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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 24 April 2007

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Community Radio and Television

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Heppell.]

9.30 am

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): I am very pleased to have secured this debate. The category “community media” includes community television, radio and internet and is an area of growing interest across the country. It is not yet as well known as it should be, but my view is that it will soon have an impact far beyond its current recognition. I feel privileged to present not only my views but those of the 147 MPs who have signed early-day motion 922, which calls for additional and secure funding for community media and for space to be reserved for community media on the digital spectrum.

Community media organisations include community radio, television, the internet, informing, communicating and enabling technologies and digital media projects throughout the UK, and they represent the complexity and diversity of society. They are not-for-profit organisations run by local people, mostly volunteers, with a remit to unlock the enthusiasm and potential of individuals to create positive social change. They foster employability, especially among people facing disadvantage and social exclusion, and enhance the diversity of cultural and creative expression and personal self-confidence.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): My hon. Friend has raised the important issue of minority communities and the need for diversity. Shalom FM is a Jewish radio station that has only ever been able to secure restricted service licences, having been turned down for a permanent licence. Hopefully, it will try again later this year, if and when Ofcom gets round to inviting further bids. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that all the significant minorities in London and elsewhere have their own dedicated radio station?

Ian Stewart: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The all-party community media group will be campaigning on those issues, and I am sure that the Minister, who has ears to hear, will act in the future.

As my hon. Friend has pointed out, community media are particularly effective in engaging and serving some of the most disadvantaged groups in our society. They provide a voice for many people who are disengaged and excluded from traditional media.

Community media projects are a key economic growth area in the creative industries sector. Since the enabling legislation contained in the Community Radio Order 2004, 122 community radio stations have been licensed and many more are in the pipeline. Even though similar enabling legislation for community television has not yet been introduced, there are 17 local community
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television stations around the UK, and there are many more groups with aspirations to become truly local community radio and television providers.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend has referred to the licensing of 122 radio stations. Ofcom has had two licensing rounds—one in 2004, and another in 2006, I believe. Does my hon. Friend agree that the licensing round has become a rather difficult hurdle race for many small, would-be community radio stations, which might be low-power AM stations or some other type of station at the moment? Would it not be simpler to focus on their ability to provide a service for a one-year period, and ensure that the cited community benefits are likely to be delivered? At the moment it is difficult for groups to make a successful application.

Ian Stewart: I agree with my hon. Friend. In my area of Salford, we have been successful in gaining a licence this year. Even there, however, the process was costly. I am sure that the Minister will take that on board as well.

The wider community media sector has more than 2,000 organisations, which use a variety of platforms for broadcasting, all with one aim—to give a voice to local people. They provide training, volunteering and employment opportunities for people in the community in general and digital media literacy, media production skills and basic information and communications technology skills. They also act as a platform for arts innovation, for community debate, and for communication with local and national government, thereby increasing social cohesion and community involvement in the democratic process and in citizenship.

The strength of community media lies in their participatory approach, whereby local people are involved in the operation of all aspects of the organisation. Community media projects have a track record of attracting large numbers of people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities as participants, volunteers and trainees. A good example of a community media project in action is Radio Regen, a community radio development charity based in Manchester, which has an average of 240 volunteers together with 1,000 beneficiaries, and which delivers accredited training to 200 people every year. I place on the record my thanks to Phil Korbel and Radio Regen for their help in running the community radio pilots in my city of Salford.

That initial work has now been built upon by the chair, Councillor Jim King, and his board of directors, who have gained a broadcasting licence and established Salford community radio, which will be up and running in the city in the near future. That could not have happened without the support of Salford city council, so I must thank the council, too, for its recognition that Salford community radio is part of the bright new future connected with the Salford MediaCity concept.

Another example of success is the women’s radio group in London, which typically works with more than 100 women a year, providing training for women from minority ethnic groups in disadvantaged communities in the development and production of radio programmes. The group has reported improved levels of engagement in learning for women of all ages, and it has improved skills in communication and media production and raised confidence levels.

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Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): If the hon. Gentleman will permit, I shall throw in an example from Essex, where John Brennan runs a community radio project for the elderly. He received, I think, either an OBE or an MBE for his services over many years, and he provides an excellent service. However, the service needs to be made available to a wider audience. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must ensure that the sources of charitable funds continue to flow from the lottery and elsewhere, so that we can first establish and then extend the organisations that provide community radio to vulnerable groups, such as the elderly people? Community radio improves the quality of life of such people.

Ian Stewart: I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the thrust of my speech is about securing sustainable and adequate funding.

