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3 Dec 2002 : Column 838—continued

8.50 pm

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale, East): I do not mind admitting to being technically challenged by some aspects of this rather lengthy Bill. None the less, I join other hon. Members in welcoming it, and the pre-legislative scrutiny associated with it.

First, I strongly welcome clause 256, which sets out the detail of the public service remit for TV broadcasting in the United Kingdom, including provision for education, entertainment, news, current affairs, children's interests and so on. In the modern world there are specialised channels for all those areas of interest, but it is important to have a balanced menu on our main TV channels. I particularly welcome the requirement to cover matters of international significance or interest.

I have seen a worrying report from 3WE, a coalition of development agencies and international organisations, which demonstrates the dramatic reduction in such programmes in recent years. For example, the production of non-news factual programmes on international issues on our main channels fell from 1,037 hours in 1990 to 728 hours in 1999. Indeed, factual programmes on the developing world fell by 50 per cent. in the same period. That trend is ironic, given that globalisation emphasises every day the growing importance of the need for everyone to understand international issues, whether those involve

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Iraq, Afghanistan, or the plight of the 14 million people in southern Africa who face famine. If we want people to understand and engage with those issues, it is essential that television provide them with the necessary background information and analysis. It is less than a week since my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer spoke in the Chamber of his ambition to double global spending on development. A similar increase in the coverage of international affairs on our television screens would be encouraging.

Secondly, I warmly welcome clause 254, which covers access radio. I was delighted when, in March 2001, my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), who was then a Minister, came to my constituency to announce the access radio pilot. Wythenshawe FM is now one of 16 pilot radio stations under the access scheme. Jason Kenyon, the station manager, leads a team of four staff and 70 volunteers, including schoolchildren, pensioners and many other people in the community. The station is now broadcasting seven days a week, from 7 o'clock in the morning to midnight. It is important to emphasise that access radio is not just about programmes for local audiences, but is also about engaging local people and securing their participation in the planning and presentation of programmes, as well as listening to them.

Wythenshawe FM is already producing some interesting programmes. For example, XFamily Action Benchill", a local voluntary organisation, has just started a series of programmes to highlight the problem of domestic violence. Chief Inspector Peter Aaronson from the local police force has a regular weekly slot in which he answers questions and updates people on the ways in which local police are trying to fight crime in the area. No radio station is complete without traffic and travel news. In Wythenshawe they are especially necessary because we have a complex road system and two motorways. Funds do not run to having an Xeye in the sky", so on Wythenshawe FM it is XBradley on the bridge". Bradley is the 12-year-old son of a volunteer presenter, Simon Delaney; he makes regular visits to the bridge over the M56 and rings back on his mobile phone to give an update on the traffic flow.

I pay tribute to Wythenshawe FM's parent organisation, Radio Regen, which is based in Manchester. As the name suggests, for that organisation access radio is about regeneration and giving people confidence and skills. It therefore provides a great deal of training, not only in radio production but in marketing and business skills.

There are three significant challenges for access radio. The first is the need to emphasise the local dimension. Clause 302 gives Ofcom a duty to safeguard the local content and character of local sound broadcasting. The debate has made it clear that some people are not so enthusiastic about local content and character. It is vital that the Government and Ofcom resist any attempts to dilute that important dimension of the Bill and the accompanying guidance.

Secondly, frequencies have been discussed. There is limited wavelength capacity, and it is vital that access radio get its fair share. The hon. Members for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) and for North Devon (Nick Harvey) said that the BBC could help, and I agree. If, for example, Radio 2 broadcasts in Manchester on 89.9,

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why can the BBC not release 90.7 for local access radio in the city? It is not good enough to say that that might interfere with Radio 2 in, say, Southampton. It should be technically possible to implement my suggestion, and I encourage the BBC, Ofcom and access radio to get together to try to find a way forward.

Thirdly, let us consider funding. I welcome the power in the Bill that enables Ofcom to give grants to access radio. Some people argue for wider funding streams for community media. In addition, access radio will get money for training and it will want to draw in funds from sponsorship.

I understand the dangers and difficulties of over-commercialisation for access radio. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned the possible destabilising effect on local commercial stations. However, if Manchester airport wanted to sponsor a programme on Wythenshawe FM about attracting people to work at the airport, who could lose? Local people would get jobs, the airport would be happy, and another funding stream would be available for Wythenshawe FM. Such sponsorship can only be good.

I am delighted by the progress of access radio pilots, especially that of Wythenshawe FM. I look forward to the rest of the Bill's passage through the House.

8.57 pm

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): I shall continue with the theme of access radio. There is an anomaly in my area of Somerset that the Bill does not tackle. Our local BBC station, Somerset Sound, is on medium wave; we have no FM frequency in Somerset for the BBC. That is bizarre, because long before I became a Member of Parliament, my predecessor Lord King tried to get an FM channel. If communications are to move into the 21st century, we should be able to get FM frequencies on all BBC stations throughout the United Kingdom. It is anomalous that Somerset cannot get it. We have no chance of doing so, because we have been given a new AM frequency to keep us off the FM band.

