Previous SectionIndexHome Page

13 Mar 2001 : Column 194WH

Community Radio

11 am

Mr. Ian Stewart (Eccles): I am pleased to be able to raise this important issue in this Chamber today. The Government should be congratulated on the recent White Paper, which allows the profile and importance of community media in general and community radio specifically to be raised in the House. Community media include community radio, television and internet networks.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) and for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) played a central role in establishing the new all-party community media group. I was honoured to be elected its founding chairman. The group was established to support community radio and other forms of community media. It is working closely with the Community Media Association, which set out many relevant issues in its recently published commedia manifesto and groups together community-based radio, television and internet projects from throughout the United Kingdom.

I shall talk mainly about community radio, its relevance nationally and its importance for my constituency of Eccles in the city of Salford. Unfortunately, we hear all too often in this House about elderly citizens and other members of communities who are afraid to go out of their homes after dark and rarely have an opportunity to talk to one another. I want to highlight the fact that that is especially true in areas of high social deprivation. I shall talk about what community radio is; its relevance to people who live in alienating circumstances; the role that it can play in, for example, area regeneration strategies and the development of local democracy; and, most important, how real people in local communities and interest groups can use it as a tool for social dialogue and much needed fun.

What is community radio? It is community-owned, grass-roots broadcasting. It is not for profit and is derived from the community's needs. It is also about real people from real communities making radio, communicating with one another and gaining all the benefits and skills involved in that interaction. It is clear that existing public service and commercial radio have a community element. I welcome that and believe that it should be maintained. Why, then, do we need community radio?

When I explained the idea behind it to residents of Eccles last weekend, I started by asking them, "What, if anything, does radio say about your place?" The response was gloomy to say the least. They told me that they never heard anything about their constituency, which includes the towns of Eccles, Swinton, Pendlebury, Cadishead and Irlam. On the rare occasion that they hear anything about their city, the news is generally about drugs, crime and stolen cars, which are problems across the UK.

How can community radio help a place to address its self-image and recreate the social glue that was lost in the destruction of some of the most important informal

13 Mar 2001 : Column 195WH

social networks--the workplace and family? Those are big issues but, in my experience, it is rare that we get an in-depth dialogue in the mainstream media to enable local people to address those and other important issues in a balanced way. Nor has adequate time been given to develop continuing community involvement in the resolution of such serious issues. In addition, there has clearly not been enough emphasis in the media on the positive developments in our communities. Community radio could help put that social glue back in place and facilitate a dialogue on issues that affect people's everyday lives by putting local people on air and addressing local issues, while giving them the opportunity to entertain themselves.

The big commercial radio stations in the large conurbations do not and, in my opinion, cannot adequately address local issues. They might have a news service, but it is mainly sensation-driven and certainly does not cover enough good news. We must applaud the success and quality of our mainstream public and commercial radio stations, but we must also recognise their inherent limitations. We need to give local people the tools to rebalance the local agenda and enable communities to rebuild some self-esteem. Community radio has an important role to play in that process by developing local solidarity and enabling people to realise that their concerns are shared.

Radio Regen is a unique community development charity that uses radio to boost the capacity of disadvantaged communities to help themselves. It works with residents from client areas to give them the skills that they need to establish and run community radio stations. Radio Regen is supported and funded by Manchester city council. The funds come mainly from the European social fund, with additional money from the single regeneration budget and the further education sector. It employs 12 people and has become in its own right a significant small to medium-sized enterprise in the cultural sector. To date, it has helped to develop four fledgling community radio stations in the Manchester area and to train young and not-so-young people to gain a level of confidence in communicating with others that was previously believed to be impossible.

Phil Korbel, a former BBC producer, runs Radio Regen and he says that it is now in the business of helping people to transform themselves. Phil believes that there is no better affordable or accessible interactive medium that enables and encourages personal development. It is clear that community radio has the capacity to be an important medium for such transformation and development. To put it another way, involvement in community radio helps to transform people. If people are transformed, communities are transformed, too. That is why community radio needs a higher profile and level of support.

My city, Salford, has a well-established community strategy, which has anticipated the Local Government Act 2000 requirement for decision making to be carried out at the most local level possible. The city has established nine community committees that administer small, devolved budgets. An integral part of the Salford community strategy is the establishment of an exciting scheme for public access to informing, communicating and enabling technologies, through the city's on-line

13 Mar 2001 : Column 196WH

portal. Salford aims to deliver the Government's targets for electronic government two years earlier than the national timetable.

The community-enabling philosophy has a clear synergy with the work of Radio Regen. As part of Salford city's community strategy, Radio Regen is about to launch a three-year city-wide project funded under Salford's single regeneration budget 5 programme to engage the city's nine community service areas in community radio. A sensitising approach will be adopted; there will be weekend broadcasting in each area to get the ball rolling. Salford will be ready with a pool of skilled people, which will enable a bid for long community radio licences when they become available.

