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1.16 pm

The Minister for Arts (Mr. Mark Fisher): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on securing an Adjournment debate on the important issue of television reception in his constituency, on which he and I have recently corresponded. As he says, the issue is of interest to a wider range of people, because it affects many rural areas in different ways.

I am sure that my hon. Friend's constituents will appreciate his assiduous pursuit of their interests, including his detailed discussions with the engineering division of the ITC, which is responsible for terrestrial transmission arrangements in my hon. Friend's part of the country. His advocacy, as he modestly did not stress, is given extra weight by his expert knowledge of the technicalities of transmission. He is a former university lecturer in electronic engineering. I suspect that he speaks with greater knowledge than any other Member of Parliament on a difficult and abstruse issue. The people of north-west Norfolk could not have a better champion than my hon. Friend, with his determination, his success in obtaining this debate and his almost unique expertise.

Many of my hon. Friend's constituents are unable to receive their preferred regional television service. He cited Mrs. Ward of King's Lynn. She and others must be baffled that, at a moment of huge technical advance, they cannot receive their preferred transmission. It is frustrating for them to pay a licence fee to receive a service which is not the one that they want.

I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's constituents and, indeed, with my hon. Friend himself, who is one of his own constituents who does not receive the service he wants. However, as he is only too well aware, the problems that we are dealing with are, first, the properties of radio transmission and, secondly, the topography of East Anglia. I know that, with his considerable technical knowledge, my hon. Friend is familiar with those issues; but it might be helpful if I summarise, for the benefit of those less expert in these matters, some of the difficulties that are encountered.

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The radiomagnetic spectrum is a finite resource and we must operate within the constraints of what is available. We have available for broadcasting 46 frequency channels to cover the whole of the United Kingdom and, as my hon. Friend is aware, broadcast transmissions from one site can readily interfere with and distort transmissions on a similar frequency from a neighbouring site. In addition to meeting the spectrum demands within the UK, we must have regard to the impact of our plans on our continental neighbours, given that broadcast signals do not respect national boundaries and travel a long distance, especially over water.

Reconciling those constraints and problems can be hard and can lead to limits on the coverage area of transmissions within the UK. In some circumstances, it might simply not be possible to use certain frequency channels because of the potential to interfere with existing services in other nations. It follows that there are certain areas within the UK where available spectrum for broadcasting is a genuinely scarce commodity. Coastal regions such as my hon. Friend's area are especially prone to such limitations and there is undoubtedly a genuine difficulty, not easily resolved, in north-west Norfolk.

The television services of BBC East and the Anglia Television ITV franchise are, as my hon. Friend knows, transmitted from three transmitters--Tacolnestone, Sandy Heath and Sudbury--and are extended by associated relay stations. I gather that the ITC's engineers have made every effort to extend coverage and to remedy anomalies in the region, for example, by setting up three relay stations at Burnham, King's Lynn and Wells-next-the-Sea. Because of the frequency limitations that I have already outlined, those relays are limited to two channels: Anglia Television and BBC1. There are four other relays at Creake, Little Walsingham, West Runton and Overstrand.

I recognise, as does the ITC, that there are areas in my hon. Friend's constituency that do not receive a satisfactory Anglia Television service in particular. I gather that about 30,000 people, including my hon. Friend, have to rely on the Belmont main transmitter in Lincolnshire as the source of their programmes, and that Belmont delivers the Yorkshire Television ITV service and BBC North. Clearly, much of their programming is unlikely to be of major interest to most people living in north-west Norfolk, although I understand that some of Yorkshire Television's programming broadcast from Belmont reflects East Anglian issues to a certain extent. Nevertheless, I understand that the consequences can be serious, especially in a coastal region.

Dr. George Turner: I should like to state publicly that today I approached Yorkshire Television and BBC North and asked them, exceptionally, to consider covering this debate, so that my constituents can see that I am speaking up for them. Interestingly, the BBC told me to get lost, but Yorkshire Television did at least say that it would give such coverage fair consideration as part of the news. I hope that my hon. Friend accepts that having the odd item on Yorkshire Television is only a patch and can never be an acceptable solution to the problem. Until we

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get proper broadcasting from the Belmont transmitter into Norfolk, presumably in the digital domain, the problem will not be solved.

Mr. Fisher: I am concerned that serious broadcasters did not take my hon. Friend's request more to heart, given that public service broadcasters have a responsibility to cover events in the House. He might have noticed that there is another Adjournment debate tomorrow, on the broadcasting companies' responsibilities to cover debates in this Chamber, which might be of some interest to him.

Although I appreciate that there is no direct comfort for my hon. Friend's constituents, north-west Norfolk has received a considerable degree of special attention--perhaps more attention than most of the rest of the country--from the ITC in an attempt to address the regional anomalies, as illustrated by the number of additional relays provided. However, I accept that existing analogue transmissions can never fully solve the problem. My hon. Friend, in his excellent contribution, envisaged the solution as being digital, and that does indeed offer greater potential than analogue. However, it must be recognised that, even with digital, frequency availability will remain a constraining factor, at least during the early years before the analogue transmission network is switched off and not least because, in most locations, people will receive their digital transmissions from the same main transmitter source as their analogue transmissions.

My hon. Friend will know that digital transmissions differ from analogue in that there is no gradual decline in the quality of reception; consequently, there are no "mush" areas between different transmitters and coverage may therefore be more easily defined. People will either receive a signal of sufficient strength to obtain a service, or they will not. That will ease some planning difficulties and further increase the efficient use of the 46 frequency channels available. However, I would not want to mislead either my hon. Friend or the House by offering a certain prospect that digital will offer his constituents a quick or necessarily total solution to their reception problems. In the longer term, with the closure of analogue, digital might offer a solution to reception problems in north-west Norfolk, but until further spectrum planning has been undertaken, that solution cannot be certain--at least, not as certain as my hon. Friend believes.

Digital terrestrial television is a new technology and we are still at an early stage in its development. At present, the transmission plans of only the first 81 transmitters are being devised. Those are the main transmitters and some of the larger relays, which together will deliver digital services to more than 90 per cent. of the UK population for multiplexes carrying existing terrestrial services. Those 81 transmitters contrast with about 1,200 transmitters required to achieve analogue coverage for 99.4 per cent. of our population. Further relays may be brought into the digital plan, but the spectrum planning for them cannot commence until the plans for the first 81 are completed.

I am not in a position today to inform the House definitively whether digital terrestrial television will solve the problems that my hon. Friend described. He suggested that the increased capacity offered by digital would enable Yorkshire Television to broadcast from the Belmont transmitter both Yorkshire and Anglia regional variations. The Belmont transmitter is in the first stage of the digital

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plan, and it will be operational on the launch of DTT services. However, the issue is not as simple as that, and we need to examine it more carefully. The ITC companies might consider that it would be sensible to use their digital capacity to deliver regional programming more accurately, and I assure my hon. Friend that I shall pass on his concerns and those of his constituents to both the Independent Television Association and Yorkshire Television. I am sorry to be unable to give my hon. Friend the categoric reassurance that he would like at this stage. Obviously, the extent of digital delivery of regional services will be an issue that the Government will have to consider when determining our strategy for switching over from analogue to digital terrestrial television.

I emphasise that there are no quick solutions, but I assure my hon. Friend and his constituents that the Government take these matters seriously. He has raised valid complaints and described valid problems on behalf of his constituents, and we need to consider them seriously as the potential of digital is realised. I look forward to continuing the dialogue, both through correspondence and in other ways, with my hon. Friend.

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