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23 Jan 2008 : Column 495WH—continued

that is what puzzles me—

It continues:

I quoted that document at length, because it sets out how the situation should be addressed. Although there is no statutory requirement for local planning authorities to have regard to television reception, it can be a material consideration. Whether it is relevant to the decision-making process will vary across the country, which is why it appears in guidance only. If local authorities are concerned, they have a range of options. Obviously, the best thing is to hold pre-application discussions with the developer to ensure that the planning details are acceptable. If they do not go down that route, they can impose conditions on the grant of planning permission, and they have a power to enter into specific planning obligations. For reasons that are not clear to me, DCLG prefers local authorities to impose conditions rather than obligations, but that is a technical matter. It is for local planning authorities to determine the appropriate course of action depending on the circumstances of the case.

It is not possible to attach conditions after planning permission has been granted—I think that that might be the problem encountered by the hon. Gentleman’s local authority. That is why it was suggested that remedial action could be taken. I understand that there have not been successful negotiations between the developer and the local authority. I further understand—this puzzled me, too, when I read the version of the story that was given to me—that his constituents have complained to the local government ombudsman, who concluded that the council was not at fault. Clearly, that is a decision for the ombudsman, and it has already been taken. However, I was puzzled by the outcome of that particular investigation.

Where can the hon. Gentleman go from here? I am afraid, having reached this point, the options are not as easy as I would like. His constituents could seek redress through the courts, if they are unhappy with the planning authority’s decision—I accept that they are—although I appreciate that that is expensive and that they would have to seek legal advice first. Technical options are also open to them, but those, too, would come at a cost—I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. For example, they could obtain the public service broadcasting channels, plus many more, via satellite. I accept that that involves a subscription. However, satellite is also available with a one-off payment, and that may be a route that some people can go down. Freesat from Sky is available, and Sky has recently launched a product
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called Sky pre-paid, which retails at £75. In spring this year, BBC and ITV will launch their own versions of Freesat, which will provide guaranteed subscription-free access to their digital services, again for a one-off initial payment. I understand that Virgin Cable also serves the Rushden area, although using that service involves the payment of an ongoing subscription. Those are all the options available to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that would enable them to receive those TV services.

I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that he ought to approach his local authority, or indeed the regional development agency, to see whether or not, in the circumstances, they could provide assistance in ensuring that his constituents have access to those services. I certainly know, from my previous job in the former Department of Trade and Industry, that in a number of areas where access to TV services was limited because of rurality, the RDA played a role in ensuring that people living in very remote areas were given some form of subsidy to enable them to access TV services. I would suggest that the hon. Gentleman investigate that route further.

Mr. Bone: I am very grateful to the Minister for the helpful advice that she is giving. There is one other piece of advice that I wonder whether she considers is appropriate. When a major developer undertakes developments throughout my area, presumably it makes substantial profits, so would it not be reasonable to expect it to pay 100 times £75. Is that the way forward?

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): Section 106 is relevant.

Margaret Hodge: My hon. Friend is helping me with that question. That would not be unreasonable, and I would expect—I am a former member of a local authority, and I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is, too—the local authority to negotiate with the developer to ensure, through the section 106 arrangements, that the disbenefit experienced by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is put right through an agreement with the developer before planning permission is granted.

I also must tell the hon. Gentleman that when his region switches to digital in 2011, the situation is likely to continue in respect of digital terrestrial services, as the digital signals will be broadcast from the same transmitters that broadcast the analogue series. There is only one piece of good news for those constituents who have problems with “ghosting”, which happens when the analogue television signals are reflected by buildings or other tall objects, leading to multiple pictures being layered on top of one another on the TV screen. After switchover, ghosting should not be a problem, because of the technical characteristics of the digital switchover.

The final option for the hon. Member for Wellingborough’s constituents would be for the community in some way—through the town council, the district council, the county council or whatever structure—to build and operate a low-powered TV repeater transmitter. The cost will vary, depending on the precise situation, but it is likely to be in the range of a few hundred pounds to a few thousand pounds. Such transmitters require a licence, so the hon. Gentleman should advise
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his constituents to get in touch with Ofcom if they wish to pursue that option further. The hon. Gentleman will also know of the digital switchover help scheme. It might be appropriate, particularly for people who are over 75, seriously disabled or registered as blind or partially sighted—those groups are eligible for help under the scheme—as it could provide a subsidy for those people for the switchover.

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I feel huge sympathy for the position in which the hon. Gentleman’s constituents find themselves. I hope that my comments have helped them. I think that there is a clear route forward. The hon. Gentleman should not have got to the position that he is in, but having got there, he must look forward and I hope that he will find a solution on behalf of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o’clock.

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