Previous Section Index Home Page

24 Apr 2007 : Column 209WH—continued

As I am sure hon. Members present will know, because of their interest in the subject, Ofcom has undertaken a
24 Apr 2007 : Column 210WH
study into how local TV could be provided as an outcome of the digital dividend. Decisions will be taken very soon about how the local TV element can be provided as part of that review. There is an ongoing debate about how far that greater facility for local and community TV should be provided through the digital terrestrial spectrum, and how far it should be left to the satellite channels or provided through broadband. I argue strongly that if we are to take full advantage of this opportunity and if we are to meet the public interest in local and community TV, it is essential that the digital terrestrial spectrum provides genuine community TV as one of its elements. By genuine community TV, I mean community TV in which the community has direct involvement and ownership. Certainly, the simple auctioning off of local TV channels, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles suggested might be the outcome, would not provide the boost for community and local TV that the public want.

The opportunity exists for the Government to make the right decisions, as section 244 of the Communications Act 2003 allows the Secretary of State to make provision for genuine local and community TV. I urge the Minister to take advantage of that section, either today or when the decisions are made, and ensure that a genuine community TV network is established throughout the UK. I want him to ensure that local TV can be a public service broadcaster, as set out in statute. Either that section should be implemented or, if required, amendments should be made to the primary legislation. Making community TV possible requires a level of funding that enables it to offer the kind of services that meet the needs of the community. Ofcom has discussed the fact that funding could be provided through a public service publisher facility.

To sum up, I hope that the digital dividend review will mean that a digital TV channel is available for a local community TV station in each area and that such local TV channels are required to be genuinely community-based. They should carry local news and community information, and provide a forum for local arts, culture and sporting events.

I want to spend a little time discussing two other issues relating to community media, the first of which is the development of community radio. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles rightly set out how it is sometimes difficult for local community radio stations to get themselves established. The funding that is available is welcome, but there is a need for a longer term perspective. Using examples from Shetland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West pointed out that there should be more flexibility, and I would endorse that view. My experience of, and contact with, local community radio demonstrates the need for more flexibility in how set-up support is made available to community radio stations.

The example of the funding from the Welsh Assembly Government, which I have mentioned, should be followed both at UK level and in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Again, my hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that there are a number of opportunities for Government and public sector agencies to use community media outlets in a cost-effective way to provide information about important issues in the community. Such outlets can deliver that information well. Community radio and TV are means not just of establishing local media but of strengthening local communities. In so doing,
24 Apr 2007 : Column 211WH
they help us to tackle some of the divisions in society and to get the best out of a rich fabric of community life that exists in most parts of our country. We are now at a crossroads, because some of the decisions that will be taken could determine the future of community media for many decades, and it is important that we get them right.

I want briefly to comment on a specific issue relating to the subject matter of this debate which has been raised on a number of occasions in the House. There is concern about how the allocation of spectrum could have serious effects on the programme making and special events sector. Some hon. Members present have spoken of the concern elsewhere that the auctioning of the spectrum could have a serious effect on thousands of small businesses and community events that make use of radio microphones. Hon. Members raised the matter in an Adjournment debate in the House a couple of weeks ago.

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): Order. This is a debate about community radio and television, and their funding; it is not a debate about the radio spectrum.

Mark Lazarowicz: Indeed. I would not want to stray from the subject of the debate, but this matter relates to it, because the way the spectrum is allocated for community media has a bearing on the allocation of spectrum for radio microphones. The decisions that we must take in the entire area must take account of the needs of the communities in both the wider and local senses; many people’s operations rely on that particular section of the spectrum too.

I hope that either today or in future the Minister will assure us that the decisions to be taken will support community media, allow them to flourish and allow the already welcome steps that have been taken in many communities in our country to be replicated elsewhere in the UK. That will give a boost, not just to the media, but to our local communities. I am grateful for having had the opportunity to raise these issues in this debate.

10.26 am

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate and on providing an excellent guide to, and summary of, all the issues. He was ably supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz). In particular, my hon. Friend was able to cite examples drawn from professional experience, as he worked in the sector before he was elected as a Member of Parliament.

The principles behind community media are well known and have been ably described by the three hon. Members who have spoken. They can most succinctly be summarised as follows: allowing local news and activities to be broadcast in the local area; fostering community identity; empowering local communities; and assisting in training local people. Community media are not new, in the sense that the principles are not new.

My first experience of community media came when I was a student at York university from 1975 to 1978.
24 Apr 2007 : Column 212WH
The university was one of the first to have its own radio station. A number of the people who voluntarily gave a lot of their time working on it as students went on to have professional careers in the media, and that experience has been mirrored across the country. When I taught in Buxton, in the High Peak area of Derbyshire, a number of my students voluntarily gave a lot of their time to working on hospital radio in Buxton, at least one of whom went on to work in a full-time career in commercial radio. Those students initially worked at Peak FM in Chesterfield.

