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24 Apr 2007 : Column 203WH—continued

Despite the barriers faced by the sector, however, I stress that the solutions are available and achievable. They lie in bandwidth, recognition and funding. I propose that the DCMS and Ofcom put community media on a par with that other public service broadcaster, the BBC, and follow the line of the must-carry provision as the media hurtle onward from analogue to digital transmission. Auctions, market forces and light-touch regulation simply will not do when the interests of the millions of beneficiaries of community media are under consideration. There can be a digital dividend for community media, if bandwidth is reserved for community media groups. We should not be dependent on the whims of media corporations or slithers of frequency that are deemed not to be commercially viable. Community media is too economically and culturally valuable simply to be left to feed off scraps from the media table.

The same formula applies equally to television and radio. Ofcom’s recent digital dividend review appears to have a free market imperative, which could kill off most community media if followed through. The all-party group is pleased that Ofcom has agreed to come to its next meeting on 15 May, when we will be able to discuss this and other matters. Ofcom is being rather more cautious in its proposals for radio, which were contained in last week’s report, “The Future of Radio”, but, again, we must seek reassurance that the 122 community
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media stations licensed so far—the number is rising—will not be snuffed out in the rush to regulate with a light touch.

Community media is a curious beast—it is both media and community. The media part is the one that is instantly recognisable, like the tip of an iceberg, but most would say that the community impacts are far more significant. As part of the media, it is only right that community media should be under the watchful and able eye of the DCMS, and I congratulate the Department on its excellent work with the sector thus far. However, the DCMS is the smallest of all Departments, and as well as having a small budget, it has the small matter of the Olympics to deal with.

As I have mentioned, the impact of community media is felt across the work of all domestic Departments, but they do not seem to recognise its value. Anecdotal evidence suggests that community media are like a ball that is for ever passed around Whitehall, and there is a marked reluctance in some quarters to take a share of the responsibility for this valuable national asset. I therefore recommend launching a programme of interdepartmental education on community media with some degree of urgency. I also recommend establishing a departmental, cross-cutting committee, led by a DCMS Minister, with the Prime Minister’s authority to implement its policies.

The last solution, funding, might sound obvious. Funding affects the vast majority of organisations in the voluntary sector, but the relative newness of the community media sector and the recognition factor combine to form a particular barrier. I applaud the fact that there is a community radio fund, but the fact that it is 12 times less than the reported and no doubt well-deserved annual fee of Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles is not the resounding vote of confidence that the sector so richly deserves.

I am asking not for subsidy for community media, but for it to get the resources that it needs—if necessary on a cross-departmental, pooled basis—from the range of mainstream agencies for which it delivers services. For example, the Home Office could release a sum for community media to boost community understanding of the criminal justice system. Similarly, the Department for Education and Skills could provide funds for a national scheme to engage non-attending pupils, while the Department for Communities and Local Government could release a sum for projects aimed at neighbourhood renewal. I am pleading not for handouts, but for a heads-up for an extraordinary investment opportunity—for an investment in the quality of life and prosperity of some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country.

9.59 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Community broadcasting is often seen as a poor relation in the world of television and radio, but it is one area of communications of which we should all be more aware and which we should encourage to grow. I therefore congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on triggering this debate, which raises an important subject, and on giving us an excellent introduction. I hope that the debate will help to keep the issue on the agenda and will let those who are listening and
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watching, or who will read the report of our proceedings, know that their parliamentarians are aware of this important dimension of the media, which is thriving in many communities up and down the country.

I should like to go into some detail about what is happening in one such community—South Queensferry—in my constituency. Before I do, however, I should like to put on the record the background to the issue, which resulted in my own awareness of the importance of community involvement in radio and television production.

Some years ago I was fortunate enough to attend Telford college in the constituency of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz)—although at that time it was in my constituency—to study radio and video production. After that I spent two summers at Cornell university in New York state, developing that work. The lessons that I learned then have stuck with me to this day, in two different ways. First, I saw how even in the developing world, where access to conventional media was very restricted, people could change their lives and tackle the problems of the community in a way that would provide hope to many who had given up, whether that was through dealing with social problems or alcoholism, educating people to improve their health, or tackling political injustices. Secondly, I experienced at first hand how, with access to community broadcasting and the skills that facilitate good production values, important messages could be spread to the wider community and to those with the power to make decisions affecting the lives of those involved. Real change could result.

I was involved through such work with the homeless, and a shelter that was set for closure because of lack of funding. When the people in the shelter were asked what they would do if they were given the tools to enable them to communicate with the authorities and others who knew nothing of the homeless, they agreed that they wanted to tell those in power how important the shelter was to the many young people who would otherwise end up on the street, where they would be at risk of violence or worse, where girls would be more likely to move into prostitution, and where there was the attraction of dealing in drugs to make money. Their story was told and the shelter stayed open, and that was possibly the best example I have ever seen of involvement in community radio and television.