The programme will involve three or four months of workshop activity on the ground in each area. It will not be institutionalised or institution-based. Regen trainers will work with groups who wish to make programmes on the streets, in the back rooms of pubs and even in the front rooms of people's houses. People who with just a laptop computer and a minidisc recorder will be able to make any programme live and on the spot. The choice of subject for any programme--whether it is tiddlywinks, how to combat heroin addiction on an estate or the celebration of the oldest resident's life story--will be a decision for local people.

The city of Salford's youth consultative committee has recognised that the Radio Regen model lends itself to joined-up work between complementary projects. In Salford, the health action zone, led by Edna Robinson, has established an innovative project to train young people to become mentors for their peers. Those in the Salford health action zone are convinced of the contribution that community radio makes to the well-being of a place. That is a health issue; if people feel better about the place in which they live, they will feel better about themselves. That will reflect on their health and impact on their confidence in applying for jobs or accessing services.

Salford health action zone is putting its money into the solution. It has funded some of the development work carried out by Radio Regen, including an enormously successful awareness-raising reception at the House of Commons that was attended by many hon. Members, peers and my hon. Friend the Minister. That reception generated my interest in the establishment of the parliamentary group of which I am the chairman.

In terms of resources, it is vital that the access radio fund in the White Paper does not merely provide seedcorn funding for buying a mixing desk for a station. It must provide sustained funding for the running of a station and its broad activities. The running costs of a station are not great, but there must be sustained resources. Community radio and television should be supported by a substantial community media fund. The fund should draw on new money, and not just money already accessed by community media from current funding sources.

Will the Minister consider allocating the revenue that has accrued to the Treasury from the cash bids and qualifying revenue paid by radio and television licensees? Alternatively, a small proportion of the money that has come to the Treasury from the sale of mobile phone licences could be allocated. Whichever mechanism of funding is used, however, editorial independence must be ensured.

13 Mar 2001 : Column 197WH

The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East is normally portrayed in the media as having the largest council estate in Europe, the No. 1 ward in the UK deprivation list and, of course, all the resultant social problems. My hon. Friend was keen to participate in this debate, but, unfortunately, he has urgent business elsewhere in the House. I also know that he wanted to stress his strongly held belief that Wythenshawe FM community radio is helping people to change the place in which they live. In turn, that changes the public's perception of Wythenshawe. I am also aware that my hon. Friend has written to the Minister declaring his support for Wythenshawe FM to be considered as one of the pilot stations for long licence.

Wythenshawe FM is supported by local businesses such as Manchester international airport, Willow Park housing trust and the local Co-op. In its proposals for access radio, the Radio Authority has said that it would endorse support from business in the form of sponsorship. However, the authority suggests that community radio should not be allowed to carry advertisements. That is unduly restrictive. Some people in the world of commercial radio are worried about unfair competition, but I can find no evidence that there would be any adverse impact. In fact, in the past 10 years, more than 2,500 short-term restricted service licences have been issued that allow advertising, while commercial radio revenues have been the fastest-growing advertising medium in the United Kingdom. The all-party group will no doubt wish to consider that issue in the future.

What is the demand for community radio on the ground? We know that, when they get the bug, there is demand from the public. A straw poll found 65 per cent. brand recognition for Radio Moston FM, the first commercial radio station established by Radio Regen. Also, regeneration agencies are crying out for effective communication of their initiatives because they find that they are unable successively to communicate what they are doing to the public. "No one tells us," say the residents. The agencies would welcome the opportunity to explain their work on air.

I would like the Minister to name the first pilots and to make available funding from central Government. She must be politically brave and choose a programme that has a diverse mix of target communities, so that we can examine models for a multi-ethnic community, a large council estate, a hill farming community, a former coalfield community and even one for Northern Ireland, should the communities there so wish.

In determining the pilots, transparent benchmarks should be established that might include track record, both in production and project management. The pilots should also be able to demonstrate an active relationship with a broad range of partners and meet all the criteria in the community media charter drawn up by the Community Media Association.

I hope that, in the not too distant future, we will see the establishment of Eccles Energi FM as part of the city of Salford's project. However, my main interest is in how community radio can help to further individuals' confidence and self-esteem and transform local people into local heroes who change their communities for

13 Mar 2001 : Column 198WH

good. My good friend the hon. Member for Manchester, Central has been deeply involved in the work of Radio Regen. I am sure that he will tell us the story of the real local heroes who are a testament to Radio Regen's work and the benefits of community radio.

11.19 am

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I congratulate the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) and securing the debate. I am a last-minute substitute, because my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker), who was supposed to be speaking today, is unable to attend.

I wish to put the issue into context. We must examine digital broadcasting in its broadest sense. The majority of people are still using four to five terrestrial television channels and, to many of them, nothing much seems to have changed. However, it has, because one in five households now have access to digital television. In recent years, the number of channels has multiplied massively and while many households still have the option of only four or five channels, a significant number can choose from hundreds of television channels that fit into many different genres, such as films, documentaries, news, music and children's television, to name but a handful. There are also local television channels on many cable networks.

