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4 Dec 2007 : Column 205WH—continued

We appreciate that the infrastructure has to be paid for, and we are putting in place arrangements to help local planning authorities in that. The Planning Bill has been extensively debated this morning—perhaps more than I anticipated. Suffice it to say that the Bill was introduced on 27 November and, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) has said, Second Reading will take place next Monday. The Bill will allow a community infrastructure levy on new developments to support infrastructure delivery. The levy will be a better way to increase investment in the vital infrastructure needed by our growing communities. We believe that it is right and fair that local communities should benefit more from the uplift in land values that arise from
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planning permissions being granted. The levy will enable that to happen, and we will shortly publish further details of our proposals.

John Bercow: The community infrastructure levy is to be a national instrument. Will the Minister accept, when focusing on an area of intended growth such as Aylesbury Vale, that the order of magnitude of the infrastructure investment required is much greater, and that it will impose greater pressure on the instrument that he envisages?

Mr. Wright: I do not want to pre-empt publication of the community infrastructure levy proposals, but it will be the responsibility of local and regional bodies to work with developers in order to discuss the matter further.

I shall turn to the growth plans, the infrastructure and the support funding and delivery arrangements for Aylesbury Vale and the wider Milton Keynes and south midlands area. By way of background, Aylesbury Vale lies within the approved Milton Keynes and South Midlands sub-regional strategy. The development of the sub-regional strategy was managed by a steering group, made up of representatives from a wide range of local authorities and other key stakeholders. Following extensive public consultation and examination in public by an independent panel, the sub-regional strategy was approved in 2005. As a result, there has already been a substantial opportunity to address concerns relating to growth in Aylesbury Vale.

The planning strategy for the Aylesbury Vale area is being rolled forward for a further five years in the south-east plan. It also considered the possible expansion of Milton Keynes into some parts of Aylesbury Vale. I am aware that Buckinghamshire county council, Aylesbury Vale district council and others with an interest in Aylesbury Vale and the growth of Milton Keynes attended the south-east plan examination and made representations on planning issues in the area.

It will be for Aylesbury Vale district council to bring forward detailed proposals to implement the sub-regional and regional strategies through their local development documents. Those documents will provide further opportunity for public consultation, community involvement and partner engagement, so that delivery at the local level will be shaped to reflect the needs and priorities of the area.

The hon. Member for Buckingham said that the allocation for affordable housing in the area has increased, but only from £407 million to £408 million, and he asserted that it will not stretch to meet the affordable housing needs of the area. The Government are making £8 billion available for the provision of affordable housing in 2008-2011—an increase of about £3 billion over 2007-08. Nationally, the money will provide at least 45,000 new social homes by 2010-11. That is double the number that we saw in 2004-05. It will help 25,000 households into home ownership every year.

A final decision has still to be taken on the regional split of those resources. The proposed allocation for the south-east region is expected to rise to £500 million by 2010-11. That will provide an average of 10,900 affordable homes a year in the region in each of the next three years—about 20 per cent. up on the current level.
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Allocations to individual schemes will depend on the quality and value for money of bids submitted to the Housing Corporation.

Eco-towns have been mentioned. They are small new towns of between 5,000 and 20,000 homes. Such settlements would achieve zero carbon development and allow more sustainable living by using the best new design and architecture. Proposals for eco-towns will be assessed against criteria set out in the prospectus that we published in July 2007 alongside the housing Green Paper, and the final decisions, as I shall stress later, will be subject to public consultation and testing in the planning process. At the moment my Department, alongside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Transport and other key Departments, is assessing the bids that have been received. Hon. Members will understand that I cannot pre-empt that process and comment on any bid. We expect to announce the results in early 2008. Having said that, I reassure the hon. Member for Buckingham that, were an eco-town in his area included in the final list, there would be an opportunity for all interested parties to make representations when the scheme was tested through the statutory planning process. Eco-towns will be part of that process.

