BBC Local Radio

– in the House of Commons at 2:26 pm on 8 December 2022.

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Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead 2:26, 8 December 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the future of BBC Local Radio.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee and the 100-odd colleagues from across the House who joined the application for this debate. For those who are watching and perhaps thinking that the Benches are a bit sparse, actually if everybody speaks for 10 minutes, we will fill the time perfectly. This is a great opportunity for colleagues across the House to send a message not only to the excellent Minister on the Front Bench, but to the BBC. I also thank the House of Commons Library for its excellent and balanced paper on the subject. I will try to explain to the BBC, with colleagues, where it has gone fundamentally wrong with the demise of local radio. Local radio provides a service to our constituents and our communities that commercial radio cannot provide. If the BBC is trying to compete with commercial radio in that space, then frankly it has lost the ethos of what the BBC is supposed to be about.

There is a tax on all our constituents who have a TV or a computer that is able to receive a BBC programme. It is called the licence fee and it is a criminal offence not to have it. It was put in place all those years ago so that the BBC could provide a service that people could trust was impartial and was not going to come from any other source.

Photo of David Davis David Davis Conservative, Haltemprice and Howden

Does my right hon. Friend agree that impartiality is right at the front of the BBC’s ethos, but that in practice many of us in this Chamber—certainly, I do—find that BBC local radio, in my case Radio Humberside, is far more impartial than any national programme?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

My right hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. I will come on to explain the matter of trust and how local radio is not allowed a level playing field, when it comes to programmes such as “Newsnight” or the cost of some BBC presenters. During covid, my constituents were massively reliant on the information coming from Three Counties Radio. They trusted it, they understood it and the presenters were literally their voice of information about what was going on during the pandemic.

As the cold weather hits parts of the country—fortunately, although my part of the country is cold, the weather there will be nowhere near as difficult as the sort that some will have—there is no doubt that some schools will close. Where is the information that people can trust going to come from? Clearly, it will come from their local radio station. Some commercial radio stations will pick that up—that is fine—but actually that is the job of the BBC, because it takes the licence fee.

The BBC gets about £3.5 billion from the licence fee and a further £1.5 billion from other sources. It is not for this House to tell the BBC how to spend that money, but we can give it advice. Some of that advice has been brought to me by my constituents, who are literally in tears that some presenters on local radio stations in my part of the world have been given pre-redundancy notices before Christmas, telling them that they should apply for their jobs. In some cases, those jobs will not be there.

Let us look at what the BBC has decided to do. It is proposing to allow our local radio stations to go a bit longer in the morning, until about 2 pm, and then we will be regionalised.

Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. An announcement was made last week about my local radio station, Radio Foyle, and we will not even get morning programming. There will not be a local voice on Radio Foyle in the north-west of Northern Ireland until 1 o’clock in the afternoon. The breakfast programme is being stripped away and more than half of the news staff are being got rid of to save £420,000. BBC Northern Ireland’s budget is £55 million. In effect, it will destroy a local radio station, going against what its own charter says about providing local people with access to local news, all to save a measly £420,000. The BBC has a massive number of staff in Belfast and two massive buildings, but the axe is falling on the local community in the north-west of Northern Ireland. Surely the right hon. Gentleman would agree that that is an absolute disgrace.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

The hon. Gentleman represents the voice of his constituents in an excellent way in the House this afternoon. Knowing the Province as I do—once in uniform and then as a Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office—I know how important the local radio stations are. The interesting thing is that I do not think the BBC really knows what it wants to do. What is its ethos? Where is it going? For instance, in my part of the world it will cut local radio in the afternoon, but in his part of the world it will cut it in the morning. I would argue that both are very important.

To go back to my earlier point, we are now in winter. Parents will take their children to school, and it is quite possible that sometimes—especially in the northern parts of this great country of ours—those children will have to go home early. Schools will do their level best, but it is the local radio stations that will tell parents which schools will be open the following day, which will be open that evening, and whether they need to collect their children early—I hear that all the time on my local radio station. The people involved are dedicated, and they are not the very rich people who work for the BBC.

When the Secretary of State came to the House to answer questions on this issue a few weeks ago, it was shocking that the Department had been told what was happening only the day before, because I had been told on the Friday by some local radio stations that they knew about it then. It is shocking that what is really an extension of Government—because the BBC takes the licence fee—did not tell the Government what was going on so that we could tell the House. That is absolutely disgusting and fundamentally wrong. Mr Speaker quite rightly complains bitterly when things are announced outside the House, but this was also about people’s jobs and our communication with our constituents.

I went back to listen to some of the comments from people in local radio—I have to be careful here, because I want to protect them and not put them in an even more difficult position—and they said, “Mr Penning, it is not a level playing field. I’m not allowed to have another job, apart from working for the BBC.” A few people are on slightly different contracts, but the vast majority have contracts that say they cannot have another job in broadcasting.

I named a gentleman in this Chamber who works for the BBC and who has been on our TV quite a lot recently because of the World cup—the gentleman’s name is Gary Lineker. I said that I thought that it was fundamentally unfair that he earns £1.35 million, or slightly more—that has been declared by the BBC as his income—and others, such as Zoe Ball on Radio 2’s “The Zoe Ball Breakfast Show”, earn just short of £1 million. I do not know about Zoe Ball’s contract, but what we know about Gary Lineker’s contract is that not only does he do advertisements for a certain company that makes crisps, but he works on BT Sport. My local radio people are not allowed to do that.

I got lambasted by a Daily Mail journalist who said, “Stop picking on Gary Lineker.” I am not picking on him; I just think it is unfair that our local radio people are now prevented from having a job, while he can go and do jobs galore. I am not going to be a hypocrite; I have declared other interests outside this House. That is within my contract. Others who work in local radio cannot work in other ways. There are people who have been given their pre-redundancy notice and told that they need to apply for their job, but their jobs will not be there.

What can the Minister do for us this afternoon? He is an excellent Minister, but his job, rightly, is not to run the BBC. It is for this House, however, to send a message to the BBC that it has got it fundamentally wrong to attack that low-hanging fruit—our local radio station presenters—without understanding the damage that that will do to our communities around the country.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

This is a message that we need to send not only to the BBC, but to the regulator, Ofcom. The service licences under which BBC local radio operates are so woolly that, frankly, there are no obligations in place that require it to be specifically local to the area that it is required to serve. Given that we are in a mid-term review of the BBC, is it not time that Ofcom had some teeth and required the BBC to do what it is set out to do?

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

My hon. Friend has read my mind. As he may have noticed, I do not read speeches in this House because my dyslexia prevents me, so I try to memorise what I am going to say, and I was about to move on to Ofcom.

Because the licence fee is a tax and people have to pay it, there has to be regulation. Ofcom provides that regulation. It is for the Government to set the parameters, for Ofcom to regulate and for the BBC to decide how to deliver its services. I find it inconceivable that Ofcom would sit back and allow this to happen when it is Ofcom’s job to ensure that the BBC fulfils its role and does what it was supposed to do when we set it up with a licence fee all those years ago.

I am conscious that many colleagues across the House want to speak this afternoon, and I am really interested to hear what they say. The BBC has done brilliant things and has some brilliant programmes. I have fallen out with it many a time; I do not go on “Newsnight” these days, because it is cheaper just to phone up all the people who watch it—200,000, which is smaller than the number of people who listen to their local radio station in my part of the world.

Photo of Dean Russell Dean Russell Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art

My right hon. Friend and I share a local station, BBC Three Counties Radio. I am sure he agrees that every single one of its 250,000 listeners must enjoy the shows. As he says, it gives important local voices the power to reach into people’s homes when they are needed—it did that perfectly during the pandemic. I pay tribute to BBC Three Counties and all its presenters for their work.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

I too congratulate BBC Three Counties, not just because of its work in the pandemic but because it picks up many local issues for us.

I congratulate the BBC on managing to unite this House in a way that we probably have not seen for quite some time. This Chamber is confrontational by nature—it does what it says on the tin, really—but I can almost guarantee that colleagues are here today because they want to look after their constituents and want their constituents to get the best possible value from the BBC.

If this is all about money, I cannot understand why the BBC is spending £5 billion, of which £3.5 billion is taxpayers’ money, but it cannot find a better way. If people cannot look after Radio Foyle instead of saving peanuts in cash terms, and if they cannot look after our local station Three Counties Radio, frankly they need to get another job, because they are not running their organisation correctly.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. My plan is to get everybody in, which we can do comfortably if colleagues speak for no more than about 10 minutes, as they did in the previous debate.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 2:40, 8 December 2022

I speak not only in my capacity as secretary of the National Union of Journalists parliamentary group, but to represent my constituents. The NUJ has circulated a briefing to all Members of Parliament who have expressed an interest in local radio. I will refer to elements of it because it sets what Sir Mike Penning said in context.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is interesting that on this particular subject we have come together over the years on a cross-party basis to exert an influence on the BBC as best we can. Our debates in this House have exerted an influence: hon. Members who have been around for a while will remember previous debates in which we have fended off onslaughts on BBC radio.

Let me put our concerns on the record—I hope the BBC is listening. The current plans mean that most of the afternoon and evening output will be shared. Overall, BBC local staffing is expected to reduce by 48 posts. After 2 pm on weekdays, the BBC will produce 18 afternoon programmes across England. Local stations will be forced to share information. What will that do? Exactly as the right hon. Gentleman says, it will seriously diminish a service that is highly valued by listeners and plays a role for all in underpinning local democracy by holding us to account and reporting on what is happening— not just with MPs, but with local councils and local agencies.

As the right hon. Gentleman says, there is example after example of local BBC stations providing a conduit of information during crisis after crisis. From weather crises and covid to accidents and other unfortunate incidents, they provide the information people rely on. Why are they important, as against other stations? Because they are seen as a reliable source of information and they provide a vital service on which all our communities depend. The cuts mean that there will now be just 40 hours a week of guaranteed local programming.

Let me reiterate the role that constituents have told us BBC local radio does. It connects communities. It provides local news. It provides reportage of sport, entertainment and religious services. It has been the bedrock of the BBC’s role as a public service. Interestingly, it is not just us saying that, but the BBC itself. In its latest annual report, the BBC boasts about how local radio

“delivered real value by keeping people safe and informed through challenging times such as Storm Arwen, where audiences in the North East were left without power for weeks.”

The BBC itself gives examples from the pandemic, when many people were isolated in their homes. The BBC itself says “it makes a difference.” That is why we are bewildered when 5.7 million people listen to local radio and it comes under attack once again.

There is quotation after quotation from people who may not be working in the service at the moment and may therefore be more independent. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that people do not want to put their jobs at risk at this stage. The former voice of BBC Radio Suffolk’s afternoons, Lesley Dolphin—who was very well known to a lot of people—wrote this to the director-general of the BBC:

“BBC managers are proud that they have journalists on the ground in every county, but local radio is so much more than a news service—it is embedded in local communities and gives people a sense of place, a chance to celebrate heritage and art. It will be impossible to do that if programmes are shared across a wider area.”

When we debated this issue recently, early in November, there was huge cross-party support for local radio. One Member said that local stations

“provide a lifeline for news and education, mitigate against rural isolation and support people’s rural mental health.”

