Cabinet minister Ed Vaizey vowed to act to address BBC investment in the Midlands after MPs dubbed it “astonishing”, “outrageous” and “absolutely wrong”.
More than 20 MPs turned out at a special debate in Parliament over BBC spending levels in the Midlands and the East, which accounts for a quarter of its licence fee income but only two per cent of the broadcaster’s investment.
Conservative and Labour MPs from the East and West Midlands were united in criticism of the publicly-funded broadcaster, and demanded change in the forthcoming debates over the next 10-year BBC charter.
The BBC responded by pledging to increase investment in the region from £89 million a year to £125 million. However, that would represent a return of just 13 per cent of licence fee revenue in the Midlands – compared to 84 per cent in Wales, 71 per cent in Northern Ireland and 55 per cent in the North.
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey accepted that BBC investment had “increased in all regions except the Midlands” and vowed to reflect the MPs’ impassioned demands in forthcoming debates over the next 10-year BBC charter.
He said: “I can guarantee to honourable members in Westminster Hall today that they have made such a strong case that it will be reflected in what we set out.”
The debate in Parliament follows an intense campaign by the Post calling for a fair share of BBC spending.
Mr Vaizey, along with Midland MPs Julian Knight and Jack Dromey, praised the Post and sister title the Birmingham Mail for bringing the campaign to prominence.
For every family paying a licence fee in this region last year, the BBC spent just £12.40 while it invested £80 in the North, £122 in Wales and £757 in London.
At the debate at Westminster Hall on Tuesday, Rob Flello, Labour’s Stoke-on-Trent South MP, said: “A mischievous thought has crept into my mind: if every licence fee payer in the Midlands, East and West, were to pay only £12.40, the BBC might start to take notice.”
Television and radio production has been hit hard in the Midlands on the back of falling BBC investment, particularly since the closure of Pebble Mill in 2004 and a later move by the broadcaster to shift the factual unit from Birmingham to Bristol.
The effect has been devastating on a once-proud production sector.
Two MPs who have long campaigned for a fairer deal for the city from the BBC told the debate that the answer was to bring commissioning back to the Midlands and called for Lord Tony Hall, director-general, to act.
Gisela Stuart (Lab Edgbaston) said: “The bottom line is that if we do not start commissioning programmes from the Midlands, nothing will flow from the Midlands.
“We may become a production area, but for the West Midlands to reflect its own culture and output, we have to commission programmes in the Midlands and have commissioners there. We come across the issue on a daily basis.”
Richard Burden (Lab Northfield) said: “The ambition that Tony Hall says he has for the BBC in Birmingham – the kind of thing we are all talking about – needs some glue to stick it all together. It needs something behind it to make it happen.
“That glue is commissioning – it is crucial,” he added.
Lord Hall pledged to boost the BBC’s investment in Birmingham after taking on the role in 2013.
Birmingham-born Tommy Nagra was then parachuted in as head of BBC business development in the city in 2014. The upshot was no movement on production or commissioning – indeed, the BBC has never intimated any such progress, despite rising production elsewhere in the UK.
Rather, it has shifted about 300 jobs to its Mailbox offices, largely in human resources.
Solihull Conservative MP Mr Knight said: “It is ridiculous that the Mailbox seems to be full of the HR department, rather than of people making programming for our enjoyment. If the BBC were to do its job properly and to be genuinely representative of the strength of the East and West Midlands, we would be seeing greater programming and a real hub – the broadcast hub that we are talking about.”
Mr Dromey (Lab Erdington) said it was “absolutely wrong” that £9 out of every £10 raised from the region’s licence fee-payer was not spent in the Midlands.
Andrew Mitchell (Con Sutton Coldfield) added: “It is astonishing that the BBC should neglect investment in Britain’s second city of Birmingham. The BBC is cutting off its nose to spite its face. It is missing out on the huge array of talent in the east midlands and particularly the West Midlands.” The debate was called by Mark Spencer, the Conservative MP for Sherwood in Nottinghamshire.
He pointed out it was a significant regional development issue, as, if the BBC invested at the same rate as it did in the North and South, the Midlands would be about £750 million a year better off.
He said: “Investment in the region is as low as 2.05 per cent, which is outrageous. The figure is a sixth of the amount spent in the north, 21 per cent of the amount spent in the south and less than the broadcaster spends in London every 12 days.”
Redditch MP Karen Lumley added: “People support the BBC as an institution, but oppose the total unfairness we are seeing in the Midlands.”
Dudley North MP Ian Austin said: “It is a disgrace that, although the West Midlands contributes 25 per cent of the licence fee, the BBC spends just two per cent of its budget fostering creative talent in the region.”
The Post’s campaign for a fair share of funding has also secured high-level backing from the likes of the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Mr Cameron said it was vital that this was raised in charter renewal debates and Mr Vaizey pledged it would be.
It is hoped the campaign has a valuable ally in Jesse Norman MP, the new chair of the culture, media and sport select committee, who will play a big part in the debate and vowed to give Midland concerns “a proper hearing”.
Selly Oak’s Labour MP Steve McCabe, another veteran campaigner on the issue, said Midland licence fee-payers felt they were getting harshly treated by the broadcaster.
He said: “For far too many of my constituents and, I suspect, people across the Midlands, the BBC means London, Cardiff, Salford, Bristol, Belfast and Glasgow - the big six - and indeed anywhere but our region.
“Various people have cited the figures. The simple fact remains that Midlands licence fee-payers contribute about £942 million to the BBC and get back about £80 million in investment, less than nine per cent of the total licence fee. I do not think that anyone would see that as fair.”
Edward Argar, Conservative MP for Charnwood in Leicestershire, said: “It is time for the BBC to escape its apparent London-centric investment bias and once again fully seize on the talent and energy of the midlands by investing and producing more in our region.”
Speaking after the debate, Mike Bradley, chair of the Campaign for Regional Broadcasting Midlands which has campaigned for change in the region, said it was a big breakthrough.
He said: “There was a consensus cross party and cross regional. It is obviously something uniting the East and West Midlands. MPs were clear about the lack of coverage in the Midlands and the lack of representation of people in the Midlands.”