HC Deb 16 November 1954 vol 533 cc349-58

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

10.23 p.m.

Mr. Howard Johnson (Brighton, Kemp-town)

The matter I want to raise concerns television reception in Brighton and district. I am sure, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you will be as glad as other hon. Members to know that on television this evening it was seen that Spartak were beaten by Wolverhampton Wanderers by four goals to nil.

The question of television reception in Brighton and district has come to be known as "The battle of Truleigh Hill." The battle commenced just before the Coronation, and the residents of Brighton, Hove and Sussex generally had tremendous support from my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General.

As a result of that successful battle, the B.B.C. installed a booster at a place called Truleigh Hill, and, as a result of that, the people in that locality received exceedingly good television reception, and one might say that everything in the television world locally was sound and happy; so sound and happy, in fact, that the last figures I had showed that in Brighton and Hove about 18,000 persons had, between June, 1952, and about a month ago, purchased television receivers at a cost of probably £80 to £100 each, and had also, presumably, paid their appropriate licence fees.

It was a very clear understanding that the Truleigh Hill booster would be left in position until such time as the Rowridge Station, Isle of Wight, came into operation and was able to give the people of Sussex as good a reception as that which they had been receiving in the past two years from the booster at Truleigh Hill.

The next thing that happened was that it was announced that the station at Rowridge was to open on 12th November. That information was generally acclaimed in Sussex, because there were many persons in Hampshire and in the West of England who were relying upon the Isle of Wight station for their reception. It was a matter about which the people generally in Sussex, were very pleased, until the B.B.C. announced almost simultaneously that it intended to close down the Truleigh Hill booster.

Even that did not matter very much until the tests from Rowridge were made and the picture received in Sussex was exceedingly poor. In fact, in many areas of Brighton and, I believe, of Hove, no picture at all was received. Then there was tremendous local agitation. The Sussex Members of Parliament combined to do something about it. We saw my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General and we were supported by many petitions. I myself received, quite uncanvassed, petitions containing over 5,000 names. The matrons of the two very large hospitals in Brighton both wrote to me expressing very great concern because, on the test signal from Rowridge, they were quite unable to get a picture, or even any sound. Ultimately, the mayors of the two boroughs wrote two fairly strong letters to the Director-General of the B.B.C.

Through the good offices of my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General, I saw the Director-General of the B.B.C. By that time I had received a great deal of technical information, and when I saw the Director-General, and, presumably, one of his chief engineers, I was told that technically it was absolutely impossible for the Truleigh Hill booster to remain in operation once Rowridge opened, because both stations would be operating on the same channel.

Other technical information I received was to the effect that that was really no objection at all, first, because the operating of a very low-power booster with 100-watt output could not possibly interfere with other stations if the channel of the booster was changed. However, I was told that even if the channel were changed there would be interference with stations as far away as Holme Moss. Quite frankly, my technical advice was to the effect that that was absolute nonsense.

I was also advised that the B.B.C. could operate on staggered frequencies or on offset carried frequencies, or could change the polarisation of the area, I was told that none of those things could be done, although I had information that that had been done on a very large scale both in America and on the Continent. Nevertheless, within five days of being told that that was technically impossible, we were then told that it was technically possible for the Truleigh Hill booster to continue to operate on a changed wavelength. There was a certain amount of jubilation, and it was regarded as something in the nature of a victory. In fact, it really was a victory against a very great monopoly who, in my opinion, were not really carrying out the duties of their charter in giving the best of all possible services to the greatest possible area.

There was one snag, which was this. We were told that the booster at Truleigh Hill could only continue to operate provided the power was reduced. No estimate could be obtained of the reduction of the power, but it was said that the reduction of the power would not be sufficient seriously to harm the strength of the signal. It is on that point that I am particularly anxious to speak tonight, because on Friday, 12th November, the booster station at Truleigh Hill operated on, I think, Band II with reduced power, and, in fact, many areas of Brighton as from that time failed to get any picture at all from Truleigh Hill, even though they had had the waveband or frequency of their sets altered and had had expert technicians to do whatever was required to their television receivers.

Very strenuous efforts were made to ascertain what reduction of power had been made, but we were told that that was a top secret, although I, for one, completely fail to understand why, in time of peace, the strength upon which a booster is operating should be a top secret. Eventually, the information leaked out that the B.B.C. had reduced the power of the Truleigh Hill booster by no less than 75 per cent.