Another said that it was

“a great incubator for new talent” in his area, and a third described it as

“one of the crown jewels of our public sector broadcaster.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2022; Vol. 721, c. 774-778.]

The importance of local broadcasting becomes even clearer when all of us are reporting the decline in local newspaper circulation in our areas. The BBC local radio service has stepped into that gap to an even greater extent to ensure that there is local reportage, holding us all—at every level of representative democracy—to account. Press Gazette has reported that 265 local newspaper titles have gone. The BBC says that it is pursuing a digital-first policy, chasing younger viewers, but the NUJ and others have put forward alternatives so that broadcasters can improve the whole system more effectively by working differently and using technological solutions. Unfortunately, the BBC has not engaged in that discussion constructively enough.

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about staffing. All BBC local radio staff have now been told that their jobs are at risk. They have been told that the managers will “roll out” the plans, which means that some of those staff will not know their futures for up to a year. We can imagine the sense of insecurity that that creates.

During the November debate, the Media Minister, Julia Lopez, said the Government were

“disappointed that the BBC is reportedly planning to make such extensive cuts to its local radio output.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2022; Vol. 721, c. 764.]

The view that we can express to the BBC is that this is a cross-party issue. It is certainly of concern to the Opposition parties, but it is also of deep concern within the Government. I will not let the Government off the hook, because I want to put on record my opposition to the freezing of the BBC licence fee, but in the context of the resources that the BBC now has, as the right hon. Gentleman said, there must be some element of prioritisation for the valuable role played by BBC local radio.

Let me quote from another broadcaster most people will recognise, Fi Glover, who has been a prominent broadcaster over the years. When she was interviewed recently on “The Media Show”, she said:

“There has never been a more important time in the dissemination of information to have a strong local news network. If you can’t tell the story of the people around you, who you know and see every day then into that void can fall really unpleasant things. Once that part of the forest has been cut down, it won't ever grow again.”

So what did she think of these plans? She said,

“it is bonkers.”

I agree with her completely. I hope that the BBC is listening, and I hope it will think again.

Let me say this on behalf the of NUJ: it stands ready to be involved in any consultations or negotiations to find an alternative way forward, which I think the majority of Members would also seek.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 2:49, 8 December 2022

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning on obtaining this debate. It is also a pleasure to follow John McDonnell. I do not often agree with what he says but, apart from a couple of sentences, I agreed with practically every word.

The BBC spends something like £4.1 billion each year on public service content, of which £477 million—just over 10%—is spent on radio. A quarter of that, or around 3% of the BBC’s total spend, is spent on local radio, yet what BBC local radio provides is hugely valued by a very large number of listeners. It is an essential and widely trusted local information service.

I have listened to and appeared on BBC Essex over many years. The station’s presenters, including Dave Monk, Sadie Nine and Sonia Watson, are familiar friends to many of my constituents. People share their living room with them, and their news reports are trusted. That was particularly the case during the covid pandemic, when all the surveys showed that people relied on and trusted information from local media more than information from almost any other source.

But it is not just about news. BBC local radio does a tremendous amount of community events to support voluntary organisations. Just a few weeks ago, I presented a Make a Difference award to one of my constituents in Essex who had been recognised by BBC Essex for her remarkable, life-saving bravery.

The BBC’s mission is to be distinctive, and one of its public purposes is to serve the diverse communities of all the UK’s nations and regions. BBC local radio does both. The requirement to be distinctive is something BBC local radio meets better than a lot of the rest of the BBC. Nobody else does what BBC local radio does. There are plenty of very good local radio stations—I have Heart Essex, Radio Essex and community stations such as Caroline Community Radio in my constituency—but they are predominantly music-based. They do not pretend to provide the kind of very localised talk-based content that only BBC local radio provides.

I accept that this year’s licence fee settlement is difficult for the BBC, but £159 represents a lot of money for households, particularly with the rising cost of living, so it was the right decision to freeze the licence fee. That has put pressure on the BBC, but local radio is a tiny proportion of its expenditure, and the BBC tells us that it is not cutting the amount of money it spends but is redirecting it, so £19 million has been taken away from radio and put into online news.

I spoke to Rhodri Talfan Davies, the BBC’s director of nations, about why the BBC made that decision, and he told me it was because people no longer listen to the radio to get their news and because people, particularly young people, are increasingly going online, and the BBC somehow has a duty to follow them. I think that is profoundly mistaken for two reasons. First, there is still a significant audience for radio, particularly among the elderly population, who often cannot get out. They rely on the radio.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I recognise what the right hon. Gentleman says about elderly constituents who depend on local radio. Angela Kalwaites does a fantastic show on BBC Radio Devon covering stories from the county’s faith communities. Some of my constituents who listen to her show are frail and elderly and can no longer get themselves to their local church or chapel. They tune in to her programme to get that connection with local people. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this move would hit some of our eldest constituents hardest?

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I agree. Many of our elderly constituents rely on radio and are less familiar with online. They will not necessarily go on to the BBC News website or a commercial website. They enjoy the fact they can listen to local news content from people they know well. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead and the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington have both said, this is now going to stop for a lot of the country at 2 pm. We are lucky in Essex, as it is going to continue until 6 pm on weekdays, but after that we will become part of a regional network, with a show that covers Essex, Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Three Counties Radio, which means another three counties, as it says on the tin. So that makes eight counties. Eight counties is not local radio. This will result in a significant reduction in the amount of local content, at times when people want still to be able to access that.

Secondly, instead of providing for local radio, the BBC is going to increase its spend on local online news content, yet that area is already well supplied. Local news publishers more and more are providing online content. Existing print-based newspapers have websites and there are now many online-only publishers, such as Nub News, which I referred to in the questions this morning. They are operating in a challenging and competitive environment, and are under tremendous economic pressure. They already see the BBC, which provides content for nothing, as a major competitor. The latest Ofcom survey showed that, when people want to go online to access news content, 62% go to the BBC website, 34% go to Google and 10% go to any local newspaper site. So already local commercial providers feel that the BBC is a threat and that is why Frances Cairncross said in her report that the BBC needs

“to think more carefully about how its news provision can act as a complement to, rather than a substitute for” private news provision. Yet this, the area where the BBC is going to invest more, is bound to have an even greater competitive impact on commercial news providers. So I hope that Ofcom, which has a duty to look at the impact of the BBC’s activities, will examine that. I hope it will also look at the operating licences for BBC local radio and, if necessary, strengthen them to make sure that they continue to provide genuine local content, not local content across eight counties.

If the BBC wants to support local news provision, there is an easy way in which it can do so. When I was Secretary of State, I played a small part in the creation of the Local Democracy Reporting Service, where the BBC pays for local journalists who are employed by local news providers to collect and distribute local news content across all the local news providers. That scheme has been a huge success. It is welcomed right across all the local newspapers. The BBC acknowledges that it is a great success. So, if the BBC wants to put more money into local news provision, it should do it by increasing its support for the Local Democracy Reporting Service, which works with local newspapers, rather than by increasing the amount of money it spends competing with local newspapers.

It is not for us here or for the Government to tell the BBC how to spend its money, but the message that will go out this afternoon is that the BBC has got this wrong and it needs to think again.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central 2:58, 8 December 2022

The House is united this afternoon as we are the voices of our communities—the very thing the BBC should and must be into the future. I congratulate Sir Mike Penning on securing today’s timely debate, as the BBC is well into its consultation. However, when I spoke to the BBC just this week, my conclusion was that it had got the question wrong that it is trying to solve. It is almost running in the opposite direction of the challenges it is trying to address, but also of the way our country is moving.

Ever more we are seeing devolution and therefore more localism and more need to hold local politicians to account. In the midst of the identity crisis we face as a nation, people are drawing into their local roots to find and build that identity. That is the one thing the BBC can do so well because it is not just about broadcasts; it is also about being in the community. The journalists and programmers live in our communities and know them. They have the connection with the people across the communities. What the BBC is doing with this proposal is drawing everything back to the centre. This centralised idea of what the BBC should be to local people will be determined in London, as opposed to in our communities. That is where this proposal is fundamentally wrong. It asks the wrong question of the problem.

When I met BBC representatives earlier this week, I said to them, “Over the next two years, you should set a challenge to every local BBC station across the country and say to them, ‘We want to move in the direction of digital, because that is where the world is going and we understand that, but we also need to keep a strong broadcasting sector in place. Why don’t you, as local BBC teams, take that problem away, sit around the table, find your own local solutions, and see where that takes us? Let us see the innovation that comes from our brilliant journalists, programmers and staff across the BBC. Let them set the pace for their communities, because they know what their communities need.’” Instead, what is happening is that everything is being sucked into the middle—into the heart of London—where decisions are being made by somebody who does not know our communities, who does not understand the different populations that need to be served, and who does not know the stories that people want to hear.

We have heard about the importance of connection. Across our country, we have 9 million people who are lonely. That is shocking, but the BBC is a friend to those people. We know that 25% of lonely people switch on their radio as a way of making their connection to the outside world. Will we seriously make them withdraw even further from our society as a result of this programming process? It just does not make sense, and it does not address our societal needs, which is exactly what a public sector broadcaster should do.

Redundancy notices, or at-risk notices, have been issued to staff just weeks before Christmas. Forty-eight jobs will disappear across the BBC. They are the jobs of broadcasters and planners—people who worked right through the pandemic and who served us so well over that time. Now they are worried about their future and about having their professionalism undermined, at a time when their advice is needed to shape the future of British broadcasting.

The BBC faces challenges: local radio and local BBC have been massively cut already. Instead of managing that decline, which is what is happening, the BBC should grasp the reality of where it is and where it needs to get to and then rise to the challenge, embrace this as an opportunity, draw in all the skills from the broadcasting community and ensure that it is ahead of the curve. It should be strategic and think about what broadcasting and its unique selling proposition could be, to shape the future of broadcasting across our country. It should be not following but setting the agenda. That is what it did on its inception 100 years ago, but it seems to have lost its mission. That is why I say to the BBC that it is following the wrong course.

Moreover, as we see more and more devolution and more elected Mayors, people across the country are demanding to know more about what is happening in their area. As they need jobs and housing within their community, they want to know what is happening. It is important that those stories are told. After all—I mean this with no disrespect to friends and colleagues across Yorkshire—people in York want to know what is happening in York and North Yorkshire. They do not necessarily want to know what is going on in Leeds, Sheffield or elsewhere in North Yorkshire, because they are different communities. What matters to them is what is on their doorstep, what is going on in the local school or the local community centre, and what is happening in their city with jobs, housing and so on. That is why local radio is so important.

BBC local radio is also the authentic voice of what is happening across our airways. What happens in this place is almost BBC entertainment at times, but when we think about the stories, we realise that they do not break in Westminster. They happen in villages, towns and cities across our country. Sadly, that is where tragedy happens, too. I think of Claudia Lawrence who went missing in my constituency. Would regional BBC really care about reporting that story 13 years on? Will they keep coming back to that story? BBC Radio York does, however, because she matters to our community and it matters to her family. We need to keep those connections in place—to remember people, to tell those stories, to reflect on the good times and the bad times—and the BBC can only do that if it is located and broadcasting in the community.