I have had nearly 30 years’ experience of Chesterfield hospital radio, which has come both from visiting members of my family who are patients and from people whom I know in the constituency. Student radio and hospital radio are examples of community media that have been around for quite a long time on a small-scale, voluntary basis. There is now the potential for a considerable expansion of community media.

Legislation was passed in 2004 allowing community radio stations to be licensed provided that they could fulfil social gain obligations and that a maximum of 50 per cent. of their financing came from advertising and sponsorship. Since then, community radio has been the fastest growing sector of the UK broadcast industry, but the financial problems and uncertainties over licence renewals are causing problems. Of the 122 full-time community radio stations that have been licensed since 2004, just 60 have managed to commence broadcasting. That is because of some of the problems that have been outlined.

The licensing and regulation of community radio causes considerable problems. Community radio is intended to be clearly distinct from both commercial radio and the BBC, and it has been established as providing social gain on a not-for-profit basis. Meeting those licensing conditions requires a specific lengthy process, and four different targets need to be hit in order to gain the licence. Currently, community radio stations must deliver on those four criteria, which make up an overall social gain and community benefit criteria. Ofcom has suggested that meeting those four separate distinctive licensing criteria might be too onerous and that one way forward might be to have a review.

The four separate criteria could be relaxed and merged into an overall social gain benefit, which could be the threshold in respect of getting a licence. That might be a way of cutting out the unnecessarily complicated regulation that is causing problems at the moment. Most community radio stations, happily, meet some of the present criteria, such as providing social gain in the community, training, opportunities in the community, increased local skills and employability, and so on. Ofcom’s suggestion of cutting the selection criteria to the applicant’s ability to establish and maintain its proposed service and to the overall community benefit is the way forward.

Renewal of licences is also a problem, because community radio licences are issued for a shorter duration than those for commercial radio—five years for community radio, rather than 12 years for commercial stations. Such a short period of licensing causes problems in raising funding, obtaining sponsorship and putting in all the work to get a community radio station off the ground with the knowledge that the licence could be lost within a short space of time, because it operates on a short, five-year cycle. A longer licensing period—perhaps
24 Apr 2007 : Column 213WH
in line with commercial radio—would remove one of the bureaucratic obstacles that prevent the rapid development of community radio.

We have heard about funding from the three hon. Members who have spoken, and it is inevitably a problem. The funding structures demanded for community radio stations may prevent more stations from being established and prevent those that have been given licences from taking to the air. The majority of community radio stations may not generate more than 50 per cent. of funding from advertising and sponsorship, and a minority has been prevented from generating any income from advertising and sponsorship due to the presence of nearby small commercial radio stations. That is designed to protect the small local commercial stations in a competitive and limited advertising market, but it could be seen as an unfair restriction on community radio, given that many commercial stations are not local, but are owned by large media groups and provide a rather more limited level of local service provision than their name implies.

Additionally, community radio stations are not allowed to receive more than 50 per cent. of their funding from a single source so as to maintain editorial independence, which is obviously a worthwhile aim. However, that restriction may prevent some stations from finding sufficient funding, so they cannot get on air. Ofcom has suggested that restrictions could be weakened, but that some limit on single-source funding should remain.

The other major funding sources open to community radio stations, as we have heard from the hon. Members who have spoken, are those to which everyone else is applying, such as the national lottery and charitable grant distributors. However, a number of problems are encountered when applying for grants, apart from application procedures being bureaucratic and expensive. As more community radio stations are granted licences, more and more of them are chasing the same limited pot of money, which must restrict the growth of community radio unless something is done about the pot.

Lottery grants are under severe threat over the next five years with the Olympics smash-and-grab raid to pay for the trebling, at least, of the cost of the Olympics due to incompetent costing. That will hit many community groups, sporting activities and much community media over the next five years, with the average constituency losing an average of £1 million of funding for such activities in the area. Community radio and TV, as newcomers to the scene, will inevitably lose out even more as a result of the Olympics smash-and-grab raid.

The time scale for obtaining funding is too tight. Only two years are given from the granting of the licence to going on air, and many of those who have been granted licences have found that that is not long enough, given the problems of financing. Ofcom has suggested that one way of helping to get round that might be for volunteer time to be costed up in hours and counted towards the funding contribution. That might be one way round some of the problems related to raising funding, qualifying and the amount that can be raised from advertising.