Community media also aim to develop social capital by building social networks, facilitating understanding and promoting shared norms in communities that are sometimes divided. For example, Bradford community broadcasting has made a major contribution in developing a sense of belonging and community cohesion for all groups in the city, particularly since the riots in 2001.

From the outside, people consider that community media organisations are just about broadcasting, but that is not necessarily the case. According to Cape Town’s Zain Ibrahim, a world-renowned ambassador for community media:

The 90 per cent. is all about engaging and empowering local people, encouraging volunteering and giving an outlet for people’s aspirations through voice, local engagement and providing innovative training and employment opportunities.

The sector has an effective and experienced umbrella body, which is affiliated to the more generic national voluntary sector organisations. The Community Media Association is the recognised representative body for the community media sector in the UK, and it promotes access to the media for people and communities. It aims to enable people to establish and develop community-based media—community radio, television, internet and mobile media—for empowerment, cultural expression, information and entertainment.

With full-time community radio stations on air since 2002, along with the many other community media projects, there is now a considerable body of evidence about the benefits that the sector brings to the UK. In summary, it benefits the individual with skills and well-being, the community through effective information dissemination and community pride, and mainstream agencies by greatly boosting the impact of their engagement with the public. In more detail, individuals gain through the acquisition of media literacy and production skills, which are a vital element in decreasing the digital divide as they become more central to everyday life with the rise and rise of personal user-generated content.

Community media provide more than that, however. They deliver community benefit, assisting people to work together and to become more actively involved with one another. Participants in community media gain a raft of transferable workplace skills, such as
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creativity, problem solving, team working, production skills, self-presentation, social and communication skills, and of course computer skills. It is no surprise that basic literacy and numeracy are also boosted through involvement in community media. Under that heading, there is one thing that perhaps matters most of all in terms of moving people on in a positive manner—the injection or fostering of self-esteem.

Bob Spink: The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous in taking interventions and is making an important speech. Does he agree that there is yet another way in which community radio can assist not only minority groups in the community, but the wider community? It can engender political engagement, which we need to do as a Parliament and as a country, by running campaigns such as “Knives or lives” and getting people involved in politics and campaigning in their local area in a way that matters and that makes a difference.

Ian Stewart: I agree, but it is also important to identify that before the engagement that the hon. Gentleman talks about, community media can help to improve political understanding, so that the engagement is based on better understanding.

Fostering self-esteem is so important. It is the simple matter of someone getting that glow of pride when they know that their programme has made it to air. Indeed, many organisations in the sector know that the foundation of their success is summed up by the phrase, “That’s me on air, that is.” We hear that throughout the country from our constituents who were involved in the pilots in the past and who are now involved in the stations that are being established.

David Taylor: My hon. Friend has been most generous in taking interventions. Would he commend the objectives of radio stations such as Takeover Radio in the city of Leicester near my constituency, whose focus is on young people in every sense? Its successes certainly include the two points raised in the debate—political engagement and self-esteem.

Ian Stewart: I acknowledge that. Those issues are fundamental to the development of community media as a vehicle for our constituents.

The community benefits from community media partly because community media reach the parts that other media cannot. Their use of peer-to-peer communication means that the audience see or hear someone like them—someone who looks like them and, it is hoped, shares their concerns. That prevents the awful barrier between the media elite and the rest of us, an effect amplified when local accents and non-English mother tongues are used.

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend has made an important point about non-English mother tongues. In that context, may I raise London Greek Radio? It broadcasts sometimes in English and sometimes in Greek, which not only means that those who do not speak English can understand what is going on, but helps to maintain tradition and culture for the second and third generations, who may not otherwise be able to maintain the language. For a Greek speaker such as myself, it helps me to keep my ear in.

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Ian Stewart: As a bilingual Scot, I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point. That point, made on behalf of the Greek community, can be made on behalf of every other ethnic community throughout the country, and it is not only a matter of those ethnic groups benefiting from community media. As has been pointed out, those of us who come from different ethnic groups also benefit. That is very important and leads me to my next point.

The community also benefits because in most cases community media do not follow a mainstream bad news agenda. People are as likely to hear about a parent and toddler group as they are about the latest drugs bust or antisocial behaviour order breach on a local estate. That helps to erode unbalanced, negative media images of an area and so boost community pride.

Mainstream agencies benefit through partnership with community media because all of a sudden they are working with a trusted intermediary and not as a bunch of faceless bureaucrats. Community media are increasingly used as the face of community engagement by local councils, primary care trusts, police forces and social housing providers, which is my personal key area of interest in Salford. The fact that those projects are repeated throughout the country is testimony to their obvious effectiveness.