In York, we will see a serious cut in the number of hours of broadcast, from 105 to just 47—nothing at all. At 2 o’clock we will switch off from having our own identity and will be merged into the mash of all the media outlets out there. That will certainly not deliver to our people.

I remind the BBC of what happened during the floods of 2015, a really challenging time—we have heard about covid and about other weather event—when day and night journalists were out across our communities, reflecting and telling the story, helping where no other messages were coming through, able to get out vital messages about safety and security, and comforting people at a time of real fear. It sticks in everybody’s mind how they were always there, because the BBC is always there—out in the communities, out in the reaches, telling the stories on their doorstep. That is why we need good, strong local radio, day and night.

It almost feels as though the BBC has lost confidence in itself, its purpose and its mission. I know the people working across BBC Radio York, who do an incredible job, are not just names, but part of our York family. That is why the station is so special and why we must keep fighting for it. Whether it is Jonathan, Adam, Elly or Georgey, they are part of our daily diet as they share what is going on in their own way. Often people say, “Oh, local radio—that’s where people do their training before they get on to the serious stuff in Westminster or move on.”, but in my experience, these are the very best of journalists, the very best of planners and technicians. They know their trade and they are skilled at it, and they have so much to pass on for the future of radio.

That is why it is vital that the BBC asks the real question: what does it want of itself for the future? The only way it can do so authentically—the only way it will have a future—is if it goes back to its communities and its experts across the field and asks them, “What is our future?”. Instead of determining it from here in the centre, the BBC must go back and start the process again, determining its way forward by saying, “We need to be part of the communities from which we once came.”

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham 3:07, 8 December 2022

I entirely agree with that passionate defence of localism by Rachael Maskell. Local must mean local and we do not want people in the BBC in London imposing on us their views on how our local radio should be conducted and how big our locality should be. I see behind the centralised planning at the BBC a distorted version of what our constitution should look like within the United Kingdom, and a wish to impose that—against the clear majority wishes of people, whenever they have been asked about these subjects in referendums and elections.

It is not just that the BBC wishes to create phony regional groupings instead of truly local radio, but that it has a very distorted view of devolution. The BBC seems to be an enthusiast for devolution to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but it does not even know England exists. It always wants lopsided devolution. One of the four important constituent parts of the United Kingdom is scarcely ever mentioned; it is never suggested it should have any powers or right to self-government and there is no engagement with English issues on BBC radio in the way that there is a clear engagement with Scottish, Welsh or Northern Ireland issues. That causes enormous resentment.

In my own case, local radio is organised at the county level, at Radio Berkshire. That makes sense, because it is an area that we can recognise and there is some loyalty to our royal and ancient county. Many people now do not know that it had its borders artificially compressed in a local government reorganisation some 50 years ago, under a Conservative Government that I think made some mistakes, but the county retains an enormous amount of goodwill and residual loyalty, and people are very happy for our local radio to be organised at that scale. If people had real choice, however, I think Wokingham would rather have a different radio from Reading, and I think we would probably rather have a different radio from Windsor, because we have a different set of issues. But we accept that there have to be some compromises because talented people need to be appointed and paid wages, and that cannot be done to a sensible budget at very local levels.

I urge the BBC to look in the mirror and understand why, in many respects, it is getting so out of touch with its audiences. It has a very narrow range of views and issues that it will allow people to discuss, and it has a particularly warped perspective on how we feel about our areas and what our loyalties belong to. I am allowed to express views from time to time on BBC Radio Berkshire. It does not put me through the ordeal of a pre-interview to find out whether my views are acceptable and fit its caricature of a Conservative in the way that nearly always happens if national radio is thinking of interviewing me. Then, I always have the double interview, and I quite often fail the first interview test because my views are clearly too interesting or unacceptable, or do not fit the caricature that the radio wishes to put into its particular drama, so people are spared my voice on radio and I have more free time, which is perhaps a wonderful outcome from those events.

I do not find that my local radio quite plots the drama as strongly as national BBC radio and television. I am very grateful for that because I think that good, independent broadcasting of the kind that the BBC says it believes in should allow people of decent views—not extremists who want to break the law, or racists—to conduct civilised conversations and debates through the medium of the BBC. But all too often, that is truncated or impossible because of the way in which the editors operate and their pre-conceived set of views, about which they wish to create some kind of drama.

Colleagues have made extremely good points, which I will emphasise, about the treatment of staff and the way these kinds of proposals are planned. If the BBC wishes to run truly local services, it must listen to us—the local people and the local people’s representatives—and treat its staff well, and be aware that they have given good service in the past and should be taken on a journey of change that makes sense for them as well as for the BBC. This all looks rather top-down, abrupt and unpleasant. Successful organisations understand that their own journeys, evolving as institutions, are best conducted if, at the same time, they allow good journeys for the staff who give them loyal service. That does not seem to be happening in this case.

I will spare you a bit of time, Madam Deputy Speaker—I have made the main points that I wished to make. The BBC needs to be more open to a wider range of views. If it wants to be local, it has to ask us what local means.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington 3:12, 8 December 2022

I, too, congratulate Sir Mike Penning on securing the debate and offer my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for making time available for it. I rise to speak both as co-chair of the National Union of Journalists cross-party parliamentary group and to represent the concerns of my constituents in Easington, County Durham on the vital role of BBC local radio services, and to warn BBC management of the damaging impact of the proposed cuts to those services.

I do not think anyone is disputing that the way we consume news is changing. Undoubtedly, there is a greater emphasis on digital content and listen-on-demand platforms, but many people—especially older and rural listeners—continue to rely on traditional radio broadcasting. It is not an insignificant audience: 5.7 million people regularly listen to BBC local radio services. As many Members have indicated, the plan to reduce guaranteed local programming—much of which is shared content—to just 40 hours a week threatens to undermine the extent to which BBC local radio properly serves the whole demographic with reliable local news and information. Let us not forget, it is not doing that out of altruism; it is part of the BBC’s public service obligation under the terms of the royal charter.

BBC local radio helps to combat social isolation. My mother is 87, and the radio is important. She never gets out, and it is a source of comfort, information and friendship, in a way. It helps people to keep in touch with what is happening in their local communities. Indeed, in the last annual report, as I think has been referred to previously, the BBC boasted how local radio

“delivered real value by keeping people safe and informed through challenging times such as Storm Arwen”.

I can testify to that, because my area was badly affected. The electricity and so on were out and, particularly in the north-east, people were left without power for many weeks. I am grateful to the local radio and the NUJ members who kept people informed. That included some important information regarding health and safety and the distribution of food parcels and other materials. Similarly, during the pandemic many people were isolated in their homes, and the “Make a Difference” campaign brought together volunteers who helped neighbours during the covid-19 emergency, helping to deliver food, to do shopping and so on.

The problem is compounded in my own region. The Institute for Public Policy Research did a report on digital exclusion in the north-east in September 2021. It showed that digital exclusion was a long-term problem, even before the covid-19 pandemic. However, since the pandemic began, there has been increased reliance on digital services. In fact, it was referred to in Cabinet Office questions this morning. In regions such as mine, the older demographic in particular, me old mother, and many other people in similar circumstances are not able to access online digital alternatives. That might be because of a lack of access to wi-fi, to connectivity or to devices, or perhaps because of a lack of skills or confidence. I do not think they should just be put on one side. Inequalities in access to digital and online resources and activities are closely associated with other dimensions of inequality, and in many cases they exacerbate feelings of isolation. Altogether, this suggests a deepening of the impacts of inequalities associated with digital exclusion.

The BBC’s report also said that we should ensure

“that digital isn’t the only option. The final aspect of inclusive service design with regards to digital provision is the need to offer a suitable offline alternative for anyone who is unable to access digital service for any reason. Digital by default services often do not offer sufficient offline support, meaning that users or customers become very frustrated and often can’t get what they need.”

While this debate is about cuts to local radio services, we should also recognise what is happening in much of the other media. The UK has seen a steady decline of local newspaper titles, which we have discussed here and in Westminster Hall. The Press Gazette reported that at least 265 local titles have gone since 2005. Members should be aware that the BBC’s digital first strategy also plans to scrap or merge the current BBC News TV channel with BBC World News, and then replace both with a single, globally focused channel with the capacity to provide a separate UK-focused feed in cases of major breaking news. Journalists working on the programme feel that this will significantly impact their capacity to provide more in-depth coverage of news beyond the national headlines, especially in the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

In that sense, the cuts to BBC local radio services are a double whammy for our constituents, and certainly for mine. The NUJ parliamentary group has written to Ofcom to urge it to conduct a review of whether the BBC’s digital first plans in their present form would constitute a breach of its charter obligations to serve all communities and localities in the UK with relevant news coverage. Those concerns have been expressed across the House, and to be fair, Ministers have echoed them, although I gently point out that the freeze of the BBC’s licence fee settlement at a time of double-digit inflation invariably puts pressures on the BBC’s budget. I would also like to reinforce the point made by Sir John Whittingdale that, although we pay £159 for our BBC licence fee, only about £7.60 of that goes on maintaining local radio. That represents, by any standard, excellent value for money.

The BBC says that these proposals are being consulted upon. My understanding from discussions with NUJ members in my region is that the consultation has been very much top-down. As my hon. Friend Rachael Maskell said, if BBC management had gone to BBC local radio journalists and asked for their input and advice on how to bring about efficiencies and deliver a more local service, they would have come to a rather different conclusion.

I share the NUJ’s view that these cuts will seriously diminish a service that is highly valued by listeners and underpins local democracy. Investment in digital content should not come at the expense of services on which so many of our constituents continue to rely.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 3:21, 8 December 2022

It is a pleasure to speak in a debate with so much cross-party agreement. I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning on securing it and the Backbench Business Committee on granting it. I was very happy to put my name to the petition to the Committee calling for this debate, because this issue matters in all our constituencies.

I began today talking to Andrew Easton on the breakfast show on BBC Hereford and Worcester about a national issue, as it happens, but one with relevance in my constituency. All of us, as politicians, need to engage with local radio. I recently ended a career on the Front Bench and returned to the Back Benches, and one of the pleasures of doing that is being able to pick up some of the causes I championed previously. I remember in a debate in 2011, along with John McDonnell, championing the case for local BBC and making some of these same arguments. In that case, we did win some of the argument, and the BBC changed its mind about some of the proposed cuts and kept our local radio stronger. I hope that this debate will mean we can do that again.

As a Minister, I experienced the value of BBC local radio scrutiny in every part of the country, not just my constituency. I had to do so-called regional rounds and speak to the local BBC in different parts of the country where different issues would come up with an extremely well-informed approach. I remember being really tested by BBC Cumbria about issues of rural remoteness, and I remember challenging interviews with BBC Three Counties Radio. Having to think, as a Minister, about all the different populations that we are serving and that the BBC is serving is immensely important. That genuine localism, which Rachael Maskell spoke so passionately about, is vital.

My right hon. Friend John Redwood mentioned certain local government reorganisations that the Conservative party tried back in the 1970s. It is a running joke in my family, because my late father was the Minister responsible for implementing some of those. They were deeply unpopular and controversial, and most of them have unravelled over time, because people’s genuine local identities overcame the centralising instincts of Government. The BBC should listen to the lived experience of what happened with those great reforms of the 1970s and the fact that we have returned to a more local approach and the devolution that the hon. Member for York Central spoke about.