Nearer to my home in my constituency, much is going on in Queensferry. South Queensferry in Edinburgh, West is home to two local community broadcast services: Jubilee FM Radio and Jubilee FM Television. Jubilee FM Radio was established in 2001 and currently has a bid with Ofcom to operate a full-time service in North Queensferry and South Queensferry and in nearby towns and villages. Jubilee FM Radio was launched initially to promote and celebrate the Ferry Fair festival, the oldest continuing civic gala in the UK. The station was an instant hit and has grown in popularity over the years. It has become a fixed part of the community and has a strong brand for entertainment and information. When it is not broadcasting, the station delivers live commentary and entertainment at a range of events in the town. It is now in its sixth year and has developed a partnership with the community high school in South Queensferry. It is a unique development and was the idea of one of the sixth-year students, Scott Findlater. He had been
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one of the volunteer presenters on Jubilee FM the previous summer and suggested that it would be great to have radio at school. A week later the head teacher, Robert Birch, and the station manager, Charles Fletcher, met and began the process of bringing the community radio station into the high school.

If Jubilee FM Radio is awarded a full community licence by Ofcom—something I fully support—it will, I believe, become the first radio station in the UK to broadcast full-time on FM from a school. To put it another way, Queensferry high school will become the first school in Britain to have its own FM radio station broadcasting to its local community. The school has been awarded school of ambition status, and hosting the community radio station is a key element of that programme. Having the station at the school offers students the opportunity to learn first-hand how to make programmes. They will have workshops in presenting, producing, recording, editing and technical skills, and they will have the opportunity to go on air and present and produce their own programmes, once they have been trained. Jubilee FM and Queensferry high school are making a major investment in the students’ media skills and education, and the community radio station gets direct access to a sea of talented youngsters, who have already shown that they are willing and ready to learn how to make radio. Having the community radio station at the high school will also offer opportunities to senior students to use radio production as part of their subject work. Instead of writing an essay in English, they could submit a documentary; or they could record a series of interviews with people in the community to create an oral history programme and submit that as part of their course work.

Queensferry high school is also the home to Jubilee FM TV, which was established in December last year. Students who worked on the radio in the summer were given training in television production skills: how to use a camera and then edit pictures. That project has created a series of news, documentary and entertainment programmes posted online at the Jubilee FM TV website. In January, on new year’s day, Jubilee FM TV did a live worldwide broadcast of the annual Loony Dook, when people—including Margaret Smith, the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh West—waded into the River Forth to raise large sums of money for charity.

Jubilee FM TV—community television for Queensferry —offers groups and bodies in the community an opportunity to upload videos of their activities for the rest of the community to access freely. Like community radio, community television needs money to operate, and there frankly is not enough money set aside by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, or Government generally, to help fund local broadcasting. Local broadcasting is a vital link in the community—arguably more now than before, as local and regional radio and television stations are merging into large unitary bodies. There is less requirement on the ITV companies to provide local news and programmes, and some local radio stations have cut their commitment to and output of locally generated news and information. That means that people are more and more reliant on community broadcasting for their local news and information. Services such as Jubilee FM in Queensferry have a key role to play in the community and should be able to rely on more support from Government than they currently get.

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A number of possible funding sources must be considered, including looking again at the dispersal of the television licence fee. At the moment, all the income generated from the licence fee goes to the BBC, but is not community broadcasting a public service? I believe that it performs a vital public service. It is not only the BBC that engages in public service broadcasting. Community radio in particular needs serious financial support to help it survive, let alone develop. The BBC is experimenting with a series of localised services. Might it not be better, instead of extending the BBC’s reach into more localised services, to consider channelling the money needed to deliver those services into community radio stations? It is also worthwhile to seek to divert some funding out of the Ofcom digital dividend into the community broadcasters; but I would not rule out top-slicing some of the licence fee as well.

Ofcom manages the community radio fund—an opportunity for stations that have community radio licences to apply for some financial support to help to pay for positions on the station such as the station manager, a fundraiser or a technician. The DCMS has confirmed that the total community radio fund for the year 2006-07 will be £830,000. The average station grant in 2005-06 was about £23,000 and the average grant in the last round was about £15,000. Community radio stations are generally staffed by volunteers, with a handful of paid positions. They try to generate an income from advertising, programme sponsorship and grants from local government and the lottery. It is a hand-to-mouth existence for many of them.

Additionally, broadcasting legislation has put a fundraising restriction on community radio stations by insisting that they can only generate 50 per cent. of their income from advertising and sponsorship. The other 50 per cent. must come from grants and donations. That is a restrictive practice which means that community stations could be turning advertisers away, because they have reached their 50 per cent. sales income threshold. I understand that the ruling is intended to help protect some of the heritage stations from other services that might eat into their advertising market, but perhaps the 50 per cent. barrier is unrealistic and should be adjusted to help those stations generate more sales income.

