Skip to main content

Digital Broadcasting (West Dorset)

Volume 483: debated on Tuesday 18 November 2008

I can genuinely say, Mr. Key, that it is a delight to serve under your chairmanship.

I asked for this debate because, a few years ago, I found myself, as Members of Parliament do from time to time, at a meeting in a Committee Room that had been booked by outsiders who were explaining some matters to us. I was not at all sure that I really needed to be there but I had gone along for the ride, so to speak. At the meeting, a rather large map of Great Britain was projected electronically on the wall. It was very heavily shaded in some parts, and it showed the digital coverage that would be achieved with the digital switchover. There were just a very few points of white on this impressively shaded map. The people who held the meeting were from what is now Digital UK, as well as other groups, and they explained that the coverage was magnificent and it was only the tiny white points where there would not be any coverage.

I am as blind as a bat, as you might know, Mr. Key, so I had to take out my glasses, but even that did not work. I had to walk over and get close to the screen to see that my constituency and that of my neighbour in South Dorset were pinpointed with unerring accuracy as the two in the whole of the south of England that will not be well covered by digital broadcasting. As you might imagine, Mr. Key, I suddenly became extremely interested in the meeting.

That meeting led to the formation of the Dorset broadcasting action group, which is known as DorBAG. We have had a series of constructive and useful meetings with representatives of Digital UK and the BBC at various levels. I have also had meetings with the director-general of the BBC and members of the central staff, as well as with Ofcom and a range of other relevant parties, and some progress has been made. Many of my constituents who will not be served by digital terrestrial broadcasting, due to the lie of the land, will nevertheless be able to get hold of Freesat, which was not available when I was stuck in that room looking at the map. That will enable them to receive digital broadcasts without having to deal with Mr. Murdoch. However, my constituents, and those in South Dorset, experience significant problems with news coverage that are bound up with more persistent problems that have nothing to do with digital switchover.

The main issue is the so-called “three mux, six mux” problem with which the Minister will be familiar. It so happens that my constituents are served by relay transmitters, although why that is the case is lost in the mists of history. For reasons that I dimly understand—too dimly to give the House any adequate explanation—when digital switchover occurs, people who are served by relays will not receive the full suite of channels that they would get if they were served by a main transmitter. For reasons that I understand even less, that effect is not uniform, so only some of my constituents will have access to the full range of channels.

Having sat down with the experts—of whom I am not one, of course—I have discovered that on some streets in my constituency, people on one side will receive the full set of channels whereas those on the other side will not. You will understand, Mr. Key, from your extensive experience as the conscientious Member for Salisbury, the kind of civil unrest and the postbag that will be generated for me and my neighbour in South Dorset—whoever that may be—if our constituents can compare notes. Suppose that Mrs. Jones discourses, in the shop, on the merits of the programme that she saw the night before, but Mrs. Smith could not get it. That will not make Mrs. Smith happy, not least because she is paying the same licence fee as Mrs. Jones. Nothing on earth will persuade Mrs. Smith that that situation should have occurred.

The Government’s account—I know this because I have tabled parliamentary questions and have written letters on the matter—is that the decision is a commercial one, and it is not theirs to take. They say that it is the commercial broadcasters that have decided not to foot the bill for making a full suite of channels available to all my constituents, but there is a hitch in that argument. It is true that the broadcasters have taken that decision, but I have no doubt that if there were no regulation at all, they would have chosen to serve only the urban concentrations. They might well have decided that it simply was not worth serving people in West Dorset or, while we are at it, perhaps even those in Salisbury. In general, what compels them to serve a wide population and to give access to programming is the regulatory framework that is partly designed to have exactly that effect, and rightly so. I do not think that the Government can skip out of the matter by arguing that it is a commercial decision, because underpinning that decision is a regulatory framework that does not compel broadcasters to provide equivalent levels of service where technically possible, which it is in this case, to all the residents of an area.