For my constituents in Worcester, that is vital, because we have seen with various regional initiatives over the years the understandable dominance of the population centre in Birmingham up the road of the west midlands. I do not necessarily begrudge that, because it is where the most people are, but the priorities of the conurbation are not the priorities of someone from Worcestershire or Herefordshire. That is similar to Durham—I remember being dispatched on a Department for Education visit where my briefing told me that I was going to Newcastle upon Tyne, which I queried and said, “Are you sure about that?”. It turned out that the school I was going to was actually in County Durham, a rural area where people would not have been happy to be told that they were part of Newcastle upon Tyne.

That sense of proper local identity really matters and BBC local radio does it well. We have voices on the radio that sound like the voices of our constituents—the voices that people know—so I thank the team at BBC Hereford & Worcester for the incredibly valuable public service that they provide. It should be about public service. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington quoted the line about it being one of the “crown jewels” of public service broadcasting and I feel passionately that only the local BBC can do that within the service.

When we have these debates about priorities, I wonder whether television drama is a good use of a huge proportion of the BBC’s budget in terms of public service, given that it is an increasingly competitive space. My right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale made the point about the importance of the BBC providing unique opportunities and I am not sure that it should be putting such a huge part of its budget into an increasingly competitive landscape. I would rather that the small fraction of its budget that it puts into local radio was protected and, preferably, enhanced.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the covid crisis, and we all know the enormous value of BBC local radio during that time. In my patch, we have frequently faced debilitating floods; Worcester falls victim to floods too often. During periods of huge disruption, BBC local radio is vital to many local people. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead made the point about school closures, which is one issue that we have faced as a result of floods over the years. People will not be able to get that vital local knowledge and local input—the scale and the level of detail that tells them when a primary school has been affected by floods and needs to close early—on a regional level.

That local knowledge does not stop being vital at 2 pm, so the idea that we can have local radio just for the morning is for the birds. It is about democratic scrutiny: we as Members of Parliament will all have been asked to go on the breakfast show and on drivetime to follow up the news bulletins. Although the local news bulletins are being protected, we follow them up with detailed discussions about local issues on drivetime, so to lose those programmes would be a huge mistake.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

Is it not important that local radio journalists go to the council meetings, which are not normally before 2 pm?

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

My right hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Of course, our local councils are a vital part of local democracy. Without local radio journalists covering and attending those meetings into the evening, we will not have the quality of democratic debate and discourse that we can and should have in this country.

I was struck by the point of the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington about the BBC chasing a younger audience with its move to digital. We have to ask why, because that younger audience is much more savvy and focused on a wide range of media, and does not necessarily rely on local radio in the same way that the older audience does. It is not just about the older audience, however—although we have heard from many hon. Members on both sides of the House about the importance of local radio to the elderly and isolated, which is right—people who drive for a living also value what local radio does. It gives detailed information about road closures that it would not be possible to get at regional level and that commercial stations can rarely provide. Reaching the audience that local radio reaches—the millions of people up and down the country who benefit from and rely on it—is important.

A good thing about the BBC’s proposals is that they talk about investing in investigative journalism, which all hon. Members would support. If that investigative journalism is taking place at a local level, however, it needs an outlet and regular opportunities to report and feed into programmes.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

My hon. Friend is making an exceptionally good point. One problem with the redundancies is that those who have not lost their jobs will no longer be local reporters; they will be regional reporters. Some of the award-winning reporters in our constituencies and on our local radio will be smothered around the country and we will lose that expertise. I do not believe that that is what the BBC is looking for.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I entirely agree, and I would also say that investigative reporting needs to be done a local level in our communities. My hon. Friend Mark Garnier, who has just had to step out of the Chamber, recently had a debate about nitrous oxide misuse, and that really important issue was highlighted by a local journalist working for BBC Hereford & Worcester, based on stories that emerged locally.

At Education questions a week or so ago, I raised the case of Rhys, a boy from Worcestershire who has been unable to get a place in a special school and was not able to get a local placement. Such cases are brought up by the high-quality journalism taking place in our BBC local radio. The coverage we have had of the situation at the Worcester Warriors, which has been very worrying for many of my constituents—not just on the sport side, which I am glad to say the BBC wants to protect, but on what was going on behind the scenes and the business story of what went wrong at a premiership rugby club that has been driven into administration—could not have happened without the brilliant investigate work of Felicity Kvesic from BBC Hereford & Worcester.

For all these reasons, I think the BBC needs to rethink these proposals. I am very grateful for the constructive way in which the NUJ has been engaging on this—I think we have all had a useful briefing from it. It has shown that it agrees with parts of what is being proposed, but it disagrees with the fundamental move against localism. For local identity and for the vital public service that this provides, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to keep on pressing the BBC on these issues and to get it to rethink.

Photo of Martin Vickers Martin Vickers Conservative, Cleethorpes 3:31, 8 December 2022

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning on securing it. It is quite clear that this is something on which Members across the House feel passionately. It crops up every few years, and I can recall speaking in similar debates over the 12 years I have been here.

There is no doubt that the cuts proposed by the BBC have led to a considerable backlash from the public, this House and BBC staff, who feel badly let down by the announcement. These cuts will severely diminish what is highly valued by listeners and goes some way to underpin local democracy. My hon. Friend Mr Walker referred to his father’s change to the county boundaries. He created the—much-hated, I have to say—county of Humberside, and Humberside is actually a swear-word in our part of the country, except when we talk about BBC Radio Humberside, which is greatly valued.

When considering my contribution to today’s debate, I reread the representations I have received in recent weeks and realised I could not put the argument across better than a BBC Radio Humberside presenter and union representative, speaking on behalf of the NUJ, Andy Comfort, who has been with BBC Radio Humberside for many years, and much of what I have to say is based on his submission to me, which I received a week or two ago.

The proposals involve scrapping bespoke local programmes and sharing shows between several regional stations after 2 pm. In the evenings and at weekends, these shared programmes will span an even greater region, as has already been mentioned, and the coverage at night and on Sundays will finish much earlier. Currently, BBC local radio provides a vital service of news, information and companionship for its communities. The BBC says it will maintain local news bulletins as they are—on weekdays from 6 am to 6 pm, and at weekends from 7 am to 1 pm—but there is no guarantee that these will be presented from the local area.

This move is part of a wider plan called “digital first”. The BBC plans to move its journalists into local teams and regional hubs. For Radio Humberside, it is largely a positive move, because teams in radio, online and TV will work together and ensure a joined-up approach to news gathering. There will also be regional investigation teams—investigative journalism has already been mentioned—which is very good. There will be more content that airs first or exclusively on BBC Sounds. BBC Sounds is great; I only wish it was not advertised quite so often—it seems every two or three minutes —when I am trying to listen to a football commentary or whatever.

However, this digital investment comes at a cost to “linear” local radio—live programmes broadcast on traditional FM and DAB radio sets. Across England, BBC local radio reaches 5.7 million people every week. Many of these listeners are not “digitally affluent” and may not have easy access to high-speed broadband or smart phones. They have their radio permanently tuned to their local radio station, so at the touch of a button they are immediately in contact with that friendly voice. It is a friend in the corner.

Mr Comfort from BBC Radio Humberside also points out that regional programmes may struggle to juggle priorities for competing demands for news. If two major stories happen within one region, for instance, which one will the regional programme choose to cover? We also know from the BBC proposals that each local radio station will have an average of just two journalist reporters, whereas at present the average is five or six. This is a serious dilution of journalistic resource in an already straitened part of the BBC’s service and output.

BBC management claim that these changes will future-proof BBC local, because traditional linear audiences are declining. The ambition is for all services, but mainly digital, to reach at least 50% of the audience each week. But they are throwing away vast swathes of local output on the radio, highly valued by audiences from all walks of life, but especially the most vulnerable and marginalised in society. Mr Comfort says that the majority of BBC Radio Humberside listeners pay the BBC licence fee and rightly deserve better.

Sadly, local newspapers are in decline, as has been mentioned. In my area we still have a daily newspaper, the Grimsby Telegraph, but the local content, like local content on the BBC, is now much diminished. That is bad for our local communities and does not allow voluntary groups, charities, churches and other local organisations to put forward what they are doing for their local communities in the same way as in the past.

It is clear from the representations I have received, as well as from the contributions we have heard this afternoon, that the BBC has once again made a grave miscalculation. I join colleagues in asking the BBC to reconsider this proposal. While we are on the subject, I also urge the BBC to reconsider its policy of imposing the licence fee on the over-75s, which continues to be a sore point for my constituents and, I am sure, those of many colleagues.

On both these issues, the BBC has taken a misstep. I could add another misstep as an aside: the BBC’s abandoning of the 5 o’clock reading of the football results on Saturday afternoons, although that is perhaps slightly less significant than the future of local radio. The BBC risks losing public support, which would be a real shame because it provides a vital service that all our constituents value. I urge the Minister to make the strongest possible representations to the BBC.

Photo of Dean Russell Dean Russell Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art 3:37, 8 December 2022

I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning for securing this important debate. Local radio and BBC local radio plays an incredibly important role in our communities. It is the go-to source for trusted news, and to find out quickly what is going on in the local area. It is also often a voice that connects people who perhaps are lonely at home, or who need reassurance about what is happening in their local area. If we start to make local radio national, we start to lose that connection; we start to lose the voice of the community and that impact.

BBC Three Counties Radio, which I share with my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead, is very good at striking the right balance between holding people like us to account while also ensuring that the truth goes out. Roberto’s drivetime show is a good example of that. They ask us what the issue is and ask us our opinions, but they also challenge us while ensuring that the facts are put out to local people.

When we are in the Chamber, we often talk about national issues, but actually on local radio we talk about local community matters. I remember talking on many occasions about issues such as the closure of Pryzm nightclub in my patch, or about mental health initiatives that I have been doing. That is important. Local radio gives that platform to speak to people who we will see on the street or when we go out, whether knocking on doors or at community events.

Local radio has another key role: working within an ecosystem to create new producers, new DJs and other people who might want to work in the industry. In Watford we have a fantastic local community radio station called Vibe, and I know that some of its DJs have worked at the BBC. They do that to get experience and for career opportunities.

I will divert slightly to my own passion for radio. When I was at De Montfort University back in the ’90s, I and colleagues were involved in setting up a new student radio station called DemonFM. I will name-check Chris North, Jonathan Bown, Emma Marston, Ant McGinley and Rob Martin; there were many more, and we would be here all day if I listed them all. At the time, there was a lot of resistance to setting up the station, but it created a whole load of people who went on to have careers in production and the radio industry. Some went on to work with the BBC or with small production companies who work with the BBC, including at local radio level.

I mention that because, from working on that radio station, where I had my own show, “Dean’s Poetry Show”—I was a poet but not many people know it—I learnt about the behind-the-scenes work that goes on. It is not just about the presenters, who do fantastic work, and the news readers; there are also the producers and the people who do all the extra work that we may not see, including those who go out scouting for local stories and work in their local communities to find out what is happening—they watch Facebook posts and other things—to uncover the real human stories that are part of our local communities. My worry is that if the BBC goes with a national approach to local news and local radio, we will lose the humanity in that. We will lose the stories that really hit people in the heart and not just in their head, as it were. This is about the human connection.

