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Television Reception (Rushden)

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

It is a pleasure, Mr. Caton, to serve under your chairmanship. I hope that we have saved the best for last.

I thank Mr. Speaker for granting a debate on the great mystery of Rushden—the whodunnit of Rushden, and probably the crime of the century there. It involves deception and lack of reception. It involves large organisations, cover-ups and conspiracies. We know who the suspects are. One is the Government, in their shining offices in Whitehall. The other is a developer in Rushden—or is it the council in Thrapston, or even the regulator in his shining offices in London? Or, as I think possible, is it the European Union and the European Commission in Brussels?

There has been a huge theft. It has affected hundreds of people in my constituency who have lost financially and lost their quality of life. It is on such a large scale that it is inconceivable, but like many such things, it has been allowed to drift. It involves the theft of the television signal in The Hedges and the roads around it in Rushden.

I have been stumbling around trying to find a solution, more like Inspector Clouseau than Inspector Morse. Now that I know which Minister is to answer the debate, I am sure that she will rise like Sherlock Holmes to explain the crime, how it happened, who the victims are, what compensation there will be and how things will be put right.

The loss of the television signal in The Hedges was brought to my attention by Councillor Carol Childs, a member of Rushden town council who lives on that road. I praise Mrs. Childs for her efforts. She has campaigned tirelessly for the past year to try to get something done to help the people in her street. Indeed, I know that she is following this debate closely.

When I was told of the problem, I contacted East Northamptonshire district council, the relevant planning authority. The chief executive of the council confirmed to me in a letter of 22 November 2006 that television reception was not considered a material consideration in the determination of a planning application for two large industrial warehouses to be built behind The Hedges.

I had hoped to receive help from my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), who had a similar problem in his area. I would like to say that he has been abducted and cannot assist in this debate, but he has been detained in a Select Committee meeting, which, in a way, is just as bad.

Planning consent was granted to the developer without considering the potential loss of television signal to householders adjacent to the new development.

I go back to what actually happened, and to the autumn—not of last year but the year before. On one evening, the good citizens of The Hedges were watching their normal evening programmes—probably watching the excellent programme on the Parliament channel, which gives the people raw politics without distortion—and they went happily to bed knowing about the state of the country and what was happening. In the morning, they got up, switched on their television sets—and nothing. Well, some of them got a wintry scene, with snow going across their sets, but there was no picture.

It sounds as though it might have been a minor thing that could have sorted itself out the following day, but it did not. What did the people of The Hedges do? Just as we would have done, they assumed that it was a problem with the television set, so many of them rushed out to buy new sets, or to see whether a repair man could sort it out. Of course, that was pointless. It was nothing to do with their equipment. The television signal had been stolen.

The developer—a major developer, not a small one—admitted that TV signal interference sometimes happened with buildings of that size due to the materials used in construction, but it did not provide any remedial action on the residents’ behalf. The developer claims that it is not its fault if the planning authority did not take TV reception into consideration when granting planning consent.

Ofcom was also involved at that time, because East Northamptonshire district council thought that it should have dealt with the matter, as it had in other cases. Ofcom, however, said that it was a matter for the local planning authority, so the buck had already been passed from one organisation to another, with none of them taking responsibility or owning up to the crime. That led me to table parliamentary questions to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about the role of Ofcom when a television signal is lost or badly impaired due to new construction. The then Minister, now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, replied that the issues that I had raised were the responsibility of Ofcom, and passed my queries on to it.

The chief executive of Ofcom wrote a letter to me on 21 February that makes the matter even more confusing. It states:

“OFCOM has no statutory powers to investigate situations where television reception is disrupted by physical structures such as tall buildings…We do recommend that planning authorities should take potential disruption to TV reception into account when considering planning applications for large structures, although there is no statutory requirement on them to do so.”

Although I have been told by the Government and the planning authority that the problem is Ofcom’s responsibility, Ofcom clearly states that it has nothing to do with it. I suppose that, like many regulatory authorities, it does not want to take responsibility for anything.