Let us not forget that those multiple impacts are not simply about doing the right thing; they are about the well-being of our citizens and the economic performance of UK plc. Let us take as an example the social exclusion of young people, an area in which community media are a proven success. The recent report from the Prince’s Trust, “The Cost of Exclusion”, states that that phenomenon costs the nation £10 million a day in lost productivity and £1 billion a year in costs associated with crime—do not tell me that I sound like my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer as I get these figures out.

I shall now deal with the work of mainstream agencies in order to assess the impact of community media on the Government’s own public service agreement targets, the means by which the success of all Departments is measured. Astoundingly, there is hardly a Department whose PSA outcomes are not or could not be boosted by the use of community media.

Let us take one reported example. Disaffected pupils at Cedar Mount high school in east Manchester, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), took part in a brief community radio project organised by the local charity Radio Regen. The result? All six boys’ attendance shot up, as did their grades, thus meeting the Department for Education and Skills target of raising grades and improving school attendance.

I do not have time to give examples for the following PSA targets, but all of them are being tackled by community media: for the Department of Health, health promotion, tackling health inequalities and growing public and patient involvement; for the Department of Communities and Local Government, tackling social exclusion and delivering neighbourhood renewal; for the Home Office, reassuring the public, reducing fear of crime and building confidence in the criminal justice system; for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, helping to educate the public to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and tackling rural decline; for
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the Department of Trade and Industry, boosting enterprise in disadvantaged communities; for the Department for Work and Pensions, increasing the employment rate; and, for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, increasing the number of people who participate in arts activities.

I could go on, but the point that I am making is clear. Let us consider, for example, the local PSA for Manchester. Community radio in that city is directly working on eight of its 13 PSA targets. There are, however, tangible threats to the further growth and development of the community media sector. The first may be deemed technical. Community media are well able intellectually to keep pace with the rapidly changing technological world. Indeed, many organisations already work across different media, not solely through traditional broadcasting platforms. However, access for community media projects to valuable spectrum is under threat.

On the television front, I understand that the Government’s preferred view is that any spectrum released following digital switchover should be auctioned on a technologically neutral, free market basis. Such an approach would absolutely preclude community media and other citizen-based interests from accessing this valuable public resource. Without proper safeguards, it will strangle the development of local television at birth. Such safeguards include, for example, reserving spectrum for public and citizen uses and requiring spectrum bidders to ensure that there is a percentage of free access for community media projects—the so-called must-carry provision.

The Minister is on record as saying that such issues are a matter for Ofcom, as the regulator, and not for the Government, but Ofcom makes recommendations to the Government only on the use of the digital dividend. It will therefore be for the Government to choose whether to have another free-for-all spectrum sale. Although such a step might bring much needed moneys to the Treasury, it must adequately ensure that public benefit is preserved.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way and promise that this will be my last intervention. One threat to community radio is radio piracy. In London, about 40 pirate radio stations are on FM at any one time, blocking many community stations. Will my hon. Friend discuss that at some stage? Does he agree that the problem will have to be addressed if we are to promote community radio effectively?

Ian Stewart: I will not be covering that aspect in my contribution, but Ofcom is coming to the next meeting of the all-party group on community media, and the issue is on the agenda. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be happy to attend that meeting and make a contribution.

The second major threat to community media is related to those that we have discussed. The community media sector as a whole is very young and fragile, and even some of the newly licensed community radio stations are under threat because the resources available to them are shrinking. Time and time again, at national, regional and local level, potential funders tell stations, “Community media is not in our brief,” even though they recognise the value and benefits that they might derive from funding it, which I have outlined. The office of the third
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sector, which is part of the Cabinet Office, turned the sector’s umbrella body, the Community Media Association, down for core funding, because it viewed such funding as the sole responsibility of the DCMS.

In its report on the social and economic impact and benefits of one area of community media—“The Community Radio Sector: Looking to the Future”—the DCMS concludes:

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend tells us that some sectors view the funding of community radio as a matter only for the DCMS. He will be aware, however, that the Welsh Assembly Government recently established a £500,000 fund to support community radio. Does that indicate a recognition that community radio has wider purposes? Could the UK Government and the devolved Administration in Scotland not usefully follow that example?

Ian Stewart: Indeed, that is perhaps a pointer, and I hope later to put some, let us say, friendly pressure on the Minister to at least consider ways of making more secure and adequate funding available to the sector.

As hon. Members can see, the potential impact of community media fully lives up to the prediction made about the pilot community radio scheme by Ofcom’s assessor, Professor Anthony Everitt, who said that the sector’s arrival would be

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