We are facing an enormous challenge. There is also a big opportunity for the BBC and long-standing commercial broadcasters. They will be in on the game and we must find ways in which to protect the little guys, so that they have a chance to become involved. Digital technology will bring three key benefits. First, the spectrum will be freed up, thus making space for extra channels and services. Secondly, digital signals carry a higher quality of picture and sound than analogue signals, which have been around since the 1930s. Thirdly, as digital signal uses the spectrum more efficiently, it enables the number and range of services to be increased significantly. That holds out the possibility of allowing individuals to receive regional programmes that are specific to their region where that is currently not the case. That is a step in the right direction.

The Government are ambitious for digital television. Between 2006 and 2010, they want to switch off the analogue transmitters, which send signals to non-digital television. However, before that can be done, some goals must be met; 99.4 per cent. of households must be able to receive the digital signal and 95 per cent. of households must have signed up to digital, which must be affordable to all. I have been approached by pensioners who are worried about the matter. We broadly support the Government's approach, but we want to ensure that people are not disadvantaged.

Radio is sharing in the revolution. Digital technology offers radio listeners the prospect of the same interference-free reception that digital television viewers are experiencing. The pace of technological change is fast and accelerating. Viewers can now buy machines that suggest programmes to watch based on their favourite television programmes. It would be interesting if that could happen with radio programmes. Research shows that viewers are happy to have programmes suggested to them, although I think that that is a terrible idea.

Television and radio are essential components of modern democracy and a modern civilised society. They are key methods by which we can all be educated,

13 Mar 2001 : Column 199WH

entertained and informed. The big plus of community-based radio is that the elderly, the housebound, the unemployed and the sick have a vital link to the outside world. It is also said that the best pictures are available on radio. The broadcasting of quality material adds colour to life.

Mr. Ian Stewart : Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important that the all-party group discusses the area to which she refers--particularly from the point of view of whether analogue should be completely removed--in relation to the potential for pay-per-listen on digital radio?

Sandra Gidley : Yes. We need a framework by which we can encourage television and radio to flourish. We want to facilitate new entrants into the marketplace, cultivate independent production and encourage diversity.

I turn now to how the Liberal Democrat party sees the way forward for community radio. The radio regulator must issue local radio licences according to particular criteria. The first of those is the resources available to the broadcaster to invest in programming, and the second is the extent of demand in the local area for the proposed services. A fine balancing act must be achieved. Demand may be small for output that is highly important to a small, isolated group of people, and the criteria used to decide whether to issue a community-based licence must take into account factors such as social deprivation. Small, isolated groups have the greatest need and will benefit the most from community radio.

Given the continuing scarcity of spectrum, criteria must be applied to judge aspiring radio stations against existing radio stations that want to reapply for a licence. Although we must encourage diversity, we need to protect the airwaves from organisations of questionable public benefit.

To take a slightly different tack, I should like to discuss religious broadcasting. Many church groups would like to listen to output that supports and encourages their faith. As someone who does not belong to a church group, I find it shameful that they are discriminated against, especially as those with a porn empire can happily access any licences that they choose. The position of religious broadcasting should be considered, especially in a local context. Churches often work with people who are disadvantaged or who cannot always get out and about, and such people would benefit greatly from access to such organisations.

A case can be made for a small amount to be set aside from a variety of non-tax sources such as the national lottery to establish a fund for radio, which could be used to cover the start-up costs of radio stations or some non-recurrent costs. It was suggested earlier that continuing costs should be included. Setting people on the road is fine, but we must consider the cost of advertising, and advertising funding may not be available. If broadcasting stations were allowed to advertise, they would not need to apply to the public purse to cover continuing costs.

In some cases, a small group of people may be serviced by community-based radio, and the benefits to that small group, which may include handicapped people or members of an ethnic minority, may be far

13 Mar 2001 : Column 200WH

outweighed by the ability to attract advertising. Such groups should be encouraged and considered sympathetically.

In some cases, spectrum is available to small geographical areas. The fund for radio would help to establish a service for such an area. In time, it might also be used to start up internet or cable-based services for more geographically dispersed communities. Liberal Democrats want broadcasting in all forms to flourish and to encourage diversity, while retaining the ethos and practice of public service broadcasting that served us so well in the 20th century.

11.28 am

Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central): Although the comments of the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) about community television are important, I shall discuss community radio, simply because we as a society and the Government are considering the issue of such licences on a pilot basis.

I spent a couple of hours at the weekend at a community radio station in my constituency. That gave me the opportunity to communicate with my constituents--not many weeks, perhaps, before a general election. It was tremendously exciting for me as a politician to see the dynamism that my constituents brought to their community, and the way in which their work was received. Nobody knows the listening figures, but the response from phone-ins was encouraging. There is something there, and the service has come into its own.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Minister, who recently announced on Wythenshawe community radio in Manchester that the Government will go ahead with pilot schemes throughout the country. Part of the debate's purpose is to examine exactly what that means, so that the Minister can place Government thinking on record and show how it will help local communities.

