HC Deb 06 February 1981 vol 998 cc575-82

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Berry.]

2.37 pm
Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)

I am particularly glad to have this opportunity to draw attention to the case for community radio, and I think it appropriate that I should do so, because I have no less than one-third of the currently operating community radio stations serving my constituency.

There are now six licensed stations broadcasting on cable to the local communities. The first of these was Radio Thamesmead, which began life in my constituency as Thamesmead Insound in 1978. The most recent new station is Greenwich Sound which started broadcasting in 1980. Both these stations broadcast mainly to my constituents. The fact that I have two novel radio stations in my constituency is due to a geographical accident. Much of the low-lying area along the Thames has traditionally been a poor television reception area. This led to the growth of cable television systems and it is those cables that now carry the community radio broadcasts.

It is particularly relevant that the concept of community broadcasting should have begun in Thamesmead. That is a vast new town development which, when complete, will provide homes for 40,000 people drawn from all parts of London. Creating a sense of community and a sense of common purpose is difficult in an area isolated from the rest of London and still with few of the basic amenities which established towns take for granted.

Radio Thamesmead has, over the past three years, played a vital role in helping newcomers to settle in. It has also aimed at developing a sense of belonging to something more than a giant housing estate.

Greenwich Sound serves the more established communities of Abbey Wood, Plumstead, Woolwich and Charlton, but it too has succeeded in a short space of time in becoming an important part of the local scene. Both stations use established London local radio as their sheet anchor. Radio Thamesmead relays BBC Radio London programmes, opting out for some 35 hours a week for entirely community based broadcasting. Greenwich Sound depends on Capital Radio for its base, interrupting it for some 49 hours a week of locally produced programmes.

The case for community radio rests on two basic principles. The first is that it can provide genuinely local news coverage and the second offers an opportunity for the community to widen the scope of its own activities. However good the programmes of the London-wide local radio stations, both BBC and independent, they cannot hope to meet the demand for parish pump news coverage on which so many local London newspapers have been built.

My constituents in Plumstead are not widely excited about events in Hampstead, Hillingdon or Hackney. What interests them are the goings-on in the immediate neighbourhood. Community radio can meet that need by homing in on news stories of concern to only a few hundred people. In doing so they can only raise the level of community interest, knowledge and activity.

It is plain that community radio is not professional broadcasters talking to the rest of the population, but the community broadcasting to itself. That is certainly true of the two stations serving my constituency. Not only do they provide access for people to broadcast who would not otherwise have a chance in the high-powered professional networks. They are run and operated by teams of volunteers, mostly young people, who ensure that the radio stations are fully involved in and are part of community life.

Radio Thamesmead has pioneered training schemes for the young unemployed, run in conjunction with the Manpower Services Commission. It has taken a campaigning lead on the issue of flood warnings and protection. That is a very real issue for thousands of people living below the Thames flood level in a site right alongside the river. The station's key role in the actual mechanics of flood warning has now been accepted and welcomed by all the authorities involved. Radio Thamesmead has also provided English language lessons for Vietnamese refugees resettled in its area.

Although it is much younger, Greenwich Sound has carved out a place for itself in the lives of local people. It, too, runs a scheme for jobless youngsters and is developing a project to help the old and lonely with repairs and decoration in their homes. It has raised funds to buy and renovate an old double decker bus to provide travel for the very young and for the elderly.

All the available evidence suggests that both stations are now widely supported by local people. A survey carried out in the summer of 1980 suggested that Radio. Thamesmead was only marginally behind Capital Radio as the most popular radio station for Thamesmead residents. It is worth pointing out that BBC Radio 1 and Radio 2 were well behind in third and fourth places.

Greenwich Sound has the support of a wide range of local bodies, including the borough council, the citizens' advice bureau and the Greenwich community council. It has recently launched a public petition, which is attracting new signatures at a rate of a thousand a week.

Successful though both stations have so far been, there is no doubt that they are currently being held back by their dependence on a cable system. Many interested people simply cannot take part because the cable is not connected to their homes. Almost all the local advertisers are unable to hear their adverts being broadcast. That is a serious problem. Greenwich Sound, in particular, would be able to treble or to quadruple its existing audience if it was allowed to broadcast over the air in the normal way.