Rachael Maskell mentioned loneliness, which I feel strongly about and even mentioned in my maiden speech a few years ago. Loneliness is one of the biggest challenges facing society. During covid, BBC Three Counties Radio and other local radio stations really helped to get people information so that they felt they knew what was going on. It was a time of crisis and trauma, when they did not necessarily have friends knocking on their door. As I have said, we used to talk about being lonely in a crowd, and now people in the virtual world seem to be lonely in the cloud. The truth is that radio cut through that. It was an opportunity for people, perhaps while sitting at home or in the kitchen making their dinner, to listen to a reassuring voice.

One of the best bits of advice I was ever given by someone who worked in radio was that, when one presents a show, one should talk not as if speaking to an audience but as if speaking to the listener. That is the beauty of local radio: really good local DJs—we have many of them at BBC Three Counties Radio and our local stations—talk to the listener. They reassure the individual and make them feel like they have got a friend at the other end of the line, even though they are not phoning them. The BBC’s measures and the approach that it is taking is wrong because we will lose that. I know that my constituents will feel that.

The sad truth is that, with these measures, people will not know that it has gone until it has gone. They will not realise that it has been lost until it is too late. Such processes and decisions, which are often made centrally, without real consultation and without people realising what they will lose, are never rowed back on. The decisions are made by people sitting in tall towers with very little connection to what is going on on the ground, and that is the sad truth.

I wholeheartedly support what has been said in this debate. I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead for securing it and all Members for standing up for local radio today. I wish the Chamber were full so that every constituency could have their voice heard in the way that we want to hear voices from local radio.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West 3:45, 8 December 2022

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—[Interruption.] Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise—[Interruption.] This is live radio. I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning for securing this debate. What a privilege it is to take part in a debate in which we are listening to everybody from around the Chamber and finding so many points in common.

I am glad to see my right hon. Friends the Members for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) and for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) here, because I will start with the bold proclamation that Essex is the greatest county in the whole of the UK, and, as I am sure they would agree, Southend is the greatest city in Essex. Part of what makes Essex so special is its community spirit. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon talked a lot about that. BBC Essex plays a huge, leading part in our community spirit. Only three weeks ago, I was in the centre of Southend for our Christmas lights switch-on with hundreds of people. It was led by Sonia Watson and her team from BBC Essex, on a Saturday night; they went above and beyond to lead the community in Southend.

The points that have been made eloquently about the role that local radio plays in local democracy are absolutely right. It gives voice to local issues and holds us to account. It is common—this happens pretty much on a weekly basis—that when I put a story on my Facebook page or my website about what I have been doing, I will get a call or email from BBC Essex and will be invited to go on one of their shows to talk about that. The interviews are very good; they are searching. We absolutely have to be able to argue for what we are doing here and why that is important to our local people. That is incredibly valuable, and I pay tribute to Sadie Nine and Simon Dedman, who are two of the journalists who get me on the hook on a weekly basis.

This is about more than just democracy; BBC Essex news coverage is second to none. It really understands the local issues that we are grappling with in Southend. It will be the first to highlight a problem with a flood, an accident or a problem at Southend Hospital, and it puts people’s minds at rest when our brilliant police force does one of its Project Servator operations. When it floods an area with police officers, the local radio will inform people about what is going on, so that they are not concerned and know that it is normal, proper policing.

That brings me to something that happened—which we all know about—last year. BBC Essex was absolutely brilliant in its coverage of the horrific murder of Sir David. They were some of the first press on the scene, and they were unique among the press in knowing the community and being able to report on that awful situation that day with sensitivity and authority.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

We all miss Sir David greatly, but the way that BBC Essex reported that and what followed was incredibly empathetic. It really understood the pain that the community in Southend were going through, because it had the reporters and production staff who knew those people and could tune in to what they were feeling. The way it did that was brilliantly commendable. Does my hon. Friend agree that we would abandon that link with our communities through our broadcasters at our peril?

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, who puts it brilliantly. Our local journalists really know how our community feels. I pay tribute to them, because it takes time and hard work to get that understanding. The way they handled the situation last year was brilliant.

It is not just about covering sad events. BBC Essex’s “Drivetime” show is incredibly practical: it has very helpfully kept my constituents up to date with the dreadful problems on our roads when Just Stop Oil has been causing chaos.

Local radio also celebrates our community heroes. I have always been a big supporter of local media, and not just radio—our local papers do the same thing. It is so valuable. People who do so much for our community deserve to be celebrated. We have already heard about the Make a Difference awards, which BBC Essex arranges every year, but I want to give another example.

We have a brilliant disability campaigner in Southend West called Jill Allen-King, who has done so much over so many decades for blind people and people with sight impediments and the like. She got a Pride of Britain lifetime achievement award this year, but the local radio made a big play of going to her house without letting her know and presenting her with another tribute and another award, because it has covered her work over so many years. It was not asked to do it. It rang me to talk about it. That is just another example of how it goes above and beyond. Similarly, with the Music Man Project, which we are trying to get a Christmas No. 1 with this year, BBC Essex is joining us and helping every step of the way.

Of course, I cannot talk about BBC Essex without mentioning its coverage of Southend’s local football club. Southend United have a huge following, but their matches are not shown on television, so the only way people who cannot go to the matches can hear how their team are getting on is through BBC Essex. One of my constituents, a lovely lady called Annie Maxted, is a big Southend United fan. I met her at our famous centenarians’ tea party this year—she is about 101. She came with me to watch the match, and she absolutely loved it because she never gets the chance to go and watch; she always has to listen on BBC Essex. That entertainment, which makes a real difference to quality of life, will be lost if these changes go ahead.

Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that, even if the BBC says it will keep sports programming, the deep connections with and understanding of local clubs that reporters have cannot be protected if the number of local journalists is reduced? We have to take with a pinch of salt some of the commitments that have been made to protect sporting coverage. If programmes do not have those strong local connections, they will not be able to follow sports teams as effectively.

Photo of Anna Firth Anna Firth Conservative, Southend West

No, they will not. In Southend, we will not get dedicated coverage, so there is no guarantee that our local football team will be covered on a regional basis. My hon. Friend makes an important point: it is because local media are so embedded in our communities that their voices are so well received and so comforting. It is because of their local connection that they tackle loneliness and provide comfort to our residents. The statistics bear that out: more than 2 million people tune in to BBC local radio and to no other BBC station.

According to the BBC’s own listener figures, the majority of the audience for BBC local radio are over 50, with 20% between 55 and 65, and 35% aged over 65. It is the elderly population we have been talking about who really appreciate local radio. That is so important in Southend West, where more than a fifth of people are over 65, and 8% of the people I represent are over 80—a significantly higher proportion than the national average. BBC Essex is a lifeline for them, providing that local, comforting voice in their homes.

Every Sunday between 10 am and 2 pm, BBC Essex journalists go around the county providing cryptic clues to where they are for listeners to solve. The programme is called BBC Essex Quest, and I know from talking to my constituents that it is hugely popular. It is a Sunday ritual for those who are housebound and who may be lonely. That is one of the reasons I was so disappointed by the recent announcements. If the changes go ahead, we will lose Essex Quest, because we will not have that local weekend coverage—we will only have local coverage between 6 am and 6 pm on weekdays—and that will be a real loss to my constituents.

We hear a great deal about the BBC moving its news content online. Of course I see the argument for that, but we must bear in mind—I urge the BBC to consider this—that only 35% of over-75s go online for their news content. The 65% who do not are exactly the people we have been talking about today, who obtain their news from their local radio stations. I do not want to go into any great detail about the arguments for and against the BBC’s increasing its online content, competing directly with the commercial sector at the expense of the hard-working taxpayer, but I do want the BBC to consider the needs of my elderly and vulnerable constituents.

The BBC was founded on the principles of informing, educating and entertaining people, and BBC local radio is the epitome of that. My constituents need a local radio station that is relevant to their lives, and I urge BBC Essex to commit itself to continuing to provide the comprehensive local radio station that they love and deserve.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South 3:56, 8 December 2022

It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Anna Firth, and I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning for securing this important debate. I speak not only as the Member of Parliament for Warrington South, but as chair of the all-party parliamentary media group and the all-party parliamentary group on commercial radio, and I spent all my life, before I came to this place, working in radio.

There is something very special, indeed unique, about local radio’s relationship with its audience. It provides companionship, news, information and entertainment in a way that most other media simply cannot achieve. As my hon. Friend Dean Russell said, it is about the voice that emerges from a speaker in the corner of the room and talks one to one with the listener. Most listeners are doing something else while they are listening to the radio—they are driving a car, making tea or in the shower—and that opportunity to be part of a radio community is something very personal, portable and social. Radio is a medium that allows us to use our imagination to build pictures in our own minds in a way that no other medium can.

Local radio has a unique place in our media ecology. It is the space on the dial that jumps out and says, “We are all about the towns and villages that are familiar to you.” The travel news talks about the motorway that we are on, not the one on the other side of the country. Local radio features the high street where we do our shopping. It is about the town hall to which we elect our councillors. It is where the daily phone-in happens, when residents can go on air and share their views in authentic accents, using words that only local people understand to talk about the issues that really matter to them. Great BBC local radio stations around the country have the ability to connect in a unique way, providing for their audiences and for the whole community. Commercial radio simply cannot provide that. It is not that commercial radio is not great, but it is not licensed to do what BBC local radio does. BBC local radio has a special place on the dial.

Given what I have said about the unique role of BBC local radio, it is perhaps not surprising that I am concerned to hear about the BBC management plans to regionalise programming content after 2 pm each day, and to share programmes over the weekend. The weekly peak for many stations is Sunday morning. Why give that away to regional space when listeners are specifically tuning in to find out about their local area? I worry about what that says to local audiences about how much BBC management values local listeners.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of the BBC teams creating local content for Radio Merseyside and Radio Manchester in my area. The Friday afternoon programme on Radio Merseyside presented by Claire Hamilton provides distinctive local content that I cannot hear anywhere else, but it will be lost. On Friday 11 November, Radio Merseyside did an outside broadcast from Tate Liverpool not only focusing on the Turner prize but celebrating the local arts scene across Merseyside. By inviting contributions from listeners, it provided a rounded experience of what is going on in the city and across Merseyside.

The following Friday, Claire was in Cheshire presenting a special programme on the upcoming City of Chester by-election, which included an hour-long daytime debate with the main parliamentary candidates, which is something only the BBC can and should be doing. Last week Radio Merseyside carried a special broadcast on knife crime to mark the murder of Ava White a year ago, and it culminated in an hour-long feature analysing what has changed in the city.

I have heard from many listeners who are worried about losing the friend on the radio they know and trust. I have also heard from people who work inside the BBC, and they are disappointed and angry about how the BBC is treating local radio. They know it will have an impact on ordinary listeners and licence fee payers, for whom local radio services top their list of BBC products.

I was struck by an email from a person who works at the BBC, saying that the teams working in local radio know their listeners like nobody else, “They tell the stories. They laugh with their listeners. They celebrate the wonderful events that take place in the cities and in the towns, and they grieve with them when tragedy strikes. They are the friends on the radio, and that is what is at risk.”