Access radio could cause many problems in my constituency. We have two small radio stations. One is based in an area that covers only 10,000 people, and the other in an area that covers approximately 30,000. The Radio Authority's licences serve most communities of fewer than 300,000 people, a third of communities with fewer than 200,000 people and a fifth of communities with fewer than 100,000 people. That gives hon. Members some idea of the small size of the radio stations in my area. If, under the Bill, there can be three stations in an area, the number would have to be subdivided twice in Exmoor. We would end up with approximately 3,500 people per station. That is blatantly ridiculous.

By and large the stations work from hand to mouth, because we have no large business community to bring in an enormous amount of revenue. If that is the case in the longer term, we need to create either more business—that would bring problems—or a bigger area. We would then hit another anomaly.

We are in part of a national park. The national parks are happy to allow people in, but anyone who tries to put up a radio transmitter will not be allowed to do so. We therefore have a radio station that has been given a

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licence by the Radio Authority but can only hit about one third of its total area. It is meant to cover most of my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook), but it cannot do so because of that anomaly.

I hope that the Government will look at the Bill to see whether national parks could be asked—not compelled—to be more, shall we say, congenial towards the placing of radio transmitters, so that local radio can be accessed across the large areas that cannot receive it at the moment. We receive a wonderful programme from Wales—I cannot understand anything it says—but we cannot get our local FM station. Perhaps we need a Welshman on the board—but perhaps that would not really help us on Exmoor. If we had a station that we could listen to, it would be helpful.

Bridgwater, at the other end of my constituency, with 30,000 people, has just got its own radio station: BCR FM—Bridgwater Community Radio Ltd., or whatever it is called. It is just starting out, and its representatives are very worried about access radio. Both its presenters came to see me and told me what they were forecasting, and hoped to achieve, for the next five years. They are earning below the minimum wage to try to keep the station on the air. They are happy to do that; it is what they set out to do, and they are achieving it.

If we were to set up another station, sponsored by the BBC, the licence payer, individual businesses, newspapers or a bigger channel such as Carlton West Country, which covers my area, that would unfairly penalise a local radio station such as BCR, which could not compete. That would put an enormous number of businesses out of business, and I strongly believe that that would be unfair. If the Radio Authority grants a licence to a radio station, that licence is there to be utilised by that company. If it is then effectively taken away by giving another two radio stations, including a BBC channel on medium wave, to an area that cannot sustain them, the system will be impossible to sustain from start to finish. There are some large anomalies in Bills such as this, but if we do not consider them in the context of the highlands and islands, for example, or rural Somerset, we shall probably miss out.

As for broadband, I asked BT for a map of my constituency showing the exchanges that were switched on. I found one exchange, which covers Bridgwater—my biggest town—but then I looked further across the map. I have a big constituency; it stretches for 57 miles. BT cannot physically switch some of the exchanges on to broadband because they are so archaic. I asked BT how much it would cost, and was told: XA quarter of a million a shot." I asked how many people would have to sign up, and was told about 500. When I asked whether BT was sure about that, I was told, XNo, it's about 700, but we need 500 who will definitely sign up before we switch you on. Oh, and by the way, we won't do it anyway, because you're too far up the line."

The whole idea is that we are trying to encourage business to come into Exmoor—we heard earlier about a potential change in legislation in that regard—yet we cannot get broadband. Would the national park allow satellite dishes to be installed to pick up broadband via satellite? I doubt it. Would it be happy for us to go and dig everything up, as we always do in Britain—we seem

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to be great at digging up roads? No, it would not like that. Again, therefore, there is an anomaly concerning how we should bring broadband into an area of high rural dependency.

Minehead, my other town, has 10,000 people, quite a lot of small businesses—and I mean small—and a busy tourist trade. It has the biggest Butlin's in the country. I spoke to representatives of a company in the town, and they would love to have broadband. [Interruption.] I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) is going to intervene on me to talk about Butlin's in a minute. Broadband cannot be installed at Butlin's because BT cannot enable the exchange. Butlin's has said that it would like to do something about that, but it cannot, because BT will not let it. BT has said, very kindly and magnanimously, that it will compile a report on how long the operation would take in my constituency, and how many potential consumers it would require before it was able to switch on the supply. I am still waiting for that report.

I broadly welcome the Bill, but if it is to be acceptable across the whole country it must be fair, to start with. If we introduce a Bill that does not provide a level playing field from the start, we will never catch up, because when it is implemented, certain areas will not be able to go on to the next stage—in relation to new FM channels, or whatever—because they did not get adequate provision in the first place.

I know that the BBC would love to have an FM channel, but it cannot get one at the moment, although we do not know why. I have asked the BBC up here, but I have never had an answer. Perhaps the Minister will slip in an amendment on that—I do not know—but it would be nice to be able to go down that road. If we do not provide that ability, we shall cut off another section of our community.

There is definitely a place for access radio, but that place is in larger conurbations, not small rural areas. If we lose what we have we shall not get it back. We cannot sustain too many radio stations simply because we do not have the revenue or the support—unless those come from the public purse, which would probably mean shutting down the smaller ones in the first place. I support the Bill, but I hope that those little anomalies are studied carefully. If they are, I am sure that they will be resolved long before the legislation reaches the statute book.

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