The starting point was some 30 years ago. Sadly, I am old enough to remember pirate stations such as Radio Caroline. Ageing may be unfortunate but it brings experience with it. A driving force behind those pirate radio stations was the utter incompetence of the BBC at that time, and its failure to enthuse the younger generation. The pirate stations represented a serious challenge to the status quo. A consequence was the independent radio revolution. There were lots of arguments at that time, as my colleagues in the Labour party will remember, about whether it was legitimate for independent radio to carry advertising. However, we achieved a fundamental shift in radio broadcasting.

Most of us would have said that those early years were tremendously exciting, as a huge number of radio stations appeared as part of the BBC at local level and in the private independent sector. A sad reality is that, a generation or more on from the days of Radio Caroline, my younger constituents often complain about the irrelevance of radio networks to their needs. They are highly critical of local commercial radio, because it dumbs matters down to a level of blandness and fails to include a lot of potential listeners.

I am not sure that I should tell the following story publicly. However, three or four years ago, I visited a pirate station in Moss Side in my constituency. It was run by a group of young black people who were driven

13 Mar 2001 : Column 201WH

by the need to broadcast the type of music to which people wanted to listen. They displayed enormous enthusiasm and achieved high listening figures in that immediate region. The problem was that, by using a pirate station, those people blocked out the signals from elsewhere, which used to be given as a reason why we could not create more stations. That is a legitimate and understandable objection. However, even in that unofficial, illegal community experiment, young people were able to show that mainstream stations had failed to include an existing audience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) told me yesterday that, having secured this debate, he was inundated with letters from independent radio stations. As parliamentarians, we are used to that. When the time came for renewal of licences, broadcasters would suddenly begin to take Members of Parliament seriously, told us how much they valued our contribution and how much they wanted to involve themselves in the community. That lasted until the new licences were issued, when, once again, we heard little from them, and they returned to their straight-laced ways that result in dumbing down.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles mentioned that radio stations in Greater Manchester have many achievements to their credit. My criticisms will be slightly fairer than others that have been made; the stations attract large audiences and provide a product. However, they are incapable of addressing issues of highly localised communities. An area such as Greater Manchester, which has a population of 2 million to 3 million people, inevitably has a small level of interest in local events. That forces regional and sub-regional broadcasters to import national news from organisations such as Independent Radio News, rather than covering local news. Such regional broadcasters make a small contribution to local debate. They fulfil a role, but cannot claim that they intend to reflect or have reflected the local communities in the area over which they broadcast. We must examine the basis on which we allow broadcasting to occur.

I was introduced to the present demand for community radio by one of my constituents, an inestimable woman named Marie Chapman, who participated in the Radio Moston experiment. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles referred to local heroes; she may prefer to be called a local heroine. Marie Chapman would say that having access to training on local radio transformed the way in which she viewed herself. She left school with relatively few qualifications, brought up a family and lived in Miles Platting, which is one of the most difficult areas of Manchester. She did not feel that she had a great deal to offer outside the confines of her family. She was wrong about that, as she has started to discover. Community radio has transformed the way in which she relates to the local community and she has accessed skills that allow her to take a larger role. She is now engaged in a number of other activities as a result of her growing confidence.

If community radio were about an educational programme for only one or two individuals, it would not matter. However, when community radio is done well--as it has in Manchester over recent years--it is at the

13 Mar 2001 : Column 202WH

forefront of giving individuals the opportunity to up-skill, allowing them to encapsulate the mood and attitudes of our local communities.

I shall be slightly parochial and discuss my constituency. It is one of the poorest areas in the country but, because it is an inner-city area, it does not have the community focus that other communities in other parts of the country, such as those in rural areas, can maintain. There is a lack of differentiation in the city. However, while one area easily transforms into another, the problems that one area may experience are vastly different from those of its close and neighbouring districts.

A couple of miles from Manchester city centre, where properties worth £2 million are being sold, is east Manchester, one of the poorest and hardest-hit parts of the city. It was abandoned following the collapse of manufacturing industry in the 1980s and community structures have, to an extent, broken down. Crime, social dislocation, drugs, young people who are not enthused by events in the immediate area and the failure of social structures have hit home with a vengeance. Until recently, that led to the depopulation of the area. The concept of community in that area is being rebuilt because of the money that the Government are spending on the new deal for communities project.

Despite the massive problems in the area, there is still a strong sense of community, especially among the older people. They still remember a time when there were secure jobs and front doors could be left open; such times are unlikely to return in the near future. However, they also want to maintain the east Manchester identity, which is different from the ethos associated with £2 million flat developments in the city centre and from that of adjoining areas such as Newton Heath, a distinctive community isolated by the Clayton Vale river valley.

When community radio started operating in the area, people were able for the first time to talk to each other on a mass basis about their community, which they understand and to which they relate. No local newspapers are circulated in the area, except the Manchester Evening News and the East Manchester Reporter, neither of which is a large-circulation operation in that part of the city. I have a complaint to make about those newspapers; my fellow Manchester Members of Parliament are often featured in them, but I do not receive equal coverage. I am motivated to mention that not by personal regret, but by resentment, because it suggests that my constituents are by-passed. It is important that the area has a community radio station to reflect what it believes about the issues that affect it.