Listeners in my constituency have a massive range of stations from which to choose, but no other channel delivers content in the way BBC local radio does. The BBC holds an extremely privileged position as the nation’s public service broadcaster, but it is also our local communities’ public service broadcaster. The charter granted to the BBC sets out specific obligations and gives it an advantage that no other service provider can match.

First, the BBC has unrivalled funding from the licence fee. Secondly, it has a network of transmitters and streaming platforms, meaning audiences can pick up services on whichever platform they choose, which is a massive advantage over many other broadcasters. Thirdly, BBC local radio benefits from cross-promotion opportunities on the BBC’s television and online services. BBC local radio should be growing because it benefits from the wider BBC operation.

In fact, adding national radio, the BBC maintains a 50% market share in UK radio, which is far in excess of its TV market share of around 28%. The BBC is expert in radio, yet it wants to withdraw from local radio. I have shared my views with BBC executives and, in some respects, I believe the route they are taking will probably hasten the demise of local radio. In every part of the media landscape, the ability to personalise and precisely target audiences benefits a channel. By merging services, the BBC is effectively creating Radio Nowhere, which means audiences are likely to go elsewhere.

Matching cities and towns such as Leicester and Northampton to share programmes makes no sense. Anyone who knows the east midlands media market knows that Leicester, Nottingham and Derby have always sat together—that is the TV region. Why suddenly stick Northampton with Leicester? It makes no sense. Two minutes looking at the latest radio audience tables shows clear evidence that stations that remain fiercely focused on their local audiences, such as Radio Cornwall, maintain the highest market share of local radio in the UK. If you focus on a geographic area and serve it well, you will generate reach and time spent listening—it is as simple as that.

I urge the Minister to read a report published about 10 years ago by one of the UK’s leading radio executives, John Myers, who is sadly no longer with us. He was commissioned by the now director-general of the BBC in 2011 to review all the BBC’s radio services. Sadly, many of his recommendations have never been taken up and I feel certain, having read that report again today, that it would deliver better value for licence fee payers and would result in more popular, distinctive and sustainable services for the BBC.

I would like to use my remaining few minutes to focus on the independent regulation of the BBC by Ofcom. As the Minister will know, the Secretary of State has already set out the terms of reference for a mid-term review of the BBC, focusing on the governance and regulatory arrangements. This is a timely opportunity to look at the operating licences for all the BBC radio services, but particularly for local radio, which have been reduced and made less robust since Ofcom took over the regulation of the BBC. Having been involved with challenging the BBC Trust 15 years ago, I never thought I would get to a stage where there was less regulation of the BBC than there was with the BBC Trust, but sadly Ofcom has managed to achieve that.

The proposed operating licences being put forward by Ofcom remove a significant number of quotas that are essential for the BBC to be distinctive and to meet its public purposes. The few that remain are 15 years old and not as a relevant as they were. Although some of Ofcom’s updates to the operating licences are welcome, I share the concerns raised by Radiocentre that the proposed operating licences simply fail to adequately regulate and enhance the current provision provided by the BBC. Strangely, Ofcom appears to have accepted in principle the importance of retaining quotas in order to guarantee a minimum level of distinctive output but then, despite that acceptance, proposes to remove most of them and dilute core elements of the BBC’s public service broadcasting. Notably, on BBC local radio the proposal is to reduce the requirements of speech at breakfast time from 100% to 75%, so news output will actually reduce on BBC local radio at the peak breakfast time.

BBC local radio will be less tightly regulated than the commercial radio equivalents, who are providing news and speech for audiences but receive zero public funding. I am pleased that Ofcom proposes an operating licence for BBC Sounds, as that is long overdue, but it is the woolliest operating licence I have ever seen. It simply creates a situation where the BBC has a mandate to create services to compete against commercial services. I urge the Minister to look at that again. Finally, removing the requirements to deliver niche genre content—arts and religious content—simply allows the BBC to walk away from that as the corner foundation of public service broadcasting.

To conclude, the age profile of BBC local radio is older, with 33% of listeners over the age of 65. Its age profile is less attractive commercially and therefore is less likely to be served by other operators. This is the space that a publicly funded public service broadcaster should be operating in. Most critically, there is a need to update the BBC’s operating licences, and I do not believe Ofcom’s current proposals are sufficiently comprehensive to hold the BBC to account and to ensure it delivers distinctive content. Frankly, the entire direction of travel by Ofcom, given that the BBC is a public service provider, is to give the BBC more freedom. The BBC receives £3.8 billion from the licence fee and it is not unreasonable to ensure that regulatory conditions are in place to ensure the corporation delivers the public purpose set out in the BBC charter. The services provided by the BBC should be distinctive and should deliver an output that is public service-orientated, rather than simply offering a service that is already provided by other operators.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

On behalf of the Speaker, Andrew Stephenson and myself representing Ribble Valley, I say three cheers for Radio Lancashire. It was great having the team at the Speaker’s Rooms on Lancashire Day when they broadcast the early morning programme with Graham Liver—three cheers for him and his team—and we look forward to welcoming them back next year. Hopefully, they will not give me the 7 am slot again—that is an early plea, Graham.

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk 4:09, 8 December 2022

It is a great privilege to speak in this debate, which was brought to us by Sir Mike Penning—I thank him for that—and also to follow my hon. Friend Andy Carter, an hon. Member who actually knows what he is talking about on these matters.

Mr Deputy Speaker, you can tell that this is an important debate, because there are two Norfolk MPs present in the Chamber this afternoon. We have been very competitive about who gets to go last, so I thank you for calling me now.

Local BBC radio in my part of the world is like a cosy cardigan. When people put it on, they immediately have some familiarity. They feel like they know the presenters personally—there is that special connection. That is why my constituents in North Norfolk are so upset about these proposals. The decision to change their local radio programming has really affected the listeners. It is no secret that the older a person is, the more likely it is that they will listen to local radio. The BBC estimates that 58% of its local radio listeners are over 55 years of age, with a near perfect split between both male and female listeners.

As the Member of Parliament with the oldest average age of any constituency in the country, it is clear that, in North Norfolk, we have a very special relationship with our local BBC radio station. A total of 148,000 listeners tune into BBC Radio Norfolk every week. However, that should not be taken as an indication that local radio is somehow just for people of a certain age. Although there are demographic trends, it is also clear that local radio appeals to people from all age groups and backgrounds. As we have heard already in the Chamber this afternoon, it is an astounding statistic that local radio stations, through the BBC in England, reach nearly 6 million listeners every week, which is an absolutely phenomenal number.

From speaking to my constituents, I know just how important those local radio services are to them—whether they are schoolchildren or pensioners. I hear on the doorsteps time and again about how local radio is an invaluable source of knowledge for constituents. They get to hear what is happening, bespoke, locally in their own area, and the service provides an immense amount of satisfaction and joy.

Let me just give an indication of how much Radio Norfolk is listened to. I can remember on my summer tour, at 10 o’clock in the morning, knocking on a door only to be met by a bemused-looking older lady in her Marigolds and with her hair curlers in. She looked at me and said, “You’re on my doorstep.” I replied, “Yes.” “But you were on the radio a few seconds ago,” she said. “You’re that nice young man with the refugees living with you.” She was absolutely right. I had just been interviewed on the radio from my car, and the first door that I had knocked on belonged to this lady who had heard me coming out of her radio as she did the washing up. I rather cheekily said, “That is the kind of service you expect from the Conservative MP from North Norfolk. You merely think about me and I appear.”

When we get elected, we are told that journalists are not our friends, but, of course, we all build relationships with our local BBC networks. It is our duty to be accountable, to go on the air and face questions, as many have said this afternoon, and to ensure that we represent our constituents. Across the east, we are absolutely spoiled not only for our radio, but for our television as well. Andrew Sinclair and Deborah McGurran are consummate professionals and fair, hard-working journalists, as a number of hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon will know. The BBC is lucky to have them.

Equally, on the breakfast show on Radio Norfolk, Chris Goreham and his team are superb. I like to think that all MPs for the region form a relationship with those local teams. There is no doubt that they are beloved in my patch, and I put on record my thanks for the way they have always treated me, that includes Chris, Richard, Tim, Paul and Emily, who I deal with regularly. If I am doing charity work, such as marathon running, raising money for local charities or running aid to Ukraine, as I did last month, they always let me go on the show to talk about the work we do in the constituency and I always get a platform to talk about the things I am doing.

That is how the relationship should work with our local BBC. When I ran a North Norfolk promotion to get 100 new apprenticeships into my local area, the BBC breakfast show at the weekend, run by Kirsteen Thorne, set up an entire programme dedicated to getting work opportunities for young people. Again, that was something I never asked for, but we worked together on the project.

I am worried to hear how our drive programmes may well be combined. It simply will not be local as we know it. Under the current proposals, we face having no local weekend breakfast shows, which is unthinkable. In my constituency, “Treasure Quest” is a beloved Sunday morning show that has been on the air for 40 years. If that goes, there is no doubt that the local BBC across my region will have a far weaker product. We know that BBC local music has helped to launch careers for such esteemed artists as Ed Sheeran—even I had heard of him, and I have not got past Dire Straits, so we know it can be a humongous help to local artists who make it big. I feel very strongly about those programmes that are currently on air, but may not be for much longer.

At the end of the day, the BBC is editorially and operationally independent, and can decide how it will deliver its services, but I implore the BBC, which will be watching this debate, to listen to all hon. Members from across the House who have contributed. We have heard some real joined-up thinking and agreement. Digitising and taking away locality of services is not always best for all our constituents. There is immense affection and support for local radio.

We have in Norfolk an extremely rich tapestry of media, and we are lucky to have excellent newspapers as well. I worry enormously about some of the changes and the impact that the dominance of the BBC will have on our local and regional print press, which is already struggling as times change. I do not think we have spoken enough about that this afternoon. I would not like to see those journalists, who work extremely hard, put under even more pressure, when there is a fair playing field at the moment.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

First, Mr Deputy Speaker, I apologise for the fact that I was in another debate and could not be here for this one—I had to withdraw my name to speak. In support of the hon. Gentleman, I want to make a quick plug for BBC Radio Foyle, where 36 staff will lose their jobs. Those are the journalists who have come through the ranks. The move will save £2.3 million, with further redundancies expected. The audience for Radio Foyle is almost half a million per week, which in a Northern Ireland population of some 2 million indicates the critical role it plays. Does he believe that there remains a duty of care to the smaller programmes and the smaller stations, to ensure that local people have a local voice?

Photo of Duncan Baker Duncan Baker Conservative, North Norfolk

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He is absolutely right that it is all about having a local voice and presence. For the constituents of the areas we represent around the country, it is absolutely right that they hear what has been said and re-echoed around the entire Chamber: the importance of that localised service to so many constituents, who want it to continue.

I will sum up by saying that I understand that there is change and that it is even healthy occasionally, but media is a fluid landscape. People consume their information in different ways—that has been incredibly clear over the last couple of years—but there is, and I think there always will be, a very strong case for local radio. It commands an enormous following, as we have said many times, and it is, in many cases, absolutely integral to our local communities. We should not take it for granted, and I hope that the BBC hierarchy does not take it for granted. We should conserve and improve what we have, not rationalise it.

