HC Deb 02 February 2004 vol 417 cc515-7
3. Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger(Con) (Bridgwater)

If she will make a statement on rural radio stations. [151922]

The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris)

Independent radio in the UK is licensed and regulated by Ofcom. Both Ofcom and the Government value the important contribution that all independent radio stations, including those in rural areas, make to a local community.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

The Minister will be aware that rural radio stations play a vital part in all communities. However, we have a problem in Exmoor, where the local radio station cannot get its signal out across the area. That is partly because it is in a national park—an area of outstanding natural beauty. The station cannot afford to erect hidden trees or trees disguised as masts. [Laughter.] Will the Minister provide a solution so that that local radio station can transmit to its entire area, namely Exmoor?

Estelle Morris

I might again disappoint the hon. Gentleman tremendously by saying that at the start of a busy week, and having just experienced one, the issue has not occupied a large amount of my thinking time.

There are 260 local analogue radio stations, and throughout the nation, including rural areas, there is a trend for more radio stations to come into operation rather than fewer. Inevitably, because of the geography of the nation, there are parts of the country where reception is not as good as in other areas. However, the situation becomes better year by year rather than worse and I hope that in due course Exmoor will also benefit from that progress.

Mr. David Drew(Lab/Co-op) (Stroud)

In the Cotswolds, we can see the wood for the trees, but we have a slightly different problem in as much as reception, which depends upon the hills, is often poor. Many of my constituents complain that as much as they would like to listen to local radio, they are frequently prevented from doing so if they are on the wrong side of the hill. Will my right hon. Friend examine this issue, especially when licences are being granted, to ensure that coverage is as full as possible?

Estelle Morris

I will not look at the issue, but I am sure that Ofcom will do so because it is its responsibility—it is not the responsibility of government. Previously, we were talking about the beauty of the hills, but in this instance it seems that the hills are causing the problem. There is not a great deal that can be done about that.

Many successful local radio stations broadcast within small geographical areas. They are extremely successful because they are local. That is the point of them. Inevitably there will be difficulties, but further investment is being directed into making broadcasting more effective. If there is a problem in the hills of my hon. Friend's constituency, I am sure that Ofcom will read his comments and reflect on them.

Mr. Tim Boswell(Con) (Daventry)

We on the Conservative Benches share the enthusiasm for local radio, and acknowledge that most rural radio stations do not always have access to the large staff or the regulatory or legal expertise of bigger groups. In the light of that, will Ministers do their utmost to limit regulation of those stations to a necessary minimum and, in particular, will they exercise severe self-restraint before invoking any overriding test of public interest?

Estelle Morris

I take the hon. Gentleman's point that we do not want bureaucracy in small radio stations—many local radio stations are small—especially the new community radio stations that will start to operate after the pilot. However, we need to get the balance right. We want to safeguard the public interest and make sure that any local radio station operates within the legislative framework. The Communications Act 2003 affords us an opportunity to do so, but I take the hon. Gentleman's question seriously. It is appropriate that it is asked from time to time so that Ofcom and the Government make sure that they do not go over the top.

Mr. Tom Watson(Lab) (West Bromwich, East)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that today is Groundhog day?

Mr. George Foulkes(Lab/Co-op) (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

So was yesterday.

Mr. Watson

Is that right? Given that a large part of the BBC licence fee is spent on rural radio, will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity to confirm to the House that the Government have no plans to privatise the BBC so that we do not repeat that sterile argument today, tomorrow, next week and next month?

Estelle Morris

There is of course no question of our privatising the BBC. I congratulate my hon. Friend on combining his question with a celebration of Groundhog day—another thing on which I did not reflect very much over the weekend. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has continually said that there is absolutely no case for privatising the BBC, and I am happy to repeat that at the Dispatch Box.

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