The letter raises an important point. Ofcom says that there is no statutory obligation on planning authorities to take TV signal disruption into account when considering planning consent. That needs to be addressed immediately, and I shall refer to that later in my request to the Minister. I am not getting anywhere very quickly with the various organisations all blaming each other and none of them taking responsibility for solving the problem for my constituents. A public meeting was held in Rushden, which was well attended by affected residents and local councillors. I praise Councillor Andy Mercer, the able and hard-working leader of East Northamptonshire district council. He got involved with the mystery and tried to solve it. I am grateful to him for all his work on this issue and many others in my constituency, where he has been at the forefront of my “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden” campaign.

Following the well-attended public protest meeting, a petition was formed, which I presented to Parliament on 15 March 2007. I thought, “That should do the trick; the Minister will respond and the matter will be resolved.” The petition urged the House of Commons to ask the Secretary of State to initiate an investigation into the matter with the aim of finding a solution that would restore a quality television signal. The Secretary of State’s reply was taken largely from the letter I received from Ofcom. The only new piece of information given by the Secretary of State was that:

“it is open to households to negotiate with the developer about remedial action to provide householders with alternative means of receiving TV services.”

So, we are asking the victims of the crime to negotiate with one of the chief suspects. That is a novel idea. Once again, we are led around in circles. The planning authority blames Ofcom. The Government blame Ofcom, although they say that Ofcom is powerless to do anything about this issue anyway. Ofcom blames the planning authority. The developer refuses to take any responsibility because planning consent was given. All the while, my constituents are losing out. My constituents have lost their TV signal, yet they are still being forced to pay the TV licence fee.

Another hard-working local councillor, Councillor Robin Underwood, contacted the ombudsman, yet it washed its hands of the matter and said that it had nothing to do with the ombudsman. After a number of other parliamentary questions that I tabled to the Secretary of State regarding guidance to local planning authorities, I had still got no further in seeking a solution to the great Rushden mystery. Then it came to me in a flash of genius that Inspector Morse would have been proud of—it must be the fault of the European Union. Clearly, as we are part of this transnational, unaccountable superstate, it loves interfering in everything that we do. Surely, as TV signals do not recognise national boundaries, the European Union must have rules on the matter.

As luck would have it, later today in the House of Commons we are considering European Union document No. 15869/07. Lo and behold, it is entitled “Communication”. Surely this was it. This would be the solution to our whodunnit, but alas no. When I looked at the document, I saw that it was the usual incomprehensible Euro-babble promoting intercultural dialogue. My constituents in Rushden are worried not so much about intercultural dialogue as about when they will next be able to see “EastEnders”. Despite nearly 16,000 new European regulations last year, not one will solve the theft of the TV signal in Rushden, but I suppose the European Union cannot be guilty, as the Commission would not even know where Northamptonshire was.

Enough is enough. Solving the Hound of the Baskervilles mystery was easy for Sherlock Holmes, and I know that in a little while the Minister will solve this whodunnit. For more than a year, my constituents have experienced organisations that should take some responsibility denying responsibility, blaming others and passing the buck. It is not so much a case of Colonel Mustard in the library; it is probably the developer in Rushden or the Government in Whitehall. It is a whodunnit with no obvious solution. Perhaps they are all guilty, as in “Murder on the Orient Express.”

The buck has to stop somewhere, and unfortunately it has to stop with the Government. Only the Government are in the unique position of being able to introduce legislation so that the theft of television signals does not happen to others. Only the Government can intervene on behalf of my constituents with the developers to find an immediate solution. Only the Government can urge Ofcom to lay down statutory guidelines for planning authorities to use when considering proposals for large developments and the effects that they might have on existing television reception. Furthermore, in case planning consent is given and there is a problem with television reception, a condition of the planning consent should be that the developer must correct such a problem.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, if he had been here today, would have said that in his situation, in which a wind farm was put up that later affected the television signal, the wind farm put it right. As we have heard, however, there is no legal requirement for it to do that. Only the Government can ensure that my constituents get a refund on their television licence fee. For more than a year, they have dutifully paid for the television licence, but received no signal whatever. It is a whodunnit. It is a crime. There are victims. I look forward to the Minister, or Sherlock Holmes, solving it.