Photo of James Wild James Wild Conservative, North West Norfolk 4:20, 8 December 2022

What more could the House want than a playlist of Norfolk MPs speaking back to back? I join others in congratulating my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning on securing this debate on the BBC’s proposals to cut local radio output. This debate is of great importance to my constituents and those of the Members across the House who have spoken, whose contributions have shown the damage the proposals would do to our communities. This is about the vital issues of local identity, community and companionship.

During the pandemic, we became far more aware of the importance of our local communities, and local radio played a massive role in that, so it is staggering, frankly, that the BBC’s response to that growing sense of community is a plan to remove local content after 2 pm on weekdays and at weekends, apart from live news and sport. Instead, content on BBC Radio Norfolk would be shared across a much wider regional area including Norfolk, Suffolk, Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire—all fine counties, undoubtedly, but how can that content be considered in any way local? On Sundays, after 2 pm, there would be only one national show across all 39 local stations. Which licence-fee payers want that loss of local content?

As I said when I met BBC bosses, I do not believe that the proposals reflect the importance that the 147,000 people reached every week by Radio Norfolk place on listening to its output and having properly localised content. Indeed, my constituents from West Norfolk want to see more content about West Norfolk as opposed to Norwich and Great Yarmouth. That is particularly true of the elderly and people in remote rural areas who rely on the radio for companionship.

Retaining only Chris Goreham’s breakfast show—on which I am always pleased to be interviewed, particularly about my campaign for a new Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn—and the mid-morning show is wholly insufficient. The proposals would lead to the loss of much-loved shows. My hon. Friend Anna Firth referred to Essex Quest, and my hon. Friend Duncan Baker mentioned Treasure Quest, which is a Radio Norfolk institution that shines a light on amazing people, places and events of which people would otherwise be unaware, and it is rightly valued by listeners. But, 15 years after it was first broadcast, Treasure Quest would go under these plans. I made those points to the BBC bosses at the DCMS Committee hearing on these proposals, and they acknowledged that Treasure Quest was a distinctive programme, so I very much hope that they will rethink their plans to scrap it.

The Bishop of Norwich has highlighted the loss of Radio Norfolk’s flagship Sunday morning show with Matthew Gudgin and others, which carries important news, debate, and discussion about and from faith communities. I could go on by listing Stephen Bumfrey, Anna Perrot, the weekend quiz and many more important shows and local content, but I think the point is made.

Of course, people are increasingly going online, and output needs to change to reflect that. I am not arguing against any change, but I encourage the BBC to drop the Aunt Sally argument that it has repeated in correspondence with me—that there will be some who believe that unless every hour of the day comes from each existing local radio base, we will be losing something special. Not everyone is shifting their listening patterns online, so the timing and scale of the cuts in local content are the issue here.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

Like Jim Shannon, I have been in Westminster Hall, so I have missed most of the debate. Is not the fact that this goes beyond the local content and into the availability of well-trained and professional journalists in each community, like those I see regularly for Radio Orkney and Radio Shetland? They are then available to feed into network news or BBC Scotland, not just on radio but on television? If we keep pulling the BBC presence out of local communities, the news content of the networks eventually becomes ever more centralised and metropolitan.

Photo of James Wild James Wild Conservative, North West Norfolk

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. We are fortunate to have such expertise in our local news and local radio stations, as well as the knowledge, passion and love for the area they are reporting on, which mean that they can come at it not only with understanding, but with an impartial eye, which is so important.

The BBC enjoys a privileged position with licence fee income of nearly £4 billion a year. That is why it is under an obligation to provide content that is of particular relevance to the area and communities it serves. Ofcom has an important role to play here. Last month, it warned that the BBC

“must not lose sight of the importance of local content.”

It said it would keep

“a close eye on programme sharing between local radio stations, to ensure the sustained provision of high-quality local content”.

Frankly, that is far too passive, as any action would only come after the event, when the shows have gone and the redundancies have been made. Ofcom needs to act now and look at the operating licences of the BBC.

As my right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale mentioned, Ofcom also has a role to play in preventing the BBC from crowding out commercial providers. In west Norfolk, we are fortunate to benefit from Your Local Paper, the Lynn News, Town & Around, as well as commercial local radio from Radio West Norfolk and KL1. The BBC should not use its guaranteed income—guaranteed for now—to undermine commercial organisations by shifting more resources online. The BBC is there to serve its audience—local people; our constituents—and it needs to engage, listen and respond by changing its proposals to protect more local content. These proposals cannot be the final answer. The BBC needs to think again and Ofcom needs to act according to its duties to protect licence fee-paying listeners. Local radio stations, including Radio Norfolk, are assets that we must protect.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 4:26, 8 December 2022

I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate, and I congratulate Sir Mike Penning on securing and leading it.

The BBC is a great British institution, a cornerstone of our creative economy and an important part of our day-to-day lives. From CBeebies to Bitesize to Radio 4, the BBC has something for everyone, providing round-the-clock news, education, entertainment and culture. It is absolutely right that institutions such as the BBC modernise in an increasingly digital world and keep pace with global media giants, but in doing so, we must protect the traditional yet vital services, such as the excellent local radio network, that make our BBC the world-leading service it is.

Today’s debate has focused on the contribution of local radio across our country. From Easington to Worcester to Wokingham, there is agreement across this House that the BBC should review its decision to end local programming on weekdays after 2 pm and secure the future of the local radio network. Given the importance that local communities place on local BBC radio, and the fact that it is an intrinsic part of what their licence fee goes towards, there is concern that reducing local radio content will drive a wedge between the BBC and the public to its detriment. Indeed, BBC local radio contributes a huge amount to each area it serves, and I certainly know that BBC Radio Sheffield does that in my local area.

Everyone across the Chamber has paid tribute to their local stations, particularly Anna Firth, who did so poignantly. Duncan Baker and others shared the statistic that local radio reaches nearly 6 million people—that is 15% of adults in the UK. First and foremost, it provides truly local news. Although the BBC has provided assurances that local news bulletins and live sport will continue to run under its proposals, the National Union of Journalists has warned that the BBC’s erosion of local output could mark the beginning of the end for local radio. My right hon. Friend John McDonnell, the chair of the NUJ group, outlined its concerns passionately and in detail.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I apologise for not being here; I was in the Westminster Hall debate, too. My hon. Friend might be able to help me with this. BBC management has said that the impact of its proposals would be the loss of 48 roles. However, in the Radio Humberside and Radio Lincolnshire regions alone, it wants to close seven staff presenter roles, plus around five other jobs may go in the planned restructure. That is around 12 jobs across two out of the 39 local radio stations. It may be that our area is being hit particularly hard, but if that is spread across all the areas, that would be a loss of around 200 jobs, would it not?

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and as we have heard in the debate, it is not just Radio Humberside; it is across the country, and I know that colleagues from Northern Ireland have made this case as well.

This is a real concern to local journalists and to listeners, because local radio is such an important part of our lives. Whether it is local traffic updates, school closures or extreme weather events, the provision of trustworthy local news is vital, especially at a time when misinformation is becoming common but hard to spot in a digital world. BBC local radio’s news facilities, for example, provided a lifeline during the pandemic, giving reliable and localised case numbers, guidance and vaccination updates for each individual area.

It is not just “breaking news” bulletins that keep people informed. Regular local programming gives people access to the arts, charities, education and cultural events that are truly relevant to them, helping to ensure that each area remains connected to its past and present. James Wild spoke about some of the programmes in his area. It is precisely that kind of programming that faces the axe under these proposals.

The past few months have also shown us how BBC local radio can contribute to the healthy functioning of our democracy, enabling national leaders to be held to account on local issues and local leaders to be questioned by those they directly represent. Regional and national alternatives to such shows simply will not have the same effect, and once these local opportunities are gone, it will be extremely hard to get them back, as Dean Russell described.

Local radio helps connect those at risk of digital exclusion to their communities. Although many people, and particularly the younger generation, now access a lot of their media online, there still exists a group who cannot access the digital world. Some cannot get a reliable fast connection due to their location; some were never taught the skills to navigate the online world; and others simply cannot afford the price of a phone bill or broadband. For people in that group—particularly older people or those living in rural areas—truly local programming matters, as Sir John Whittingdale described. In a period when loneliness is increasing, now is simply not the time to threaten cutting people off. My hon. Friend Rachael Maskell rightly pointed out that many lonely people turn on the radio for connection and companionship when they are on their own.

Of course, we understand the need to modernise our institutions, as outlined by the BBC in the four pillars it set out yesterday. Over the last 20 years, the media landscape has changed dramatically. Indeed, when the last remit for public service broadcasters such as the BBC was created, it was done through reforms to the Communications Act 2003. Back then, online platforms such as YouTube had not even launched, and nor had devices, such as the iPhone, that brought the internet to our pockets. Now global media giants such as Amazon have become major players, and phones challenge radio and TV for our attention. It is due to these changes that the media Bill must be brought forward as soon as possible, with the obvious exclusion of the privatisation of Channel 4, so that our public service broadcasters can continue to cater for British audiences in the modern world.

In the meantime, the BBC has remained competitive in the digital space through BBC News online, iPlayer, BBC Sounds and more. Although these updates and changes are necessary to capture digital and young audiences, they do not need to come at the expense of traditional services that are still contributing to communities across the country. BBC local radio still has value in today’s society, and that must be taken into account. Andy Carter made that case very strongly.

The News Media Association has warned that the BBC moving its content from radio to online could force competition with local written news from commercial providers, threatening their ability to generate sustainable revenue. The BBC needs to ensure that its modernisation plans continue its tradition of promoting local journalism rather than stifling it. Martin Vickers quoted his local NUJ rep, who articulated that.

We recognise that the BBC, by its very nature, must remain impartial and independent, but that does not stop it from making its decision-making processes transparent, to ensure that its plans help create a BBC that caters for all its audiences. The BBC must be clear with the public on what analysis and consultation it undertook to prompt its decision to restrict local radio services and what assessment it has made of the impact this will have on its listeners.

That is particularly important in the light of Ofcom’s fifth annual report on the BBC, which found that some audiences, such as those in lower socioeconomic groups, have been persistently less satisfied and are less likely to use its services. Like every other organisation, the BBC must be clear on its best practice for managing cuts to its workforce. Local journalists should not be finding out through the media that over 100 audio jobs will be cut, placing their livelihoods at risk overnight just before Christmas.

Local radio has been at the heart of communities for generations, and this debate has highlighted how important it is for so many people up and down the country. I know that many across Barnsley enjoy and rely on Radio Sheffield. We hope the BBC can review its decision to cut local radio and support the network for many years to come.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport 4:34, 8 December 2022

I thank my right hon. Friend Sir Mike Penning for securing the debate and the Backbench Business Committee for supporting it. The BBC is a great national institution that has played a vital role in informing, educating and entertaining audiences since it was created 100 years ago. Its charter requires it to act in the public interest and provide distinctive content that reflects and represents people and communities from all corners of the UK. That includes providing, as we have heard, genuinely local content that is directly relevant to audiences.