I have had a great number of letters from persons living in geographically further away districts, who have completely failed to obtain any reasonable sort of picture. I do not propose to read many of them, but I think that two or three are of some importance. One is from a lady who lives in Brighton, and she says: Our set has been tuned to channel two, with results as follows. Vision: poor …continuous interference. Sound: spoken word inaudible. Make of set … and she then states the make and adds: Nine months old, H type aerial, outdoor. Another letter from Carden Hill, Brighton, says: Television reception both Isle of Wight and Truleigh Hill very poor indeed. Impossible to look in at either station. Yet another letter says: Truleigh Hill very poor indeed. Picture very faint, sound almost inaudible. Interference terrific. Thoroughly miserable weekend. Another letter from a firm of radio dealers states that, in spite of adjustments that they have made, they are unable to obtain any proper signal from Truleigh Hill.

There is a letter which is very appropriate for this evening, from the Brighton and Hove Old Age Pensioners' Club, which says: … we find that after conversion of the set the picture is very much fainter and the interference much louder and more continuous, whilst the accompanying noise is at times intolerable. To those old people who have by their thrift and by their … savings … secured a TV set, this means they lose by a breach of faith perhaps their chief joy in life. Those letters are typical of many others that I have had.

With great humility I must say that the technical advice I have received, including that from the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. C. I. Orr-Ewing), has been infinitely better than that of the B.B.C., because what my technical advisers said could be done has been done, and it was only the action of the B.B.C. in cutting down the power which has rendered Truleigh Hill not nearly so useful as it can be. My advice is that there is not the slightest need to cut down the power of the booster, because there is virtually no danger of interaction or interference between the two stations.

It is because the people of Brighton and Hove have had such an extremely good friend in my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General that I am asking him to use his powers to ensure that the strength of this booster is put back to normal. I am quite satisfied that the Minister has that power, under Section 3 of the Licence and Agreement of 12th June, 1952, made with the B.B.C. and, indeed, under the 1952 Charter of the B.B.C., and I feel certain that everything he can do he will do to help in that respect.

When people invest what to them are very large sums of money in television equipment, it is a very serious matter to have it rendered almost useless by what I and those who know better than I regard as a totally unnecessary action of the B.B.C. It is because of this that I ask that the power of the booster at Truleigh Hill should be restored to normal.

10.37 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. David Gammans)

I had better start by explaining to the House the responsibility for television and sound broadcasting that falls within the ambit of the Post Office. We are not in general responsible for the programmes, but under the Postmaster-General's Licence and Agreement with the B.B.C. we have certain responsibilities for B.B.C. transmitters. That is why, I imagine, that my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kempton (Mr. H. Johnson) has addressed this matter to me tonight.

First, I should like to say how glad I am that after discussion with the B.B.C. it has been found possible to keep the Truleigh Hill booster in operation for the time being. The difficulty has always been, as my hon. Friend realises, that there are only five channels available in Band I for television transmission, and it was not easy to find a way of keeping Truleigh Hill going for the time being and, at the same time, to operate a station at Rowridge, in the Isle of Wight. If the two stations were working on the same channel we should have a very confused picture over a very wide area.

The position in my hon. Friend's constituency, and in Brighton generally, is that when the transmitter at Rowridge comes on to full power—which will be in about a year's time—and when the Crystal Palace transmitter starts up—which will also be in about a year's time—there should be satisfactory reception in all parts of Brighton, either from Crystal Palace or the Isle of Wight; so the B.B.C. assure me. But I gather that the difficulty is that, in some parts of Brighton, Rowridge cannot be received properly at the present time, when it is working on low power.

What my hon. Friend has just said, I think, bears that out. What the B.B.C. has agreed to do is to keep the Truleigh Hill station in operation on the same channel as has been allotted to North Hessary Tor, in the West Country. That channel is the same one as is used by Holme Moss, in the north of England. The only reason why we have been able to do that is that North Hessary Tor, like the Rowridge station, is going to work on low power for a year. What it is hoped will happen, is that if Truleigh Hill is working on the North Hessary Tor channel on low power and if the North Hessary Tor station is also working on low power, then the two will not interfere with each other.

However, as my hon. Friend has said, the B.B.C. believe that if interference between these two stations is to be prevented, then the strength of the Truleigh Hill transmitter will have to be reduced. That has been done. My hon. Friend's contention is that it has been reduced too much; that the B.B.C. has reduced Truleigh Hill below what it need have done, and that therefore, because of that, there are still some parts of Brighton which do not get transmission either from the Isle of Wight or from Truleigh Hill.

I have no idea on what power the B.B.C. is running the Truleigh Hill station at the moment. It may be that it will be able to increase it, but the one thing it must not do is to increase it up to the point when it interferes with North Hessary Tor. I will draw the attention of the B.B.C. to the point which my hon. Friend has made and I will ask whether it is possible to increase the power of the booster at Truleigh Hill without running the risk of interfering with North Hessary Tor. If it can be increased then I think that some of the trouble to which he has referred tonight will be remedied. I will certainly do that.