That is why some of the existing six stations, including Thamesmead and Greenwich, have asked for an experimental period of 12 months to prove that they can meet a real need and provide a good service as fully-fledged over-the-air radio stations.

No one could accuse the Home Office, faced with this interesting and exciting development, of being encouraging. The third report of its working party on local radio, published last December, threw a great deal of cold water over the whole idea of community radio. It suggested, for example, that the demand came not from the community itself but from those who wanted to broadcast. This totally ignores the fact that the broadcasters are an essential part of the community and not something alien to it.

The report trotted out the familiar objections to allowing an experiment. First, it said that there would be problems over finding sufficient frequencies. In fact, the community stations would be broadcasting on such low power over such short distances that it would be perfectly possible to provide VHF frequencies for them without causing any interference to anyone else. The two stations in my constituency have already come to an agreement that they would share a transmitter and a frequency if this experiment was allowed to go ahead.

Then the Home Office report pointed to the absence of any regulatory or supervisory system to control the operation of community radio if it were allowed access to VHF frequencies. It is, I think, typical of the official mind that such priority should be given to regulation and control and that this should be regarded as a valid reason for holding back those who are anxious to have a go in the interests of their community.

But in fact the stations are currently supervised by the Home Office, which has to approve schedules four weeks in advance. The stations must observe strict impartiality and maintain proper and reasonable standards of decency. The advertisements that they carry are covered by the IBA code of conduct. Since the Home Office is already supervising the existing community stations in this way, I cannot see why there should be any difficulty in continuing that arrangement if the broadcasts move from cable to over-the-air. There cannot be any increased involvement of staff or resources, as far as the Home Office is concerned, to continue that arrangement during a 12-month experiment.

Clearly, if the experiment proves to be successful, thought will have to be given to devising a new regulatory structure for a kind of broadcasting which logically falls under neither the BBC nor the IBA. But it would surely be a terrible waste of time and effort to construct such a structure, to appoint committees, consultative councils, advisory bodies and the rest, with all the other paraphernalia, until we know whether it will be needed and whether the system will be successful.

There have been some signs in recent weeks that the Government may be relaxing their previously wooden attitude towards the concept of community radio. Lord Belstead, who is the Minister responsible in the Home Office, has suggested that he might consider the idea of allowing an experiment in off-air broadcasting. I understand that his decision will be based on the evidence of public support and demand in each area.

I hope that I have said enough today to show that both Radio Thamesmead and Greenwich Sound are willing and, indeed, eager to be judged on just that basis. If, despite all the evidence, there is any lingering doubt in the minds of the Home Office or Ministers about the extent of community support for these two stations, I suggest that the Minister should come and see for himself. I am sure that the volunteers would be only too pleased to show what they are doing at both stations. I know that representatives of the local communities would be very willing indeed to confirm their support for their own local community radio stations.

I suspect that it is mildly reassuring for any Minister in this Government to be asked to approve a communitybased project which costs his Department nothing. I can assure the Minister that to allow a community radio experiment of this type will add not one penny to the public sector borrowing requirement. Both the stations in my constituency, resting, as they do, largely on voluntary manpower, can get by on the basis of their existing support and advertising revenue, although clearly the latter will be improved with the large audience that off-air broadcasting will bring.

I repeat that all that I and my constituents seek is a limited experiment for a 12-month period. That, in my view, is an extraordinarily modest request. I urge the Minister to throw away the regulation Home Office wet blanket that is always used to suppress anything new and exciting, particularly when it is associated with young people. This is something different and it can do nothing but good, both for those who broadcast and for those who listen. It deserves a fair trial, and I hope that it will be given just that.

2.52 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I do not intend to wield the Home Office wet blanket, with which the hon. Member for Woolwich, East (Mr. Cartwright) claims to be familiar, but which I in my short period at the Home Office have yet to encounter. Rather, I congratulate the hon. Member on raising this matter on the Adjournment. I am most grateful to him.

Community radio is a subject of current interest. Some of the issues that it raises have been discussed in the report of the Home Office local radio working party to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The issues are not entirely simple. A study of that report and of its predecessors indicates that some difficult issues need to be resolved.

