Robin Walker – 2022 Speech on BBC Local Radio

The speech made by Robin Walker, the Conservative MP for Worcester, in the House of Commons on 8 December 2022.

It is a pleasure to speak in a debate with so much cross-party agreement. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) on securing it and the Backbench Business Committee on granting it. I was very happy to put my name to the petition to the Committee calling for this debate, because this issue matters in all our constituencies.

I began today talking to Andrew Easton on the breakfast show on BBC Hereford and Worcester about a national issue, as it happens, but one with relevance in my constituency. All of us, as politicians, need to engage with local radio. I recently ended a career on the Front Bench and returned to the Back Benches, and one of the pleasures of doing that is being able to pick up some of the causes I championed previously. I remember in a debate in 2011, along with the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), championing the case for local BBC and making some of these same arguments. In that case, we did win some of the argument, and the BBC changed its mind about some of the proposed cuts and kept our local radio stronger. I hope that this debate will mean we can do that again.

As a Minister, I experienced the value of BBC local radio scrutiny in every part of the country, not just my constituency. I had to do so-called regional rounds and speak to the local BBC in different parts of the country where different issues would come up with an extremely well-informed approach. I remember being really tested by BBC Cumbria about issues of rural remoteness, and I remember challenging interviews with BBC Three Counties Radio. Having to think, as a Minister, about all the different populations that we are serving and that the BBC is serving is immensely important. That genuine localism, which the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke so passionately about, is vital.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) mentioned certain local government reorganisations that the Conservative party tried back in the 1970s. It is a running joke in my family, because my late father was the Minister responsible for implementing some of those. They were deeply unpopular and controversial, and most of them have unravelled over time, because people’s genuine local identities overcame the centralising instincts of Government. The BBC should listen to the lived experience of what happened with those great reforms of the 1970s and the fact that we have returned to a more local approach and the devolution that the hon. Member for York Central spoke about.

For my constituents in Worcester, that is vital, because we have seen with various regional initiatives over the years the understandable dominance of the population centre in Birmingham up the road of the west midlands. I do not necessarily begrudge that, because it is where the most people are, but the priorities of the conurbation are not the priorities of someone from Worcestershire or Herefordshire. That is similar to Durham—I remember being dispatched on a Department for Education visit where my briefing told me that I was going to Newcastle upon Tyne, which I queried and said, “Are you sure about that?”. It turned out that the school I was going to was actually in County Durham, a rural area where people would not have been happy to be told that they were part of Newcastle upon Tyne.

That sense of proper local identity really matters and BBC local radio does it well. We have voices on the radio that sound like the voices of our constituents—the voices that people know—so I thank the team at BBC Hereford & Worcester for the incredibly valuable public service that they provide. It should be about public service. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington quoted the line about it being one of the “crown jewels” of public service broadcasting and I feel passionately that only the local BBC can do that within the service.

When we have these debates about priorities, I wonder whether television drama is a good use of a huge proportion of the BBC’s budget in terms of public service, given that it is an increasingly competitive space. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Sir John Whittingdale) made the point about the importance of the BBC providing unique opportunities and I am not sure that it should be putting such a huge part of its budget into an increasingly competitive landscape. I would rather that the small fraction of its budget that it puts into local radio was protected and, preferably, enhanced.

Several hon. Members have mentioned the covid crisis, and we all know the enormous value of BBC local radio during that time. In my patch, we have frequently faced debilitating floods; Worcester falls victim to floods too often. During periods of huge disruption, BBC local radio is vital to many local people. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead made the point about school closures, which is one issue that we have faced as a result of floods over the years. People will not be able to get that vital local knowledge and local input—the scale and the level of detail that tells them when a primary school has been affected by floods and needs to close early—on a regional level.

That local knowledge does not stop being vital at 2 pm, so the idea that we can have local radio just for the morning is for the birds. It is about democratic scrutiny: we as Members of Parliament will all have been asked to go on the breakfast show and on drivetime to follow up the news bulletins. Although the local news bulletins are being protected, we follow them up with detailed discussions about local issues on drivetime, so to lose those programmes would be a huge mistake.

John Redwood

Is it not important that local radio journalists go to the council meetings, which are not normally before 2 pm?

Mr Walker

My right hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Of course, our local councils are a vital part of local democracy. Without local radio journalists covering and attending those meetings into the evening, we will not have the quality of democratic debate and discourse that we can and should have in this country.

I was struck by the point of the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington about the BBC chasing a younger audience with its move to digital. We have to ask why, because that younger audience is much more savvy and focused on a wide range of media, and does not necessarily rely on local radio in the same way that the older audience does. It is not just about the older audience, however—although we have heard from many hon. Members on both sides of the House about the importance of local radio to the elderly and isolated, which is right—people who drive for a living also value what local radio does. It gives detailed information about road closures that it would not be possible to get at regional level and that commercial stations can rarely provide. Reaching the audience that local radio reaches—the millions of people up and down the country who benefit from and rely on it—is important.

A good thing about the BBC’s proposals is that they talk about investing in investigative journalism, which all hon. Members would support. If that investigative journalism is taking place at a local level, however, it needs an outlet and regular opportunities to report and feed into programmes.

Sir Mike Penning

My hon. Friend is making an exceptionally good point. One problem with the redundancies is that those who have not lost their jobs will no longer be local reporters; they will be regional reporters. Some of the award-winning reporters in our constituencies and on our local radio will be smothered around the country and we will lose that expertise. I do not believe that that is what the BBC is looking for.

Mr Walker

I entirely agree, and I would also say that investigative reporting needs to be done a local level in our communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mark Garnier), who has just had to step out of the Chamber, recently had a debate about nitrous oxide misuse, and that really important issue was highlighted by a local journalist working for BBC Hereford & Worcester, based on stories that emerged locally.

At Education questions a week or so ago, I raised the case of Rhys, a boy from Worcestershire who has been unable to get a place in a special school and was not able to get a local placement. Such cases are brought up by the high-quality journalism taking place in our BBC local radio. The coverage we have had of the situation at the Worcester Warriors, which has been very worrying for many of my constituents—not just on the sport side, which I am glad to say the BBC wants to protect, but on what was going on behind the scenes and the business story of what went wrong at a premiership rugby club that has been driven into administration—could not have happened without the brilliant investigate work of Felicity Kvesic from BBC Hereford & Worcester.

For all these reasons, I think the BBC needs to rethink these proposals. I am very grateful for the constructive way in which the NUJ has been engaging on this—I think we have all had a useful briefing from it. It has shown that it agrees with parts of what is being proposed, but it disagrees with the fundamental move against localism. For local identity and for the vital public service that this provides, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to keep on pressing the BBC on these issues and to get it to rethink.