Partnership is important, and delivering growth in Aylesbury Vale, as elsewhere, depends on strong partnerships between a wide range of organisations. It is not driven by any one organisation. To ensure that, the Milton Keynes and South Midlands growth area benefits from the establishment of the inter-regional board, which I chair—it probably does not benefit from that, to be frank. It brings together regional and local partners and representatives of the full range of delivery agencies at the highest possible level, with the aim of aligning their spending with the growth agenda and co-ordinating infrastructure investment throughout the sub-region. The board has focused on matters on which high-level executive intervention is necessary to deliver the growth agenda.

At the events that I have attended in the region, I have been struck by the commitment, professionalism and ambition of all the partners concerned, who want to ensure that the area is not just literally but psychologically at the centre of the UK, driving growth and prosperity and ensuring that it is a fantastic place to live. I have been inspired when I have been there—it is a great place to live and, presumably, for the hon. Member for Buckingham to represent.

A local delivery vehicle, Aylesbury Vale Advantage, has been established to co-ordinate plans for the sustainable growth of Aylesbury Vale. The district council, together with Buckinghamshire county council and other local and regional partners, also plays a key role in that LDV, ensuring that the views of local communities are reflected. The LDV is supported by the Government, and we have
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recently increased the revenue support to it for 2007-08 to £600,000. It has co-ordinated the programme of development for Aylesbury Vale, setting out its growth plans and plans for infrastructure, including the green, social and community infrastructure needed to support that growth.

Infrastructure has been a key theme of the debate. A number of growth area assessments followed the wider sub-regional Milton Keynes and South Midlands study. The growth area assessment for Aylesbury provided for implementation costs to the public sector of some £440 million, divided between utilities, transport, social facilities, affordable housing and urban renaissance. The study went on to suggest that the key implementation issues to be addressed could be summarised as the need for additional funding from the Government for transport, community facilities and affordable housing, the requirement to promote urban renaissance and attract inward investment and the need to constitute a focused delivery agency. The sums given were to be for a long-term implementation programme until 2016. Although the figures have been challenged and new ones are being developed, we have made a start on a funding programme.

I want to address some points that the hon. Member for Buckingham has made. He questioned whether there is joined-up thinking on expenditure on such things as health, police, water and electricity. There has been concern about water, waste water and electricity supplies, particularly in Aylesbury. Although utilities such as Thames Water are under a clear legal obligation to provide both water and waste water supplies and services, we aim to work in partnership with all those concerned. We also recognise the need for the matter to be studied early in the planning process, so that future problems can be resolved.

Hon. Members have mentioned electricity. We understand that there is a bid in growth area funding round 3 to address capacity issues, so I cannot comment directly in advance of considering and determining the funding application. We understand that the electricity distribution company is unwilling to lay out investment in improvements at its own expense and wants someone else to underwrite it, and that will be considered.

I pledge to write to the hon. Member for Buckingham on his other concerns, which I have not had time to address. I hope that he recognises that sustainable growth in Aylesbury is about not only building houses, but providing high-quality, well designed developments with first-class services, where people will want to live. It is about balancing housing provision and expected job growth. We aim to do that in Aylesbury Vale, and to involve the local community and resolve its concerns. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who has made a first-class contribution, is reassured by those comments.

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Public Service Television (Children)

[Relevant document: First Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2007-08, on Public Service Content, HC 36-I.]

11 am

Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate on children’s public service broadcasting. As the Minister will be aware, there has been a lot of concern over the past few months about what has been happening to children’s TV. Similar concerns have come from a range of sources, including the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which dealt with the issue in its report on public service broadcasting in general, Ofcom, which is currently engaged in a major consultation on the future of children’s TV, and Pact, the trade association representing the independent production sector, as well as Equity and the Writers’ Guild. Parents have also expressed their concern, and Ofcom has spoken to them as part of its research. A huge variety of people have therefore expressed similar concerns about the decline in new UK programmes.