There has been a regulatory failure, but we do not necessarily need a regulatory solution. There is a practical, humdrum solution that would also solve a second problem that I want to raise with the Minister. I have already raised it with the director-general of the BBC and some of his colleagues, and DorBAG has raised it at various levels within the BBC. In West Dorset and South Dorset, we suffer from being on the margin. Poole and Bournemouth are, culturally speaking, part of the south of England, whereas Exeter and Plymouth are, culturally speaking, part of south-west England. Dorset, particularly West Dorset and South Dorset, lies betwixt the two.

For many years, the BBC and other broadcasters have been unable to decide quite where in the cultural map of Britain South Dorset and West Dorset fit. That problem is not shared by the people of South Dorset and West Dorset. My constituents, who differ in many other respects would, if asked—although I have never tried it—probably respond to a deed poll with a 90 per cent. return answering that they are culturally part of the south-west. We do not feel allied to Hampshire, and we do not look to it. Part of the reason why the geographical county of Dorset was split into the unitaries of Bournemouth and Poole and the rural county of Dorset was precisely because the rural county of Dorset looks west, not east.

There is extraordinarily little interest in my constituency in news about Bournemouth, although it is a fine place and we have nothing against it. Bournemouth is of great interest to the people who live in it, but to the people of my constituency, who rarely go anywhere near it, it is not a place of great interest; it is just a place. News about Bournemouth and Poole, of which one can see a lot on TV screens in South Dorset and West Dorset, if one can get coverage, which many people cannot, is of no interest. Moreover, the southern offices of the news-gathering organisations do not regard Dorset as part of their remit any more than West Dorset regards itself as being part of their culture, so they do not provide any serious amount of broadcast news about events in West Dorset or South Dorset. The south-western parts of the BBC would be keen to do so, because they do regard us as being part of them, but, alas, they are not mainly responsible, and most of the broadcasts do not come from them.

As a result of DorBAG’s efforts, the BBC has made considerable advances on news gathering, particularly for radio news, and it has made partial moves to set up a team of journalists who will work from Dorchester and Weymouth and will concern themselves with events in rural Dorset. Unfortunately, however, the configuration reflects the very problem that I describe, because responsibility for that group of journalists will be shared. There is so-called matrix management. Whenever I hear such words, I know that I am hearing a confusion. Those poor people, who will be earnestly working for truth in the news-gathering organisation that will be established in Dorchester, will have two masters—south-west and south—and will not know whether they are coming or going. Because they have two masters, they will have no patron, as that would not be core to the offering of either. They will be at the margin of each. Their chances of getting the editor of either to take seriously the product that they provide will be reduced. If an editor is fundamentally focusing on a particular area, most of the news that he wants to put on will be from that area. The rather inconvenient fact of a half share in West Dorset and South Dorset news gathering will not make them think that that area should be the centrepiece of their news programming.

Why do I go into this long excursus about news and its origin? Because the very same solution that would solve the three mux, six mux problem, and the problem of some people having very few channels compared with others after switchover, would also solve the problem of news broadcasts. If there were a new main transmitter that provided the full suite of channels for all those in my constituency and South Dorset who can receive terrestrial TV, and if that transmitter were linked to the south-west so that BBC South West were responsible for the news content that went out to the locality, we would get not only all the channels but news programming that was local and became part of the core offering of the south-western part of the Beeb. That would be a huge advance for my constituents.

I do not think that there would be huge expense involved. There would be some—the capital expense of establishing the mast—but that is a very small part of the cost of digital switchover. As I understand it, running costs would not be increased by the manoeuvre. Moreover, we have established that there would be positive enthusiasm in BBC South West about taking on the responsibility for West Dorset and South Dorset broadcasting. We would have a lasting arrangement that would satisfy my constituents and relieve both the Minister and me of an endless stream of irate constituents complaining about getting half as much broadcasting as they have paid for, and still not getting the news to which they think they are entitled. Of course, we shall make that proposal to the BBC Trust and the director-general. I hope that the Minister will give it a fair wind and ensure that my constituents are not left at the margins of news and in the unfortunate position of receiving, in many cases, only half the channels that other people receive.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on his success in securing this debate on digital broadcasting and the use of relays in West Dorset, and on his work on the matter as a constituency MP. He really is an example to us all, and the setting up of the Dorset broadcasting action group has obviously already produced some results.