I think I shall be Hercule Poirot this afternoon, or perhaps some woman detective.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) on his success in securing this debate and on his graphic and passionate description of the problems that his constituents face. It goes without saying that once people have paid for their television licence, they expect to be able to access their favourite television programmes. We all know that televisions are an important part of people’s lives. In fact, the most recent Ofcom figures suggest that, on average, people watch about three and a half hours of television each day. Public service broadcasting is the most popular end of the market, with public service programmes making up two thirds of viewing. I can readily understand that the inability of his constituents to receive analogue signals will lead to huge discontent and have every sympathy with the position in which they find themselves.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue several times with several people in several organisations, and although it is nice to think that the buck stops with the Government, particularly in the context of a Westminster Hall debate, there is actually a clear statutory framework. I was rather surprised when preparing for today’s debate to learn that the elements of that framework have not been used, and I suggest that he might like to think further about that.

The hon. Gentleman might ask why I am answering the debate, because, in essence, this is a planning matter—it sits firmly in that realm. I hope that if I set out the respective responsibilities of all those with an interest in the problem, it may help him to help his constituents.

First, the issue is about management of the spectrum, and that includes reception and interference. I realise that the hon. Gentleman knows this, but, just to put it on the record, those are the responsibilities of Ofcom, not the Government. Ofcom operates within the terms of the Communications Act 2003. Under that Act, as he pointed out—I believe it was stated in a letter that he received from Ofcom—Ofcom does not have statutory powers to investigate situations where television reception is disrupted by physical structures such as a building. The reason for that is that the powers lie elsewhere. It is not that the powers do not exist but that they lie within the planning regime, where they can be used flexibly and appropriately.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

After calling myself Hercule Poirot at the start of the debate, I have decided to re-christen myself Miss Marple.

I was dealing with Ofcom’s statutory power before the sitting was suspended. Ofcom does not have a statutory power to intervene when television reception is disrupted, because that power is vested elsewhere. It would not be sensible to have a legislative duplication of authority across different bodies.

That is an interesting statement, because East Northamptonshire district council says that Ofcom has the power to investigate under the provisions of the Wireless Telegraphy Act 1949, and that it has used the power in previous cases. However, for some reason it has refused to do so in this case—it is passing the parcel.

I shall write to the hon. Gentleman. He will have seen my officials shaking their heads, and it is the first that I have heard of the matter.

The powers are vested with the local authority. As the hon. Gentleman told his story, it struck me that the local authority had not used its powers properly in the past, and it is not using its existing powers. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to him about remedial action, but the authority is simply not using its power, and I fail to understand why that is the case. I sincerely urge the hon. Gentleman to go back to his local authority on those matters.

I said that this was planning matter. Ofcom recommends that planning authorities take into account the potential for disruption to TV reception when they consider planning applications for large structures. As the hon. Gentleman said, the situation is not unique. He raised the issue of the wind farm in Kettering, and similar issues were raised when the new Wembley stadium was being built. We know about such circumstances and we have a legislative infrastructure in place. We want to be sensitive enough so that local authorities operating at the local level can take the appropriate action to meet local circumstances.

Ofcom publishes technical guidance on the effects of tall buildings and structures on television reception, and that guidance appears on the BBC website. The Department for Communities and Local Government has responsibility for planning, and it might be helpful to reiterate for the record—the hon. Gentleman can look this up in Hansard—the planning policy on interference from buildings. Planning policy guidance note 8 on telecommunications sets out the Government’s policies on different aspects of planning that should be taken into account by local planning authorities as they prepare their development plans. The guidance can be material to decisions on individual applications for planning permission appeals, and it recognises that large structures can cause disruptions to analogue television reception. It states that local planning authorities

“will need to satisfy themselves”—

that is what puzzles me—

“that the potential for interference has been fully taken into account in the siting and design of such developments, since it will be more difficult, costly and sometimes impossible to correct after the event.”

It continues:

“If it is clear, by the nature of the development, that disruption to television reception will be a significant problem, the solution may be for the developer to incorporate a television relay (repeater) or cable system. However, a practical remedy may not always be possible. In this case, where broadcast transmitters are involved, there should be full consultation with the broadcasting authorities before such a course is adopted.”