As I mentioned, at the weekend I spent a couple of hours with the people who run East Manchester FM. They have made an enormous contribution to their community. My good friend Mark is now known as the Beswick assassin because of his appearances on the station, and I advise the Minister not to go near East Manchester FM when Mark is present. Also involved are Dave and Sam and a young man named Ryan. He was recruited from a local youth club to do a short session and became so enthused that he ended up staying for three or four days. His contribution was

13 Mar 2001 : Column 203WH

enormous because he was also a part of the process of enthusing other young people in the area about what the local community can do for them.

Young musicians turned up to play for the station. Their talent was extraordinary, especially as they came from a community that is usually by-passed; perhaps it is not so surprising that there should be such talent in east Manchester, as the city has been the source of most of the recent innovations in pop music. However, their talent would not usually be recognised or given a platform. The musicians who performed on the radio were the kind of young people who would often be dismissed as ruffians who frequent the street or described in a similarly pejorative way.

Ryan told me that, for him, the alternative to participating in community radio was to hang around on street corners. Community radio has much to offer in terms of binding the wounds and bringing people together, particularly for a generation that has seen little investment in its community in recent years.

I am already enthusiastic about the achievements of community radio in that area. The station is an experiment that has lasted only a week. It cannot claim to have transformed the community, but it is popular, and in areas where the Government are investing in the new deal process, community radio helps to re-solder the spirit of the community and to bolster its reinvention of itself. That could be crucial in certain areas.

I apologise for being parochial, but I believe that what I have been saying so passionately about east Manchester could be said about the communities that are represented by my hon. Friends the Members for Eccles and for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), and about other communities throughout the country. I know urban communities best, but what I have said applies to rural communities, to hill farmers and to Northern Ireland, which my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles mentioned. We must consider how we, as a society, build our structures and maintain our local communities. Community radio is an important part of such considerations.

As I said, I strongly welcome the Minister's statement in Wythenshawe two weeks ago, which gave a signal of her intentions on the matter. It is a different attitude from that of previous Governments, and, until now, of this Government. However, difficult issues are involved. I hope that the Minister will say how the various pilot schemes will be rolled out.

In my city, the four separate community radio experiments have worked well, but we do not know what would happen if the project lasted for more than one week. It is legitimate to want to see what happens when the pilots run for a longer period, and whether local broadcasters can maintain the same enthusiasm. It must not be only a narrow clique of locals who have access to the airwaves and keep everyone else out. What we want, and have had, is a group of people who enthuse their neighbours to join in. Pilot schemes will consider such matters, and I welcome that.

All the areas where there was a community radio experiment will want to be part of the pilot schemes, and I expect the Minister to be inundated with applications. I shall certainly stake a claim for areas in my constituency to take part. Phil Korbel, a professional broadcaster of many years standing, is the guru of

13 Mar 2001 : Column 204WH

Radio Regen in Manchester, the training scheme that resulted in many of the community radio projects coming into operation. Phil Korbel worked in the BBC at different levels and enthused those who worked with him. I agree with his view that pilot schemes, which have mostly been geographical, should have different themes--social themes, for example. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles referred to several different themes, and I hope that the Minister will give us her view on the subject.

In Manchester, ethnic community themes have been very successful. For many years, Irish community radio has broadcast around the time of St. Patrick's day, and there has been Asian community radio, both of which are important locally. The demand for community radio will be extraordinary and we must consider funding. I am less sanguine than some; in a perfect world, I would prefer community radio to broadcast without advertising, as small companies with marginal economic resources could face editorial pressure and control and all the related problems. We must consider whether Government funding, or funding by regional or local government, should be sought, or whether to look to the private sector for such funding.

My hon. Friend used the term "unfair competition". I do not regard bringing more competition into broadcasting as unfair. The licence to print money that the current broadcasters take for granted is outrageous.

Mr. Ian Stewart : I remind my hon. Friend that my comments were made as a result of the lobbying I received from the commercial radio organisations over the past week or so.

Mr. Lloyd : Thereby hangs a tale. The existing commercial operators have their position to maintain. Why should they have an automatic right to cream off the best of the advertising? If the public want to listen to other stations, the rules of normal competition should apply in broadcasting as elsewhere. My appearances on Key 103 and Galaxy will diminish further until we get community radio, when my stock will rise once again. That is the nature of these matters. I hope that broadcasters will work properly and constructively in the spirit of the development of community radio to ensure that communities are served as they have not been in the past.

My hon. Friend referred to the Salford health action zone. Those of us in Manchester and Trafford regard it as our health action zone, too. For the sake of correctness, even though my father was a Salfordian, we have moved on from very narrow parochialism, except in this matter. My hon. Friend is right about that. People in Greater Manchester do not think of their community as Greater Manchester, or even Salford. They relate to Eccles, Moss Side, Openshaw and Wythenshawe; names that are strange to many hon. Members. I know that you could reel off lists of communities in your constituency, Dr. Clark, where the need to maintain and protect or to rebuild communities is fundamental. Community radio will give us something, the like of which we have not had in recent times. It will be part of the social cement that will rebind our society.

