THE Consistory Court of the diocese of Southwark granted a faculty permitting the installation of six antennae and a transmission dish in the bell tower of St Luke’s, Charlton (pictured), despite local opposition.
The petitioners for the faculty were the Rector, the Revd Erica Wooff, and two churchwardens, who sought authority for the Rector and the PCC to enter into a licence agreement with NET Coverage Solutions Ltd for a period of 20 years, at an annual licence fee of £14,300, subject to potential upward revision.
In January 2015, the PCC had received independent advice that the commercial terms proposed were the best that could reasonably be achieved, having regard to current market conditions. In September 2015, the PCC obtained a certificate stating that the equipment and installation proposed met the guidelines of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation for Public Exposure (ICNIRP). In June 2015, the PCC resolved by nine votes to one to go ahead with the proposal.
When the application for the petition was publicised, there were more than 80 objectors, 25 of whom were members of the congregation. None of them opted to become a party opponent in the court proceedings, but Chancellor Philip Petchey took all their objections into account when reaching his decision.
Government guidance to local planning authorities about telecommunications equipment states that planning authorities “should not . . . question the need for the telecommunications system or determine health safeguards if the proposal meets International Commission guidelines”.
Proposals to install telecommunication equipment had also been brought in 2002. In April of that year, the PCC had resolved not to proceed with the proposals, and the then Rector of St Luke’s, Canon Jeffrey Heskins, had undertaken that proposals to install such equipment would not subsequently be brought. The objectors relied on that undertaking.
It was possible, the Chancellor said, that Canon Heskins might not have emphasised any limitation on the undertaking because that might have been taken to suggest that, after his incumbency, the matter might be brought back again. The Chancellor said that he could not properly approach the matter on the basis that an open-ended undertaking was given. Almost 15 years had now elapsed since that undertaking was given, and the PCC had changed its mind.
The Chancellor said that nobody required a church to install telecommunication equipment if it did not so wish, and the mechanism by which the church decided was a resolution of the PCC, whose members were elected by those on the electoral roll. Like all democratic processes, it was not perfect, but it was a democratic process.
It seemed reasonable, after a lapse of 15 years, to allow the PCC to revisit its earlier decision, but that did not mean that members of the congregation and parishioners were debarred from objecting. But it would only be in exceptional cases that it would be appropriate for the court to go behind the PCC’s decision on the basis that it was unrepresentative or flawed in some other way.
The objectors also brought up the issue of the health risk from the installations. There was no evidence to support that, however, and there was no basis for refusing a faculty, since the proposals met the ICNIRP guidelines.
It was also said by the objectors that the installation would facilitate the transmission of pornographic and other unsuitable material. The Court of Arches had said in the case of St Peter and St Paul’s, Chingford ( Fam 67), however, that to “bar something which will be of benefit to the public generally because there is a risk that some will be able privately to access material which many Christians and others deplore, is to take an unbalanced approach.
“A more balanced view generally would be for Christians to work in conjunction with others at improving standards of sexual morality in society generally”.
That ruling of the Court of Arches, since it was the superior court, was binding on the Consistory Court.
There being no sustainable objections to the proposal, the faculty was granted. The ICNIRP guidelines and other compliance issues were all addressed in the terms of the licence to be granted. The cable runs were to be agreed with the church’s inspecting architect, and the works were to be completed to the reasonable satisfaction of the architect.