As we have heard, local services are a key part of the BBC’s public service remit and an example of how it can use its licence fee funding to provide services that may be underserved by the market. BBC local radio is one of its crown jewels and remains highly valued by audiences. We heard that testimony in the debate when my right hon. Friend Dean Russell talked about BBC Three Counties Radio; my hon. Friend Martin Vickers, my right hon. Friend Mr Davis and Dame Diana Johnson talked about BBC Radio Humberside; and my hon. Friends the Members for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker) and for North West Norfolk (James Wild) talked about BBC Radio Norfolk.

My right hon. Friends the Members for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) and for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) and my hon. Friend Anna Firth talked about BBC Essex; Mr Deputy Speaker and my right hon. Friend Andrew Stephenson even talked about BBC Radio Lancashire—well done to them for getting that in; and the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) talked about BBC Radio Foyle, funnily enough. There are so many pairs there—I am wondering which are the Smashie and Nicey of the House in terms of their DJs.

My right hon. Friend John Redwood talked about BBC Radio Berkshire; my hon. Friend Mr Walker talked about BBC Hereford & Worcester; Rachael Maskell talked about BBC Radio York; Grahame Morris talked about BBC Radio Tees; and Richard Foord talked about BBC Radio Devon. My hon. Friend Andy Carter was greedy and talked about two—BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Manchester. Not surprisingly, Mr Carmichael talked about BBC Radio Orkney and BBC Radio Shetland.

Stephanie Peacock talked about BBC Radio Sheffield. My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester talked about doing the regional round, and I remember talking to Toby Foster in the morning in Sheffield when I was hospitality Minister about the struggle of that sector during covid. I think I still owe him a visit to his comedy club. These things do stick in the mind and we are regularly tested at a local level.

We also heard from John McDonnell about BBC Radio London, which he shares with me and the Media Minister, my hon. Friend Julia Lopez, who is unfortunately in her sick bed with covid so could not respond to the debate. We have great presenters and journalists, such as Susana Mendonça, the great political journalist, and I enjoy sparring energetically and enthusiastically with Eddie Nestor often during drivetime.

As we have heard, there are some fantastic examples that remain highly valued by audiences up and down the country. Those local services bring communities together and play a vital role in reflecting local experiences and delivering local news. Developed in the late 1960s and 1970s, the BBC’s 39 local radio services in England still reach 5.8 million listeners every week and collectively have a higher share than stations including BBC Radio 5 Live and BBC Radio 6 Music, even though coverage on FM and DAB is not universal across England.

As we all know, BBC local radio is especially valued outside London and the south-east, where there tends to be less competition from commercial services. BBC local stations in places such as Derby, Stoke, Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire, Cumbria and Shropshire have a larger audience share and reach than the average for BBC local radio. The Media Minister has already made it clear to the House, in answer to an urgent question a few weeks ago, that she was disappointed—we are all disappointed—that the BBC is planning to reduce its local radio output. These are precisely the kinds of services that the BBC is uniquely well placed to provide.

I was also disappointed that last week, as we have heard, the BBC announced proposed changes to its radio output in Northern Ireland, including cuts to BBC Radio Foyle’s output. BBC Radio Ulster, including Foyle, reaches nearly a third of radio listeners in Northern Ireland and is a vital part of Northern Ireland’s media landscape. Understandably, the BBC’s announcement has caused a significant reaction in Northern Ireland, as we have heard, and I know that it was raised by the hon. Member for Foyle with the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions on 30 November—reaching the highest levels.

We recognise that commercial local news providers have concerns about the potential impact of the BBC’s plans to increase investment in online news services. The charter requires the BBC to consider its market impact, and to seek to avoid unnecessary adverse impacts on competition that are not necessary for the fulfilment of its mission and public purposes. The Government are considering the regulation and governance of the BBC’s market impact as part of the mid-term review—my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South raised this issue—and we will obviously bring that back to this place as soon as we can. Ofcom is also reviewing the BBC’s online news proposals, including an assessment of the concerns raised by the News Media Association and the BBC’s own analysis.

We cannot ignore the considerable concerns that have been raised in response to the BBC’s recent announcement —not just today, but in recent weeks. Since the BBC’s announcement, my hon. Friend the Media Minister has met the BBC’s leadership, and she has expressed our shared concerns in this House. She made it clear that the BBC must continue to provide distinctive and genuinely local radio services, with content that represents communities from all corners of the UK. She also emphasised that we expect it to consider the views of this House when it makes the decision about whether to proceed.

The Prime Minister also committed in this House to raising the changes to BBC services in Northern Ireland with the BBC. The Prime Minister has since himself met the director-general of the BBC, and they discussed the proposed changes to BBC Radio Foyle and the importance of the BBC considering the views of stake- holders when deciding whether to proceed. The Secretary of State wrote to the BBC earlier this week to remind it of its responsibilities under the charter, including the importance of transparency about changes to services.

Last week, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee held an evidence session with the BBC on its planned changes to local radio, and I welcome the important role that the Committee plays in ensuring that the BBC is accountable for its decision making.

Photo of Grahame Morris Grahame Morris Labour, Easington

Would the Minister clarify what the current position is with Ofcom? My understanding is that the Media Minister was going to seek Ofcom putting pressure on the BBC in respecting its obligations under the terms of the charter.

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

Indeed, and the Media Minister was actually due to meet Ofcom this morning, I believe, but unfortunately that obviously changed because of her illness. However, she will continue to work with Ofcom to make sure that the greatest pressure is brought to bear on this.

Separately, we have asked the BBC for advice on how it would manage a major local incident—we have heard a lot about flooding today, for example—that requires a dedicated rolling news service, given the BBC’s important responsibilities under the charter and agreement to support emergency broadcasting. The latter is really important. At its best, for example during covid, BBC local radio is able to bring communities together. It plays a vital role in reflecting local experiences and delivering local news. It is a lifeline, as we have heard, for many older people living in rural areas, and it is a source of reliable information in emergencies, which is part of its public value.

The Secretary of State also raised the BBC’s proposals with Ofcom last month, and it has confirmed that it is monitoring the BBC’s local radio proposals in England. In particular, it will scrutinise the BBC’s detailed plans for sharing programming on local radio. Ofcom has made it clear that it expects the BBC to continue to deliver for all audiences as it transitions to a digital-first organisation, and will hold it to account in areas where it needs to do more. As I say, we will continue those discussions with Ofcom to make sure that happens.

I want to take this opportunity to stress that the BBC is, rightly, operationally and editorially independent from the Government, and decisions on service delivery are ultimately a matter for it. The BBC agrees with the Government on the need for the organisation to reform over the coming years, and recognises that there will be challenges as the BBC moves towards becoming a digital-first organisation and that those reforms will involve difficult decisions.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

I held something back from my speech because I wanted to put it specifically to the Minister. If the BBC were to put the question I suggested to local radio about making its own reforms, would the Minister and the Department step in if it was to build new partnerships, perhaps with universities and other community groups, to strengthen the local position of the BBC and to have further reach but also greater capacity for the future?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

The hon. Lady raises an interesting point, but I would not want to put words in the Media Minister’s mouth. I will certainly make sure that she reflects on that, because I do not want to be treading on her toes or to make her decision. I know she will have heard that. I am sure she will be flicking over from BBC Radio London, on her sickbed, to the Parliament channel to hear what is discussed today, so she will have heard what the hon. Lady said.

The Government welcome the BBC’s plans, as part of the reforms, to maintain its overall investment in local services, and that includes £19 million from broadcast services being moved to online and multimedia production to adapt to audience changes. The BBC has also confirmed that it is protecting local news bulletins throughout the day and local live sport and community programming across all 39 stations. There will be fully local programming between 6 am and 2 pm, with neighbouring or regional sharing in most of the remaining listening hours. We have heard the difficulties that Members have with that regional sharing. In Northern Ireland, we understand that the changes will result in local investment in BBC iPlayer, which in itself is to be welcomed. But the recent announcements do appear to fundamentally change important BBC local services, particularly BBC local radio, which is an essential part of the public service remit.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

I heard what the Minister said about weekday services. The point I made earlier was that, on many stations, the peak of the week is Sunday morning, which is a fundamentally important point for audiences, yet that is when local radio is being shared and regionalised. Does he accept that that is a point in the audience day when local radio should be local?

Photo of Paul Scully Paul Scully The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I totally agree. My hon. Friend has a background in radio and speaks with great experience. The BBC should not be salami-slicing its services. It should be responsive to local need, and that includes looking at the peak times my hon. Friend describes.

We all agree the BBC has been entertaining and informing us for 100 years. We want the BBC to continue to succeed over the next century in a rapidly evolving media landscape and we are clear that BBC radio has a significant role to play in that success. In the light of the concerns raised in the debate, the BBC needs to clarify itself how it is going to manage those long-term tensions between modernising and becoming more sustainable while also maintaining its core public service function and output. I recognise that the BBC faces difficult decisions in reforming its services and becoming the digital-first organisation it seeks, but the debate has highlighted concerns shared across the House about the BBC’s proposals to reduce its local radio output.

I stress again that the BBC is independent from the Government, but it is now for the BBC to reflect on the concerns raised in the debate and elsewhere on its proposals. It must also clarify whether it has other plans to change local radio services in future, particularly in Scotland and Wales.

The Government are undertaking a mid-term review, as I said earlier, which will evaluate how the BBC and Ofcom assess the market impact and public value of the BBC in an evolving marketplace and how that relates to the wider UK media ecology, including with regard to commercial radio and local news sectors. That will take regard of the views of this House and the review is ongoing.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

Words, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank colleagues for giving up their time on a Thursday afternoon on a one-line Whip and that must send a message to the BBC.

Anybody from our constituencies who was listening to this will be very confused because there is not one plan from the BBC for this. There seems to be a mixture of plans. Our area, covered by Three Counties Radio, will lose its local at 2 o’clock. Some will lose it at 6 o’clock. Some will lose it at weekends. Some will lose it altogether, such as in Foyle. I agree with my right hon. Friend Sir John Whittingdale, the former Secretary of State—it is botched. It is completely botched and I am petrified that, once it is gone, it is gone.

As many colleagues will remember, in my constituency, we had the largest explosion and fire since the second world war. When all the BBC national and the international crews disappeared, Three Counties Radio was still there for my constituents. People were out of their homes for over a year in some cases. Some businesses never recovered. BBC local radio was there. Some of those reporters and the teams behind them—the NUJ has done a fantastic job for the journalists, but some of the members of the teams behind them are not NUJ members and we must not forget them—are award-winning.

When Justin Dealey comes on the radio in my constituency, people will listen to him because they trust him. They listen to Roberto—they will do so this evening—and they listen to the morning show. Why do they listen so much? It is not just the older generation who listen: mums listen because they worry about whether their kids are going to go to school. As I said earlier, that is the link with the community. Yes, there are other mediums, but this is such low-hanging fruit and such a small amount of money that the BBC is trying to take out of local radio. And as for telling people they are going to lose their jobs—I agree with Dame Diana Johnson: the sums do not add up. From what I hear in my part of the world, the sums of the BBC do not add up. Do we trust the BBC nationally? The public do not, but they do trust local radio.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered the future of BBC Local Radio.