I should like to go through broadly what the Government are doing and some of the reasons for the situation in West Dorset, and then turn to the right hon. Gentleman’s suggestions. As he will know, the process of switching over from terrestrial, or analogue, television to digital television began in earnest on 6 November, with the progressive switch-off of the analogue broadcasting signal in Selkirk and the border region. The process will take four years to complete, and there are sound economic reasons for doing it. The benefits will extend to consumers, because only by switching off the analogue signal will it be possible to increase the coverage of digital terrestrial television so that it reaches almost everyone, excluding only those white areas on the map to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Public service broadcasters will benefit from efficiencies and long-term cost savings, and the UK economy will benefit because the switchover will allow the development of new services through greater spectrum efficiency. In 2005, when the timetable for switchover was established, it was estimated that there would be a benefit to the economy of some £1.7 billion in net present value. I am glad to say that that estimate is now thought to be somewhat on the low side.

The co-ordination of the process falls to Digital UK. Ofcom’s digital progress report for the second quarter of 2008 revealed that multi-channel take-up on main sets in the UK is now 88 per cent, so about 88 per cent. of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents already have one television that can receive digital signals. More than half—55 per cent.—of secondary TV sets have now been converted, which means that 69 per cent. of all TV sets in the land can now receive multi-channel TV. The switchover is well on its way, without people having to wait for the Government’s progress. Nationally, about 89 per cent. of the population are aware of switchover and 68 per cent. understand what is happening. Quite a few people even understand when it is going to happen in their area. Those figures suggest that we are heading for a successful process.

The right hon. Gentleman will know about the digital switchover help scheme and the various levels of qualification for it. From work that we have done in Whitehaven and Selkirk, we know that take-up of the scheme has been pretty good. The help that it has given to some of the 7 million households in the land that will be eligible for it has been much appreciated. Its key feature is that it should be platform-neutral, not unfairly discriminating between platforms. That is to ensure not only that we secure value for money but that the scheme does not fall foul of EU state aid rules. I am glad to say that reports back from the two regions where we have completed switchover have shown that on the whole, people appreciate the service that they are receiving.

I turn to the west country and the “three mux, six mux” problem. Switchover in Selkirk and the borders will be completed on Thursday 20 November. As one would expect, work is firmly in hand to ensure that switchover in the next region, the west country, can begin in April 2009 as planned. The latest Digital UK and Ofcom tracker survey reveals that nearly nine out of 10 households in the west country TV region— 87 per cent., which is just under the national average—have connected their main set to digital TV. More than half—58 per cent., which is above the national average—have connected and converted every set in their home, and nine out of 10 people in the west country, 88 per cent., know what to do about switchover. Some 28 per cent. know the quarter of the year in which they will switch, so knowledge is quite high. Among older people in the region, however, particularly those aged 75 and over, there are markedly lower levels of conversion to digital TV—73 per cent., as against 87 per cent. nationwide—and of understanding: 54 per cent., as against 68 per cent. nationwide.

Digital UK and its partners are examining ways of improving that situation, which cannot be helped by the marginality of people’s situation in West Dorset. I have enormous sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman for the situation in which he finds himself, because that marginality is repeated in my own constituency and my own region—I am Minister for the East of England. People in Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire are not that keen on knowing details of life in Great Yarmouth or Lowestoft, of which we sometimes get rather more than we would like because of how our aerials and the transmitters are angled. People there, vice versa, do not really want to know what is happening in Bedford or Stevenage. There is a problem with the way in which the regions have been carved up. They do not correspond to the Government’s regions but to a TV region programme.

