schools. And yet this national concern is largely being ignored by the national press.

I'm protesting about the mast because I feel there is no other way of stopping it, and I feel betrayed by government over this. How can I hope to keep my children healthy when the government does nothing to limit their exposure to electromagnetic fields? It enrages me.

And it enrages others - in some cases, to violence, if only against phone masts. In one Leicestershire town, residents grew so angry that two weeks ago they vandalised a 15m (50ft) mast near two schools. "We're told young people shouldn't use mobiles," says one local mother, "yet they put up these masts where children play."

When the government sold off five third-generation phone licences for £22.5bn in April 2000, it triggered a rush by the phone companies to grab as many sites as possible for potential conversion to 3G, the videophone service nobody appears to want. 3G requires many more base stations to operate effectively and transmits electromagnetic radiation at a higher frequency than 2G, with the highest concentrations within 400m of the mast. The phone companies appear to bulldoze through planning applications and do not need permission at all for masts lower than 15m.

In our case, planning permission was refused by Hackney Council, but Orange appealed to the Planning Inspectorate and managed to get the decision overturned last Christmas - to the complete surprise of the local community. The Mobile Operators Association say that local schools have to be consulted, but few are. Orange says it wrote to the headmistress of the primary school 200m away from our proposed site, but she says she never received the letter. Funny, that.

While that may be a genuine mistake, this is a sneaky old business. The phone companies install masts on top of buildings on Sunday mornings before anyone is awake. They have been known to change over the boxes on existing masts to 3G without telling anyone, while pretending to carry out maintenance. And with little regulation, a rash of masts has spread across London and the countryside, with businesses and local authorities cashing in. Masts are now everywhere - in church spires and on council flats, hospitals, offices, petrol stations and public buildings. A survey conducted by the Daily Mail at the end of January found that one-third of Britain's schools now have a mobile phone mast 200m away or less.

The government and phone companies hide behind the line that there is no conclusive evidence that these masts are bad for health. After all, they haven't been around long enough for research to prove anything much and all we have at the moment is anecdotal evidence from some people who live near masts and suffer insomnia and other ill effects. But a Dutch government study has found that some people exposed to 3G signals suffer from tingling, headaches and nausea. Sir William Stewart, head of the National Radiological Protection Board and the government's chief adviser on mobile phone safety, has said: "I believe on a precautionary basis it would be better if these masts were not placed near schools." Well, that's good enough for me. And if your kids end up in a school in the shadow of a mobile phone mast, you may end up wishing there was something you could do about it.

It's a hard fight, but it helps to know that some communities have triumphed against the might of the phone companies. In Notting Hill in London and Whitton in Yorkshire, residents recently managed to prevent masts being erected near nursery and primary schools. In Gloucester, the sheer weight of public protest has forced O2 to withdraw its plan for a mast 20m from a primary school. But these are rare successes.

This may be a national issue, but the only way to fight each mast is on local issues. In Stoke Newington, it is the London Fire Authority, run by elected councillors on the General London Assembly, which stands to earn tens of thousands of pounds a year from this mast. So we have pulled together as a community in the past few weeks. The lawyer next door has served papers for judicial review in the high court. The designer over the road has produced leaflets and posters. We have thrown up a campaign website with the help of shortal.com (DIY websites) and we walk from door to door asking people to write to the fire authority, urging them to withdraw.

I own a mobile phone and am the first to admit that life would be hard without one. But you can choose whether or not to use a mobile; you can turn it off and limit its use. Those forced to play within the shadows of these masts do not have any choice. And it is cheaper for the phone companies to erect masts in residential rather than industrial areas - that's why they do it. In my view we urgently need regulation forcing mobile companies to share mast sites and to place them in less densely populated areas and away from schools. In countries such as Australia there is a 400m exclusion zone between base stations and inhabited areas. Yet in Britain the mobile giants seemingly have carte blanche.

Until the government does something, I, like thousands of other parents, have no choice but to stand up and shout against something I believe to be wrong. So we hand out leaflets outside the fire station. My 11-year-old daughter carries a placard as I talk to people and collect signatures. And even though it feels at times like David fighting Goliath, there are bonuses in trying. I see more of my neighbours and have made new friends. We share tales of past demos to egg each other on. My daughters now understand that activism can be a positive force, and is their right in a democracy. And they're amused that I did not shirk from being a rebel before I was ground down by working motherhood. "What's Greenham Common?" my youngest asked. So I got the chance to tell her.

Stoke Newington Campaign: http://www.shortal.com/nomast

National campaigns for sensible siting of masts: http://www.mastsanity.org and www.mastaction.co.uk

Facts about electromagnetic radiation:


Local support groups: http://www.planningsanity.co.uk

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005


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