Recently, one British TV programme, “My Life as a Popat”, featured a British Indian family. It was the only programme of its kind, but it has gone because ITV has stopped all investment in British children’s programming. Under the Communications Act 2003, which specifically referred to a “culturally diverse society”, we expect publicly owned public service broadcasters to provide programmes that appeal to a wide range of people, and it simply cannot be right that such programming is disappearing.

In terms of children’s broadcasting, the volume of new UK programmes is running at about 17 per cent., although that is a considerable overestimate because it includes all the repeats; if we took those out, that percentage would drop considerably. The number of new programmes is therefore already minimal and under threat of dropping further.

Until relatively recently, there was a choice of programmes on BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, and some of those programmes were excellent. Indeed, just last month, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts gave an award to the makers of “Wise up”, which Channel 4 used to fund. The programme tried to encourage children to become engaged in social issues. In one episode, a child wrote in because she was concerned about her mother smoking, and “Wise up” arranged for her to interview the then Health Minister about smoking policy. Such initiatives are really good, but they have disappeared.

Of course, there are concerns about the negative effects of media, including TV, on children, and the toxic childhood campaign has had things to say about excessive time spent watching TV. There are also perfectly legitimate concerns about children being exposed to inappropriate materials on the internet and in video games, and none of us would try to argue that safety issues did not matter, particularly online, or that TV was a substitute for parenting. However, the fact is that children do watch TV, and they are now watching more children’s TV, according to Ofcom’s figures, despite competition from video games and the internet. We
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should therefore make sure that they are watching the best, but the best is under threat.

Earlier this year, Philip Pullman—author and signatory to the toxic childhood campaign—was quoted in The Observer as saying that

In research carried out by Ofcom, parents expressed very similar views about children’s TV. More than 80 per cent of parents thought that public service programming for children was very important, but only 43 per cent. thought that it was being delivered satisfactorily. That opinion gap is much larger for children’s programmes than for adult programmes. A YouGov study for the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television found that 70 per cent. of parents agreed that UK-produced programmes are important and contribute to the UK’s cultural identity. The fact is that children like UK-produced shows. I mentioned earlier that 17 per cent. of airtime given to children’s programming broadcasts UK-produced shows. However, that airtime receives 34 per cent. of the market share on the basis of viewing figures.

My sons are both adults and well beyond watching children’s TV, but I recall some of the programmes around in the ‘70s and early ‘80s when they were young. Back then there was a lot of competition between the BBC and ITV, and both produced innovative and engaging programmes, some of which would be recognised by everyone today, such as “Blue Peter”, “Magpie” and “Rainbow”. Those programmes date back to when there was real competition between the channels to attract audiences. That competition helped to generate better and more innovative programmes.

Investment in children’s TV has traditionally come from the main public service broadcasters, such as the BBC and other channels covered by communications legislation. However, in recent years, investment from ITV, Channel 4 and Five has collapsed. According to Ofcom, total investment, over the last decade, has dropped by 50 per cent. However, that is probably an underestimate, because it includes programming commissioned before the most recent round of cuts. Some estimate that the actual reduction, when the latest cuts are taken into consideration, could be as much as 80 per cent. ITV and Channel 4 have stopped investing in UK children’s shows completely, and Five has cut back significantly.

The BBC increased investment quite significantly over that period, but now the BBC budget generally is under pressure and there will be significant cuts across the organisation, from which children’s TV will not be immune. Over the next five years, we expect the BBC to cut its investment in children’s programming by 10 per cent. It says that it can still deliver good-quality programming despite that reduction by becoming more efficient. I hope that it is right. However, a 10 per cent. cut is not insignificant, especially when set against other things that have happened.

There have been improvements in some other places. S4C, the Welsh language fourth channel, has budgeted to spend some £11 million on original programming for
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children during 2007. That is way above its share when compared with the percentage of children in the UK who are Welsh-speaking. It is a significant investment. S4C is also looking to expand and produce more new programmes on a dedicated channel. However, with all due respect to S4C—and I am pleased that it is doing that—it is aimed at one part of the UK and a minority of children.