I should like to advise all viewers in the Brighton area who can get Rowridge to do so. If they can get Rowridge it will not mean altering their sets, although it will mean turning their aerials round. If they can get Rowridge now rather than Truleigh Hill, the advantage is that in a year's time when Rowridge, goes on full power, they should have to do nothing more about it. If they change back to Truleigh Hill now, then in a year's time when Truleigh Hill shuts down altogether and Rowridge comes on to full power they will have to alter their sets and their aerials as well. Because of the shortage of channels, which I hope I have explained satisfactorily, Truleigh Hill will have to close down in a year's time anyway.

There is another possibility in the Brighton area and that is of getting reception from the Crystal Palace. As the House knows, the present B.B.C. transmitter at Alexandra Palace is to close down at the end of next year. The new station at Crystal Palace will take its place, probably at the beginning of 1956. The new station at Crystal Palace will be nearer Brighton by quite a number of miles. The mast there will be much higher than the mast at Alexandra Palace and the power of that station will be much greater than that of either Alexandra Palace or Rowridge.

The B.B.C. tells me that Crystal Palace should provide a satisfactory service to the greater Brighton area, and it will be an alternative to the Rowridge station. Therefore, although under the present arrangement there may be some inconvenience to a number of people—I hope that it will be possible even to mitigate that—the B.B.C. assures me that it cannot last for more than a year.

I sincerely hope that the facts that I have been able to give my hon. Friend will enable him to reassure his constituents and that they will be prepared to do all they can to co-operate with the B.B.C. in the changes which must be made in the next 12 months. The real difficulty is the shortage of channels. I hope that my hon. Friend will feel that in the circumstances the B.B.C. has done the best it can to help him.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Peter Smithers (Winchester)

I should like to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Assistant Postmaster-General for the strenuous efforts that he has made to enable the Isle of Wight transmitter to come into operation and to say how much this is appreciated in the South Hampshire area. Nevertheless, even in our part of the country reception is still not very good, and I hope he will persevere in his attempts to have the transmitter improved.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. Edward Shackleton (Preston, South)

I do not intervene to keep out of the debate other hon. Members representing the Brighton area, and I assure the Assistant Postmaster-General that on this occasion I shall not twit him on commercial television. This is a highly technical problem, and what the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. H. Johnson) said at the beginning of his speech caused me a little alarm. I understood him to say that Truleigh Hill has been switched to Band II, whereas the Assistant Postmaster-General said that it was on Band I.

Mr. Gammans

It is on Channel II in Band I.

Mr. Shackleton

Then the hon. Member for Kemptown unintentionally misled me.

I wish to raise a point which affects the area represented by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Smithers). I live in that area and also happen to be very fond of Brighton. In view of the conflict of technical opinion, is it really necessary for the Isle of Wight station to operate on low power for a year? I appreciate that it is impossible to increase the power of the Truleigh Hill station because it would interfere with another station elsewhere, but I suggest that the Assistant Postmaster-General should not throw away the undoubted power that he has in the matter. He has powers, which were approved by Parliament, to intervene with the B.B.C. Whereas I would not suggest that he takes every opportunity to tell the B.B.C. its job, there is sufficient conflict here to justify his exercising the powers reserved to the Government under the Licence and Charter. I hope he will look at the matter again.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. William Teeling (Brighton, Pavilion)

Am I right in suggesting that, although for the first two or three days—Friday, Saturday and Sunday—reception from Truleigh Hill has been very difficult, we were warned that at the time of change-over conditions might be bad for about a week, and that they are already gradually getting better? If so, would it not be right to let the people of Brighton and Hove know that, bit by bit, over the next few days conditions are likely to improve?

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Marlowe (Hove)

If it turns out that people who bought sets and paid licence fees on the undertaking that they would get good reception from Truleigh Hill find that they get no picture at all, will the Post Office return at least the £3 fee which they have paid?

Mr. Gammans

The answer to that question, I am afraid, is "No, Sir." The answer to the question by the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Shackleton), as to why the Rowridge station is on low power, is that that is the normal practice of the B.B.C. to start operating a new station on low power.

Mr. Shackleton


Mr. Gammans

For technical reasons. First, they can get on the air very much quicker on low power and with a shorter mast and, secondly, all stations have a standby transmitter.

I will put to the B.B.C. the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kemp-town and will ask whether it is possible to increase the power of the station at Truleigh Hill without interfering with North Hessary Tor. If it is possible, I think the B.B.C. will do it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Teeling) said he thought that the position had improved in the past few days. I hope that that is so. It may well be that the B.B.C. is experimenting and will find from the result of its experiments that it can do better than was thought possible at the beginning.

Mr. Shackleton

Is the Minister not anticipating an Act of Parliament on the point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Hove (Mr. Marlowe)? Is the hon. Gentleman not compelled to repay the licences of all those inhabitants and has not the Act of Parliament yet to be passed?

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot refer to legislation on the Adjournment.

Adjourned accordingly at Ten Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.