13 Mar 2001 : Column 205WH

11.52 am

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) on securing this debate, and on enabling us to discuss an important part of the future of radio in this country. We tend to ignore radio when we have more widely focused debates on broadcasting and media issues. I am a strong supporter of radio, and I get the impression that most Members of Parliament more often listen to the radio than watch television. I spent about eight hours in my car yesterday touring parts of Lancashire and I listened to radio the whole time. Although I try to listen to good music, there was so much going on that it was important to be kept up to date with the news. Also, traffic information cut into broadcasts helps one to avoid traffic jams.

The time that we spend listening to the radio is on the increase, as the Radio Authority constantly reminds us. The Broadcasting Act 1990 opened up a number of opportunities for radio, such as the three new national stations, but especially the many local commercial radio stations which provide a good local service. The BBC also has a huge radio audience across its five main national channels, but it is equally important to remember the local radio stations that it operates. Those give us an insight into the opportunities that exist for community radio.

Local listeners value the community announcements and community news that the BBC carries on local radio stations. I am thinking in particular of the two floods that we have had in my constituency in the past couple of years. Last weekend was the second anniversary of the first lot. Radio York's audience virtually doubled because everyone tuned in to find out which roads were closed, what areas were being flooded, where sandbags could be obtained and so forth. It provided a tremendously valuable service to local communities that cannot be catered for on a national or even regional basis. That shows how expanded use of the radio spectrum for community purposes would greatly benefit local people. Public announcements on incidents that have occurred in a locality and news on whether sports fixtures and events are taking place in various village halls, for example, are valuable to local communities. I support the view that there is considerable scope to do more.

Mr. Ian Stewart : I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but his examples are of a one-way flow of news and information. Does he accept that community radio has the potential to be an interactive medium, through which people can talk to each other across the airwaves?

Mr. Greenway : Yes, I do. Many people phone in to local radio stations to express their views, so there is an undoubted opportunity for interaction. With an election in the air, there is no better way for a Member of Parliament to find out what local people think than to listen to a two-hour morning phone-in on Radio York. It is easy to discover that although people are sometimes worried about the price of petrol or problems stemming from foot and mouth disease, their worries often have nothing to do with politics.

It is now much clearer than it was 10 years ago that local spectrum is available, particularly on FM wavelengths. Provided that there are adequate

13 Mar 2001 : Column 206WH

safeguards on interference with other services, there is great potential to allocate spectrum to local purposes. In the longer term--it will be perhaps 10 years down the line before use is universal--many further opportunities may arise through the digital spectrum.

Important questions remain to be addressed before we can proceed with publicly encouraged--and partly publicly funded--expansion of community radio in accordance with the White Paper. The key question is what type of licence is envisaged. There are about 400 restricted service licences in operation for a year and about 90 long-term licences. Based on a suggestion initially made by the Radio Authority, the White Paper suggests that future growth is likely to be in the new category of access radio. However, Parliament will have to ask questions about the most appropriate legislative framework for setting up these new radio stations.

The most crucial question is who will award the licences. The White Paper deals with the format of the new super-regulator, Ofcom, which must include a specialist radio division. The Radio Authority has awarded licences with great competence over the past 10 years. I was a great advocate at the time and it has allowed radio to flourish. I stress to the Minister that Ofcom must have a specialist operator to deal with licences.

How will access radio stations be funded? It has become clear from our debate that several options are being canvassed, but they all appear to draw the conclusion that some form of public funding through an access fund may be required, perhaps with the counter-balancing proviso that not-for-profit organisations should receive the funds. That does not seem to be a particular problem. We may also wish to encourage donations from some stations.

Some hon. Members raised the question of competition with local commercial radio and the extent to which local radio stations might be permitted to take advertising. I listened with care to what the hon. Members for Eccles and for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) said. We have to be careful about the issue of unfair competition. Some commercial radio stations do not make huge amounts of money and are very dependent on local advertising revenue. Many of them have bid and paid for spectrum. There is an argument for some of the funding from that to be used to encourage access radio.

Sponsoring some community radio stations may be a preferable way of encouraging the funding of inter-community radio from the private sector. However, local commercial radio has given local businesses an opportunity for advertising that they would not otherwise have had, even on stations with a regional licence. Some advertising streams may have a much lower cost than that of even the local commercial radio stations; even down to letting people know where they can get a plumber or an electrician. An example of that is our local village magazine. When I was church treasurer, I introduced the practice of inserting into the magazine every month blocks of adverts from local tradesmen and organisations that could not advertise in any other way. They pay for the magazine. Something along those lines might be possible.

Mr. Tony Lloyd : There was a huge explosion of

13 Mar 2001 : Column 207WH

independent radio companies in the early days, but we have subsequently seen massive concentration. Some small, marginal operators are still faithful to the original charters but many stations are run by national groups that take on a local identity. They cannot complain about unfair competition. Advertising is advertising. The hon. Gentleman is on to something interesting when he talks about local and sub-local advertising, although that creates competition with local newspapers.