If we consider the reasons for the decline in investment, there is no question but that the emergence of more and more digital channels has resulted in fragmentation of advertising revenues and audiences. Commercially, it is much easier to make a game show than a good-quality children’s programme. The huge explosion in the number of channels is making it much more difficult for Ofcom to require broadcasters to provide public service programming and maintain the interests of children. Of course, Ofcom is required to take some market forces into account, too. It is limited in what it can do.

Some people—a minority—say, “Well, the BBC is doing fine, so isn’t that enough?” I do not think that it is. The BBC has increased investment, which has cushioned the overall fall. However, despite the fact that the BBC has increased investment, there has been a huge drop. Ofcom has shown that there will be a further drop of as much as 21 per cent. That assumes that the investment from Five does not decline. Even when Ofcom considered the positives, the best and most optimistic conclusion was a rise of 10 per cent. in investment in new UK programming. That optimistic scenario was based on an assumption that the BBC would invest more, when the reality is that the pressures on the BBC will mean that it will decrease its investment.

The consequences of the lack of investment will be that drop in new programming, of course, and a lack of choice. Back in 1998, BBC channels accounted for about one third of all new UK children’s programming on public service broadcasting channels. In 2006, that figure was up to 75 per cent. and, following present trends, it will soon reach 90 per cent. I agree that the BBC is doing a good job, but it cannot do everything. I do not think that people want a choice between British shows on the BBC and imports everywhere else. That is where we are in danger of going. People want some genuine choice in public service programming and some creative competition—the sort of thing that was happening in the 1970s and 1980s.

On the new cable and satellite channels, virtually everything is imported. Those channels are responsible for only 10 per cent. of investment in UK programming. That is not surprising—they are commercial organisations that cannot fill the gap left by the main terrestrial broadcasters. That specific point was picked up by the Select Committee, which recommended that the terrestrial broadcasters—ITV, Channel 4 and Five—ought to continue to invest.

Ofcom says that the BBC is not enough. The Government, in a White Paper on the BBC review, said that it was important to sustain the plurality of the public service broadcasting providers, which complement and compete with one another. The BBC itself says that it is not enough on its own. The director of BBC Vision in a speech in July said that the BBC does not want to be a monopoly, and that competition was good for the BBC, as it keeps it sharp.

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In relation to the quality and range of original programmes, the Communications Act 2003 says that children’s programming is a core part of public service broadcasting. Under the Act, that should be considered across the board—across all the channels. I am sure that it was not envisaged under the Act that there would be just one significant provider. Although the BBC has more than one channel for children, the BBC channels are to a large degree catering for children of different ages, so we do not get that much choice between them. There are some age-specific issues here. The Ofcom surveys and research say that the problem is much greater for children over the age of about nine. The provision for pre-school and early school years is considerably better, but the real holes in programming begin once we get to nine and above.

Ofcom’s powers are limited. It is required to report on whether the Communications Act 2003 requirements are being fulfilled. Ofcom is saying clearly that they are not. There are real concerns, especially for children older than nine. Yet that is about as far as Ofcom can go. It can issue advice, as it did to ITV. Ofcom said that reducing children’s programming would be a significant change that it would not like—but ITV went ahead anyway.

The question is, what shall we do? Ofcom will be producing a response to the consultation and, starting next year, will be reviewing public service broadcasting. The Government will be looking at the spending. Those things are important—Ofcom doing that work and the Government looking at what comes out of the review—but if we wait for those reviews, we will probably be waiting for a couple of years. Everything that we see now—what is happening with investment or new programmes—suggests that we cannot wait for two years. If we wait, there will not be people to make the shows, because the decline in funding is undoubtedly affecting the production sector. The independent production sector, which made a lot of programming, particularly ITV’s, but also the BBC’s, consists of freelance writers, directors and performers, who will go somewhere else if the money and work disappear to find other things to do. Already some of the companies in the independent sector are having to scale down. If that happens, it is difficult to see how they can sustain themselves and how new talent can come through.

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