One new community licence holder, in the Shetland Islands, has written to Ofcom to seek a change in its status to a full service commercial licence because it is confident that it can raise 100 per cent. funding through sales of programmes and advertising spots; it is equally convinced that it cannot raise 50 per cent. of its income through grants and the lottery. If it is successful in its bid for a change in status, it could set a precedent that other community stations would be ready to follow. Services such as Jubilee FM Radio and TV in Queensferry open a unique window on a community. They help to give access to debate and exchange of views on local and national issues that are not found anywhere else in the media world.

Community stations also serve a further purpose—training the broadcasters of the future. Stations such as Jubilee FM train all their volunteers in production, presentation and diction. People who have had the break there are turning up on the doorstep of radio and television stations ready trained. No one knows their
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community better than the people who live and work in it; and it is usually such people who deliver community broadcasting. It is our duty in this House to help ensure that the sector is properly funded and economically stable, so that communities throughout the country can follow and build on the excellent pioneering work currently going on in Queensferry.

10.10 am

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) for securing the debate and therefore allowing us to spend some time on an issue that resonates through many communities and constituencies in different parts of the country.

In my constituency and, I am sure, those of many hon. Members, there is a growing interest in local community media of all sorts. Community radio has been mentioned and I shall discuss community television in some detail, but there are also community websites and a whole range of community newspapers, news sheets and outlets of all types. They reflect the explosion of local community life up and down the country and, perhaps, show that at a time when big media corporations dominate much of the media, people want to see other coverage and news, and want the opportunity to debate local issues in a forum that they feel is part of their lives and community and over which they have some say and influence.

In my constituency, we have a local community radio station, Leith FM, which was recently awarded a full-time community radio licence. It has operated for several years on an occasional basis and has played an important role in the local community. Like the community radio station that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) discussed, Leith FM was initially concentrated very much around a festival—the successful Leith festival—and the community radio station developed out of that. There are now plans to involve a wide range of organisations in the community with the station, which is expected to start regular broadcasts shortly. It will provide a range of programmes to cater for all sections of the community, and I am sure that it will proceed from its current, strong foundation to a wider audience within the communities of Leith and north Edinburgh, where its programmes should also be received.

The hon. Gentleman has told us that the experiences at Leith FM might be replicated in his constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles described very well how they have been replicated up and down the country. As he said, such experiences should be encouraged and made a reality for communities throughout the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) made clear in his interventions, community media should reflect the diversity of communities.

Although that welcome flourishing of life in our communities happens spontaneously in many ways, it also needs to be encouraged. It needs the right regulatory framework to allow further development, as it is an important aspect of community life. Some key decisions to be taken in the very near future will either do a lot to encourage the development of community media, or, if the wrong decisions are taken, will undermine the
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flourishing of community media and set back its development in this country. I therefore take this opportunity to encourage the Minister and the Government to take the right decisions and encourage community media in the way that hon. Members have suggested in this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West spoke mainly about community radio, which I shall say something about later if there is time. I want to talk about community TV, which still has not really taken off in this country. Yes, we have a few community TV outlets of various types in different parts of the country, but compared with many other European countries the UK cannot be said to have anything like a vibrant local TV structure. However, there is no reason why that should not change. Indeed, if it were to change, that would reflect the wishes of communities up and down the country.

There is some evidence about the likely demand for community and local TV if it were more widely available, and that evidence clearly indicates that the public want it. Some 18 years ago, in 1989, an independent survey carried out in Edinburgh found that 93 per cent. of respondents were interested in watching a locally made programme about one of their interests; 92 per cent. of respondents were interested in watching local news on a local television channel; 80 per cent of respondents were interested in watching local current affairs on a local television channel; and respondents were similarly interested in local arts and cultural activities, local festivals and local sport.

Some 15 years later, a similar study carried out in south Wales for Merthyr TV suggested that there was a similar level of interest in local programming that offered news and local documentaries, local music and local sports projects and the like. Research has been carried out not only by groups with an interest in local and community TV; Ofcom has also produced research that came to similar conclusions. I understand that research was conducted for Ofcom last May which asked respondents to rate the importance of a series of statements when assessing the importance for UK society of new digital services. Respondents agreed, most frequently, that local news and information should be available on TV—I emphasise “on TV”—at home; local news and information about their local area should be available from at least one media source; and that programmes about community, local people and events should be available on TV at home.

So, when the public are asked about what they want to see on TV, they consistently tell us that they want local and community TV to be offered as part of a range of TV services. However, the reality is that in most parts of the UK, broadcasting regulation has resulted in local TV being excluded primarily for the benefit of existing TV suppliers, particularly big media corporations in both the private and public sectors. That needs to change, and we have the opportunity to change it with the digital dividend and the ending of spectrum scarcity. We can make that range of community TV services available to the public. It is therefore important that the Government take the right decisions to allow that range of services to be offered to the public and to local communities.

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