Mr. Greenway : I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention. We are exploring an issue to which we have not previously given much thought. I used the comparator of other means of distributing information to local people paid for through an advertising stream. Given that we are talking about relatively small areas--the radio stations in my part of north Yorkshire cover a large area--we are looking at much smaller and more concentrated connections in terms of community or access radio. We are talking about truly sub-local radio stations. Those matters should be addressed in detail. I simply make the point that we need to be imaginative and have vision in our support and encouragement of community radio. That is presumably why the hon. Member for Eccles introduced the debate.

We come to the question of who will run the stations. The hon. Members for Eccles and for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) were careful to point out that largely local people run them. A framework is necessary to ensure caution and impartiality. It will also ensure that the people involved are fit and proper, that proper standards of content apply, that there is no party-political involvement--I have another bee in my bonnet about that--and that the information given is accurate. If we use community radio as a genuine means of giving people information, it must be accurate and up to date. Some monitoring will be required, but I hope that it can be undertaken with a relatively light touch. As a party, we strongly believe in active citizenship and the voluntary sector. Community radio could prove extremely important to groups in those fields.

All those issues are being considered by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport in its review of the White Paper. We welcome the Radio Authority's submission to the Committee, which has helped us all to prepare our thoughts for this debate. We await the Committee's report with interest.

The hon. Member for Romsey mentioned another aspect of community radio: community religious broadcasting. I well remember the debates that we had on the issue in the Standing Committee that considered the Broadcasting Act 1990. It disqualified groups whose objectives were wholly or mainly of a religious nature from holding a terrestrial national radio licence issued by the Radio Authority. The thinking behind that was not to be discriminatory against religious groups, but much more to focus on the requirement that the three new national licences should offer real diversity and not subscribe to a single format. As a result, contrary to popular belief, the disqualification does not extend to local radio satellite or cable licences in respect of religious bodies.

The debate has, of course, moved on. We certainly believe that freedom of expression without discrimination, regardless of race, sex or faith, should

13 Mar 2001 : Column 208WH

inform our thinking in this area and that it is now probably time to end the legal discrimination against religious broadcasters and allow more equal access to future competitions for various service licences. There is no doubt in my mind that community radio offers opportunities for religious broadcasts, which almost certainly need not be exclusively Christian. Of course, there will have to be safeguards to ensure that fit and proper people are involved and that there is responsible, non-exploitative content. I am sure that Parliament is capable of providing a proper framework, particularly if we approach it with the open-mindedness and co-operative spirit that contributors to this debate have displayed. The conditions to ensure that fit and proper people are involved and to ensure content will need to apply to the development of community radio generally.

There are real opportunities with the White Paper and the legislation that will follow, whoever wins the election. I think that both we and the Government are committed to an early Bill to deregulate the communications industry. The priority of the legislation will be to free up media ownership and ensure that we have a dynamic communications industry. The community radio issue is an important counter-balance. It will encourage local people to become involved with community radio stations and add a different dimension to their quality of life. It will extend choice and diversity in broadcasting, which we have not experienced before, and allow listeners and those who make the programmes to benefit greatly from the opportunities available.

12.8 pm

The Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting (Janet Anderson ): I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Mr. Stewart) and contratulating him on securing this timely debate and on the establishment of the all-party community media group. As he said, it was established by him, as chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Bradley) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer) and for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins) and has provided a timely addition to this important debate. Community radio is an idea whose time has come, and the hon. Members who have spoken have shown what an important issue it is.

The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) talked about the opportunities presented by digital television and, in the longer term, by radio. The hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) referred to religious broadcasting, which was mentioned in the White Paper on communications. We are at present considering responses to the consultation.

At the moment, religious organisations are precluded from national analogue licences but not from local ones. The White Paper makes it clear that the proposed legislation will also remove the anomaly that prevents them owning local digital stations, but the question is whether we will allow them to apply for a national analogue licence. It is a matter that we are considering in the light of responses to the consultation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central, like my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles, described graphically how local community radio can

13 Mar 2001 : Column 209WH

help to regenerate communities and to provide training opportunities. He referred to East Manchester FM and the contribution of Mark, Dave, Sam, Ryan and other young people who gained so much from being involved with the station. The concept has a great deal of support.

I shall try to answer the many important questions that have been asked. The White Paper on communications published in December responds to the communications revolution, which gathers pace daily. There is digital media, multi-channel television and internet access; the potential of technology to transform our everyday lives by extending choice, enriching entertainment and enabling learning is a well rehearsed theme. However, as technology develops, we must ensure not only that we use it to promote and to extend understanding on a global scale, but that we harness its potential to strengthen local ties.

The White Paper sets its sights on the local and the virtual communities, and makes it clear that the objectives to strengthen both are complementary. It proposes access radio as a potential component of the broadcasting landscape in the 21st century. As the hon. Member for Ryedale said, that was originally the Radio Authority's proposal. We use the term access radio instead of community radio because radio services that meet the needs of the community are already provided by good independent commercial stations and by BBC local radio. Access radio suggests the broadening of such broadcasting to give local communities the chance to establish their own stations, as contributions to the debate reflect, and they would complement the existing services.