I acknowledge, of coure, that a difficult task lies with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has responsibility for implementing the Wireless Telegraphy Acts. But we are entitled to take a certain amount of credit for the fact that the administration of broadcasting in this country bears favourable comparison with that of most other countries, so the practice of giving cautious consideration to new developments is one that past experience probably justifies.

I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman has a special knowledge of these matters, because he has two out of the six licensed cable networks within his constituency.

Community radio is a term that sometimes has different meanings, but in this context I think that we are talking primarily—the hon. Gentleman said "exclusively"—about small low-powered broadcasting rather than cable stations serving a limited geographical area with a recognisable community identity, financed and run by the community itself and operating essentially outside our existing broadcasting system. Many supporters of community radio believe that community radio stations could fulfil a need that cannot be met by BBC and IBA local radio stations, in part because their may be a lower limit on the size of BBC and IBA stations.

Of course—I say that, because we expect it of him—the hon. Gentleman has put very well many of the arguments in favour of community radio broadcasting stations. But he will recognise that the case for such stations cannot be considered in isolation from the existing arrangements for broadcasting in the United Kingdom and, in particular, the plans for the development of new BBC and IBA local radio services. It may be helpful if I describe these in some detail.

All broadcasting stations in the United Kingdom using freely radiating transmitters must be licensed by the Home Secretary under the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949. Since the earliest days of broadcasting, successive Governments have used their power to regulate the use of frequencies to secure that broadcasting is conducted only for the purpose of providing public services and only by public authorities set up specifically for the purpose. Hence, only the BBC and the IBA are licensed to broadcast over the air. Their governing bodies are appointed as trustees of the public interest in broadcasting and are accountable to Parliament for the services that they provide.

One of the success stories in public services broadcasting in recent years has been local radio, and the Government fully support its further expansion throughout the United Kingdom. The task of preparing proposals for the further development of local radio lies with the Home Office local radio working party. Following the working party's first two reports, approval was given to another 35 BBC and IBA local radio services. The working party's third report, published in December, contains further proposals which, if approved, would bring the total number of BBC local radio services in England to 38 and the total number of ILR services in the United Kingdom as a whole to 69. The report also describes BBC proposals for additional localised services in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, though these would depend on the introduction of new VHF networks, which is a matter for separate consideration by the Government.

The expansion of local radio represents a substantial undertaking. Together, the BBC's and IBA's plans set out in the working party's third report would, when implemented, bring a local radio service, or a localised service, to the vast majority of the population in the United Kingdom. Both services would be available in major areas of population.

That is the situation in respect of over-the-air broadcasting, but a number of locally originated sound services are already available over cable. These include the local community sound and television experiments which have been licensed over cable systems. As the hon. Gentleman said, my right hon. Friend is the broadcasting authority for the two in his constituency.

As I have mentioned, six local community cable sound experiments are now operating, and a seventh has been provisionally authorised. Exceptionally, because they are both few and experimental and because there is no other authority to whom, without new legislation, this function could be given, the Home office has taken a supervisory role in relation to programme content. The experiments are intended to test whether there is a public demand for locally initiated services and, if so, whether the public are prepared to pay for them.

We want to know the scale and extent of local demands and wish to take that into account with all the other relevant considerations when the time comes to make decisions. It is against this background that the working party has explored, in a preliminary way, some of the issues involved in community radio. It noted the public discussion that has already taken place, stimulated by groups such as the community communications group, and the various approaches made to the Home Office by organisations seeking permission to set up some form of local radio service. These include the two experimental services within the hon. Gentleman's constituency—Radio Thamesmead and Greenwich Sound. The working party concludes that the extent of public support for community radio could be established only in the light of further experience not limited to cable.

The working party also notes that there would be important decisions of broadcasting policy to be taken if community radio were to be pursued and that there are also substantial problems of resources both inside and outside Government. Because these are fundamental to the question of community radio development, I think that it would help if I summarised, some of the resource considerations put forward by the working party.

I do not think that it would be right to conclude, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, that no resources are involved. First, there is the question of frequencies. Initial studies by the working party suggest that there may be limited scope for a small number of very low-power stations within the existing broadcasting frequency spectrum. But the availability, limited as it is to begin with, might be least where the demand was greatest, for example in London, and because the community stations would share the frequencies with BBC and IBA stations strict technical control would be required.