Ofcom has made a number of suggestions that are worthy of consideration to ease some of the problems. The community radio fund receives the limited sum of £500,000 per annum, which is only a fraction of what one well-paid commercial or BBC DJ receives, and the
24 Apr 2007 : Column 214WH
more community radio stations that try to become established, the less they can get from that limited pot. The average award last year was just under £24,000, but if the number of community radio stations is doubled or trebled, those awards will inevitably become smaller as time goes by.

Hon. Members have given examples from their areas and I shall give one from Chesterfield and North-East Derbyshire, where Trust FM is trying to become established. Trust FM was granted a licence in 2006 and was due to go on air in 2007, but it is having severe problems because of the funding issues that we have discussed. It is a professional organisation: I have mentioned my experience as a recipient of hospital radio at Chesterfield Royal hospital, and from 1984 to 1996 Ivan Spenceley, who is the leading instigator behind Trust FM, helped to run and worked with that hospital radio station, which became so popular that it led to a 28-broadcast trial in 1996. That was an extension of hospital radio to the whole community of Chesterfield and north Derbyshire.

The team that is trying to get Trust FM running is very experienced, but it is hitting problems. It got through the licensing barrier, but at the moment it cannot raise the funds to meet the initial start-up costs. It is confident that it can obtain advertising revenue and that it would be able to sell cheaper advertising to parts of the community that cannot afford current commercial rates, but getting funding to get off the ground is proving difficult, even for a highly professional, experienced and well-organised group such as Trust FM. For example, it has already been turned down twice for funding from the Big Lottery Fund and, as I have said, the situation will only get worse over the next few years.

Community TV is much less developed than community radio, and it has been a missing element in public service broadcasting in the UK for some time. There has been a debate about it since 1984, and it was first licensed in 1997. Currently, there are 17 analogue local community services broadcasting in the UK, but only two are not-for-profit community TV stations, the other 15 being commercial local stations. Getting community TV off the ground is proving to be even harder than getting community radio off the ground, despite the fact that all the same benefits are offered by community TV as by community radio.

One particular problem, which is not such an issue for community radio, is spectrum. There is currently poor picture quality because of spectrum allocation, and uncertainty with the forthcoming sale of digital spectrum as to what will happen and what will be available for community TV. If there is a straightforward sale of spectrum, clearly community TV will simply not be able to get in on the act or bid for sections of the spectrum.

Another possibility is to use broadband, and one good example of that is Southwark.TV. However, although that approach would be useful in many urban areas, it would exclude more isolated, rural and far-flung areas from day one. What will happen to the digital spectrum and whether community TV will be able to access it are major problems.

There has been a proliferation of TV channels, and of quiz and shopping channels, all of which are of low quality. There have been two or three recent scandals about quiz programmes, which have been a rip-off involving conning consumers who telephone into thinking
24 Apr 2007 : Column 215WH
that they can win prizes when the results have been decided in advance. The Government must look again at how some of the spectrum could be more usefully allocated to community TV.

Community media offer an immensely valuable community resource and have huge potential, which has barely been tapped. They can reinvigorate and empower communities, offer training in modern technology at grass-roots level and get people involved in local politics, local community activities and local affairs. The benefits are endless, but the problems of licensing, funding and spectrum for community TV are impeding community radio and strangling community TV at birth. The Government must act to remove those obstacles, and I look forward to the Minister telling us exactly what the Government’s plans are to deal with those issues.

10.39 am

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) on securing the debate, and I congratulate him on the work of the all-party community media group. At one point, the hon. Gentleman said that he was in danger of sounding like the Chancellor, but I assure him that he was not: not only was his speech eloquent and engaging, but above all, his figures were accurate. [Interruption.] I thought it was funny at the time.

We have had a very useful debate on community media and radio, and there are many points that I could make, but time is limited. First, I endorse everything that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) said. He made some excellent points with which I wholly concur, and he reflected the fact that all Members regard community radio and television as good things, and that they seek to ensure that such media have the best playing field on which to flourish. I endorse also his comments about lottery funding, because a great many of our community radio and television stations rely on it, and the Conservatives are concerned about the continued cuts to lottery funding, about the need to reduce the amount of bureaucracy required to get an application up and running, and about the length of the licence for community radio and television stations.

At the end of his remarks, the hon. Gentleman talked briefly about the internet. The debate about the meaning of community media, radio and television is fast-moving, and of course local people want to consume local media. They have done so for many years through local newspapers, but now the internet is changing the landscape. If my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Carswell) were present, he would tell us that he runs a community television station called ClactonTV. One could argue that YouTube is a community television station, and that 18 Doughty Street is a community television station catering for a particular countrywide community.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): A countrywide minority.

Mr. Vaizey: A minority, countrywide community that is interested in politics.

Next Section Index Home Page