We invited comments on the merits of the proposal to support the development of such stations, and I am pleased to report a positive response. Following an initial analysis, I was delighted to announce on 2 March the Government's agreement to the Radio Authority's proposal to launch pilot schemes to explore how access radio might be established and funded.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central said, I recently visited Wythenshawe FM, at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East, where I saw at first hand the benefits of providing a community with a popular, accessible forum in which views, experiences and advice can be exchanged. Wythenshawe FM operated for eight days at the end of last month through a restricted service licence provided by the Radio Authority. The station is one of a number broadcasting under the banner of Radio Regen, which is run with enormous enthusiasm and great success by Phil Korbel and his team.

Radio Regen's aims are simple: to use radio as a tool to empower and excite local communities by involving local people in the setting up and running of their own community radio stations. Local groups are invited to get involved in producing material for broadcast, and there is a series of major community arts projects in which professional artists work with local people to produce new pieces of creative work. The radio stations are then used as a platform for such work, which could be anything from a group inventing its own slang for the area to a mass radio-controlled percussion event. The opportunities are limitless.

13 Mar 2001 : Column 210WH

Each community involved in Radio Regen decides exactly which issues are aired, but programmes generally include news of local events and sporting activities, a profile of a particular local personality or group, a look at the history of the area, coverage of a local pub quiz league, or a spotlight on the activities of a local school. There are phone-ins and debates--as the hon. Member for Ryedale said, phone-ins are a good way for Members of Parliament to gauge the views and opinions of their constituents--as well as reports and music, all with a local flavour and presented by both professional DJs and local people.

I was impressed by the level of community involvement that I saw at Wythenshawe, which I am sure is replicated wherever such community radio projects take place. People passing by the box office at the Forum leisure centre could see exactly what was going on and join in. Local schoolchildren arrived during the lunch hour to take the many phone calls from listeners, generally just down the road, who wanted to make a request or say their piece. The team was quite clear that the benefits of the project long outlasted the temporary licence, particularly in terms of self-esteem and skills learned. Such local broadcasting can clearly have a great impact on social inclusion, particularly in speaking to and engaging young people.

As well as promoting social inclusion, access radio stations can demystify the process of broadcasting and promote wider participation in the business of making and producing radio programmes. Marshall McLuhan, that herald of the multimedia age, said that

We want to encourage the same transformation in radio and help more listeners become broadcasters. The opportunity to become a radio presenter might hold particular attractions for young people; the next Zoe Ball or Jamie Theakston might earn their spurs through involvement in an access radio station.

Wythenshawe FM demonstrates that there is a place for access radio stations, and the many benefits of such stations. We are now considering how the concept might best be developed. As I have mentioned, we have already given the green light to the Radio Authority to go ahead with pilots. Those experimental stations will help to inform our thinking but, at the same time, we are carefully considering three difficult issues: the funding mechanisms for access radio; the platforms on which it will operate; and the administration arrangements. Those areas were explored at the Radio Authority's seminar on access radio last month, which provided useful food for thought. I wish to sketch out briefly other issues that need to be addressed.

Funding for the stations could come from public or commercial sources, or a mixture of both. We have heard a number of differing views on that this morning. The Radio Authority suggested in its recent submission to my Department that a radio fund might be established to channel public sources of funding, such as central or local government funds or European funds. Alternatively, access radio stations might be given the ability to compete in the commercial market and carry advertising, or be sponsored, as the hon. Member for Ryedale suggested. Clearly, any demands for increased public expenditure must be scrutinised carefully, and no

13 Mar 2001 : Column 211WH

commitments can be given at this stage. We must also ensure that the commercial radio sector is not unfairly put at a disadvantage. We will certainly bear the interests of independent stations in mind.

There seems to be a consensus that there should be scope to establish some FM access radio stations in urban areas and perhaps more in peripheral parts of the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles made several suggestions and while I cannot today announce where the pilots will be--that is principally a matter for the Radio Authority--I am sure that his point, that they should reflect a wide range of different communities and be spread throughout the country, will be taken into account. Together with the available AM resources, we can make a promising start. In time, I hope that the internet will also offer a suitable platform for access radio.

We need to consider carefully how the current licensing regime may need revisiting, as well as the criteria for the awarding of licences and the distribution of funding. We have begun to explore such matters. There are some thorny points, however, and we must ensure that, if access radio can be built into the new framework, it is introduced sensitively alongside the existing tiers of radio services.

I want hon. Members to be in no doubt about the Government's commitment to press ahead with the matter. I wish to place on the record that my officials in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are meeting officials from the Treasury and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions this week to discuss the Radio Authority's paper on access radio and to consider licensing, funding and administration. The Radio Authority is sending a team to oversee the pilot process at which my Department will be represented. It will meet for the first time later this month. The debate has certainly helped our thinking on the way ahead. I am sure that the Radio Authority will take note of such deliberations. I thank hon. Members for their contributions.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair ): Order. As the Minister has not arrived for the next debate, the sitting will be suspended until 12.30 pm.

12.23 pm

Sitting suspended.

Next Section

IndexHome Page