The other approach examined by the working party would be to set aside separate frequencies for community radio. The working party suggests that this might be inflexible, in that the frequencies might be insufficient in some areas and under-utilised in others. But the main problem is that the limited amount of additional VHF spectrum which will become available in the next three to four years will be required for new local radio services if local radio is to continue to expand. I am speaking of BBC and IBA. It will probably be the end of the decade before further VHF spectrum becomes available. That is quite a problem.

Secondly there is the question of a regulatory framework. The working party believes that there is general agreement that some form of supervision, going beyond the setting of technical standards, would be required, and that if community radio were to be a permanent element of broadcasting in the United Kingdom there would be a need for a supervisory body to perform a number of functions. It would need to decide between competing applicants to provide community radio services in areas where there are more applicants than frequencies. That is an important point. The hon. Gentleman said that it was typical of the Civil Service mind to pour cold water over the idea that anything like this connected with youngsters could possibly be allowed to develop without some regulatory framework. That is not fair.

Mr. Cartwright

I did not suggest that. I asked—why make the first priority the devising of a regulatory structure? We should wait until we have carried out the experiment and know whether the regulatory structure is necessary. We may find that the experiment falls flat on its face, and there will be no need for regulation. Surely it would be sensible to have the experiment first and then, in the light of that, devise a regulatory system.

Mr. Mayhew

The hon. Gentleman referred to a letter from my noble Friend in which he said that, when the consultation period for the working party report expires, the possibility of an experiment will be considered. That was the effect of that passage of the letter. There is a need for a regulatory framework. It is not simply a question of one applicant to serve a certain area. There may be several applicants. There will be great feelings of grievance if there is no observably fair means by which frequencies and franchises can be allocated.

That is an important point because we have never regarded the right to use limited frequencies available for broadcasting as one to be parcelled out to people who might have an interest in broadcasting. The function of deciding who should broadcast has been invested in publicly accountable authorities. It is not a function which sits comfortably in the lap of the Government, given our view that broadcasters should be independent of the Government, especially in relation to programme content. I do not think that the officials are anxious to continue, still less expand, the jurisdiction that they have temporarily and experimentally taken over for cable broadcasting.

The supervisory body would need to ensure that such programme objectives as might be set for community radio services—for example, due impartiality in the treatment of controversial matters—were being pursued. It would need also to ensure that any programme standards which were applied were adhered to. It is not clear who that body might be, but whether it is a new body or an existing body additional resources will have to be found.

The working party raises the possibility of experiments. They would enable public demand to be tested, and would provide practical experience on which community radio services might eventually be built. But the working party took the view that we should not embark on experiments until some general agreement about the need for them, the broad framework within which they might operate, and their implications in the longer term, had been established.

The working party considered that if the Government wished to pursue the possibility of community radio, further thought should be given to what might be a suitable regulatory framework, and that some indication of public reactions to the issues discussed in the report might be useful.

The resources that the development and supervision of community radio would require could be found—certainly if it were envisaged that the Home Office should take that on—only at the expense of some other activity. I need hardly say that, given current economic constraints, it is questionable whether community radio should be accorded priority, unless it is clear that there is a public demand and that the resources can be found.

We should not lose sight of the fact that many other developments in broadcasting are taking place in both radio and television—developments that will significantly increase the range of services available to the public and the demands on the resources of the existing broadcasting authorities and, indeed, the Home Office. For our part, the Government remain of the view that any community radio services that might be developed would have to be self-financing.

It is also argued that before any decisions are taken the public should be given a chance to comment on the issues that community radio raises. That is one reason why, when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced publication of the local radio working party third report in December, he also invited comments on it by 30 April. In that context, I have on his behalf taken careful note of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. They will be studied in the right quarter. I shall certainly ensure that they are taken into account.

The debate has given a valuable airing to the issues raised in the working party's report. It is plainly a matter of importance. I take the point that the hon. Gentleman makes about the need to develop a sense of community, particularly in areas of new housing estates. I heed what he says about: the effect of Radio Thamesmead and Greenwich Sound on knitting together the enormous new population that is building up in his constituency. We must look carefully at all those matters. I conclude by assuring the hon. Gentleman that the points that he has raised will be taken carefully into account.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Three o'clock.