I quoted that document at length, because it sets out how the situation should be addressed. Although there is no statutory requirement for local planning authorities to have regard to television reception, it can be a material consideration. Whether it is relevant to the decision-making process will vary across the country, which is why it appears in guidance only. If local authorities are concerned, they have a range of options. Obviously, the best thing is to hold pre-application discussions with the developer to ensure that the planning details are acceptable. If they do not go down that route, they can impose conditions on the grant of planning permission, and they have a power to enter into specific planning obligations. For reasons that are not clear to me, DCLG prefers local authorities to impose conditions rather than obligations, but that is a technical matter. It is for local planning authorities to determine the appropriate course of action depending on the circumstances of the case.

It is not possible to attach conditions after planning permission has been granted—I think that that might be the problem encountered by the hon. Gentleman’s local authority. That is why it was suggested that remedial action could be taken. I understand that there have not been successful negotiations between the developer and the local authority. I further understand—this puzzled me, too, when I read the version of the story that was given to me—that his constituents have complained to the local government ombudsman, who concluded that the council was not at fault. Clearly, that is a decision for the ombudsman, and it has already been taken. However, I was puzzled by the outcome of that particular investigation.

Where can the hon. Gentleman go from here? I am afraid, having reached this point, the options are not as easy as I would like. His constituents could seek redress through the courts, if they are unhappy with the planning authority’s decision—I accept that they are—although I appreciate that that is expensive and that they would have to seek legal advice first. Technical options are also open to them, but those, too, would come at a cost—I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news. For example, they could obtain the public service broadcasting channels, plus many more, via satellite. I accept that that involves a subscription. However, satellite is also available with a one-off payment, and that may be a route that some people can go down. Freesat from Sky is available, and Sky has recently launched a product called Sky pre-paid, which retails at £75. In spring this year, BBC and ITV will launch their own versions of Freesat, which will provide guaranteed subscription-free access to their digital services, again for a one-off initial payment. I understand that Virgin Cable also serves the Rushden area, although using that service involves the payment of an ongoing subscription. Those are all the options available to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that would enable them to receive those TV services.

I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that he ought to approach his local authority, or indeed the regional development agency, to see whether or not, in the circumstances, they could provide assistance in ensuring that his constituents have access to those services. I certainly know, from my previous job in the former Department of Trade and Industry, that in a number of areas where access to TV services was limited because of rurality, the RDA played a role in ensuring that people living in very remote areas were given some form of subsidy to enable them to access TV services. I would suggest that the hon. Gentleman investigate that route further.

I am very grateful to the Minister for the helpful advice that she is giving. There is one other piece of advice that I wonder whether she considers is appropriate. When a major developer undertakes developments throughout my area, presumably it makes substantial profits, so would it not be reasonable to expect it to pay 100 times £75. Is that the way forward?

My hon. Friend is helping me with that question. That would not be unreasonable, and I would expect—I am a former member of a local authority, and I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is, too—the local authority to negotiate with the developer to ensure, through the section 106 arrangements, that the disbenefit experienced by the hon. Gentleman’s constituents is put right through an agreement with the developer before planning permission is granted.

I also must tell the hon. Gentleman that when his region switches to digital in 2011, the situation is likely to continue in respect of digital terrestrial services, as the digital signals will be broadcast from the same transmitters that broadcast the analogue series. There is only one piece of good news for those constituents who have problems with “ghosting”, which happens when the analogue television signals are reflected by buildings or other tall objects, leading to multiple pictures being layered on top of one another on the TV screen. After switchover, ghosting should not be a problem, because of the technical characteristics of the digital switchover.

The final option for the hon. Member for Wellingborough’s constituents would be for the community in some way—through the town council, the district council, the county council or whatever structure—to build and operate a low-powered TV repeater transmitter. The cost will vary, depending on the precise situation, but it is likely to be in the range of a few hundred pounds to a few thousand pounds. Such transmitters require a licence, so the hon. Gentleman should advise his constituents to get in touch with Ofcom if they wish to pursue that option further. The hon. Gentleman will also know of the digital switchover help scheme. It might be appropriate, particularly for people who are over 75, seriously disabled or registered as blind or partially sighted—those groups are eligible for help under the scheme—as it could provide a subsidy for those people for the switchover.

I feel huge sympathy for the position in which the hon. Gentleman’s constituents find themselves. I hope that my comments have helped them. I think that there is a clear route forward. The hon. Gentleman should not have got to the position that he is in, but having got there, he must look forward and I hope that he will find a solution on behalf of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o’clock.