There is also a problem with where the transmitters are situated. I happen to live in a white spot. Twenty-nine miles from London, I cannot get six mux; I can only get three mux. The right hon. Gentleman is right: roads and communities are divided, and people can get very angry about the situation. The right hon. Gentleman said that he was not too sure how the lack of coverage had come about. The beginnings of the problem are somewhat lost in the mists of time, but they are to do with the fact that when the ITV franchise came in in 1955, the cost of transmitters was very high. Too few were delivered, especially for rural areas. We have an historical situation in respect of the location of the transmitters, which are expensive to install.

DorBAG’s efforts to alert the BBC and the Government to the situation in the Dorset region is greatly appreciated, and I think that other hon. Members would do well to follow the right hon. Gentleman’s example. There are some inequities that will be difficult and, frankly, exorbitantly expensive to correct. I know that matrix management sounds terrifyingly like something from a James Bond film, but it could work, particularly in today’s far more consensual business environment. I hope for the sake of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents that it can be made to work.

I shall give a little more detail on the technical background to the situation in the west country, if the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, as he has raised the issue of a new transmitter and relays. It may help if I give a quick overview of the transmitters that operate in the region and the dates on which they are expected to switch over.

The west country TV region consists of five main transmitter groups. The Beacon hill transmitter group has 23 relay transmitters serving some 147,000 homes in Torbay and south Devon. It will switch in two stages on 8 and 22 April next year. The Stockland hill transmitter group has 24 relays serving some 218,000 homes in Exeter, parts of Devon, Somerset and Dorset. It will switch in two stages on 6 and 20 May. The Huntshaw Cross transmitter group has 14 relay transmitters serving some 70,000 homes in north Devon. It will switch in two stages on 1 and 29 July. The Redruth transmitter group has 16 relays serving some 129,000 homes in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. It will switch in two stages on 8 July and 5 August. The Caradon hill transmitter group has 29 relay transmitters serving some 279,000 homes in Plymouth, Devon and east Cornwall. It will switch in two stages on 12 August and 9 September. That gives some idea of the complexity and the number of relay transmitters involved.

Some 63 per cent. of households in the west country TV region as a whole can currently receive digital TV through a Freeview aerial. I am glad to say that that will increase to 96 per cent. after digital switchover. It is predicted that 74 per cent. of those households will receive a six-mux package, or all 48 Freeview TV channels. The remainder of the households will be able to receive only three mux, or about 20 channels. That is the problem that the right hon. Gentleman has brought before the House today.

Households served by local relay transmitters receive only analogue channels at present. At switchover, however, Freeview services will be added to all local relay masts to enable access to 20 of the most popular channels for the first time, including all the public service broadcasting channels and a good deal more. Those viewers who, like me, are in a white spot and require more channels will be able to choose from a range of free or subscription satellite services offering 90 to 400 TV channels. That is the solution that I and others in my constituency have had to pursue.

As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, the Government and Ofcom are wholly committed to ensuring that digital coverage for the five main public service broadcasting channels substantially matches current analogue services—that is, 98.5 per cent. of UK households—at digital switchover. Coverage by commercial multiplex operators is a matter for them, although regulations will not allow coverage levels post-switchover to fall below current levels. The commercial operators must make a commercial decision about extending coverage, balancing the costs of doing so against the extra coverage that could be achieved. That is obviously the key to the right hon. Gentleman’s problem.

I should like to take this opportunity to thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising these important issues. The switch from terrestrial television to digital television is a vital component in the United Kingdom’s journey towards a digital society. By the end of the switchover process, just four years from now, every household with a television set will have entered the multi-channel, interactive age.

I hope that all hon. Members will take as close an interest in the switchover process in their constituencies as the right hon. Gentleman has. By working together, we can ensure that switchover benefits everyone and that no one is left without access to a range of TV channels. That said, I do understand the situation of his constituents who fall in white spots, and I wish him every success in his endeavours to persuade the commercial channels to extend coverage.