A campaign has been launched to encourage the BBC to invest more of the £4.1 billion it spends every year in the West Midlands. Graeme Brown reports.
The BBC shifting thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of pounds out of London presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the UK’s regions.
But while Salford, Cardiff and Bristol rejoiced with the huge boost to their economies and creative sectors, the economic impact of the BBC on the Midlands actually fell by more than a fifth last year.
The response from decision-makers in the region is split – those who still hope for more investment are keen to show the strength of the region’s media offer, but others are merely incredulous that the biggest BBC region receives by far the smallest return from the corporation.
In terms of ‘gross value-added’ (GVA) – the return to the local economy – the £199 million received last year in the Midlands was half that of the North, a third of that in the South and just a 28th of the return to the capital.
Meanwhile, the North is set for a major boost to income from the BBC, as BBC Sport, Radio 5Live and the BBC’s two children’s channels have been moved to Mediacity in Salford as part of a corporation commitment to ensure half of network television programming expenditure is done outside London by 2016.
The Economic Value of the BBC report, published in January, states: “The shift in the BBC’s spending out of London helps to rebalance the economy geographically, spreading the benefits of growth across the UK.
“This ensured that growth within the creative industries is likely to be enduring if the benefits of prosperity are shared by all rather than limited to the few.”
Despite this, 59 per cent of network television spending took place in London in 2011, and while the English regions enjoyed 24.7 per cent of the spend, only 3.7 per cent of that was in the Midlands. Also, in 2011/12, the BBC spent £27 million on training, and employed 55 apprentices in London, Salford, Cardiff and Glasgow.
There are currently no primetime BBC shows created in the West Midlands. Daytime show Doctors and historic radio soap opera The Archers are the feathers in the region’s cap, but business and community leaders are unanimous that this is not enough.
Expenditure is also likely to have fallen since these 2012 figures were published, after the BBC closed its Factual Unit in Birmingham.
Gisela Stuart, the Labour MP for Edgbaston, said the city was under-served by the corporation, but it was important to put together a package that was attractive to BBC bosses to encourage spending in the region.
She said: “Birmingham has already got daytime drama as well as excellent radio facilities which we are not fully using.
“If we can come up with creative ideas for evening drama and say ‘this is really something that you should commission and the only place you can do it is in Birmingham’, then that is what we should do.”
She added: “I and my fellow MPs need to put a package together for the future of production. We can build on stuff in the Drama Village from daytime production.
"They have enormous turnover times and integrated services. Bringing evening drama into Birmingham is important.”
Ms Stuart said, along with other local Labour MPs, she met with the acting director general in January and plans to meet Tony Hall after he is installed as the new director general next week.
Sutton Coldfield MP and former Conservative cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell said he had received a letter from a constituent at the end of February, which raised concerns about the imbalance in payments made to the BBC by Midland licence fee-payers and the amount of money that is spent on production and broadcast jobs in the region.
He has since made representations on behalf of his constituent to the acting director-general of the BBC and is currently awaiting a response.
The Campaign for Regional Broadcasting Midlands (CRBM) research – which compares BBC data to population statistics from the Office for National Statistics – shows that only 11 per cent of licence fee that is spent in the Midlands is returned to the region in BBC expenditure, leaving £812.3 million spent elsewhere.
On that basis, the group says that the Midlands accounted for 27 per cent of BBC expenditure in London last year – while licence fee money from the capital itself accounted for only 16 per cent.
CRMB’s Mike Bradley said: “We pay more towards the BBC’s operational expenditure in the capital than any other region – including London itself.
“The BBC has told us why this matters. The BBC itself says its spending has a positive economic impact on regions.
“If that is true then the fact they are not spending in the Midlands must be having a comparatively detrimental effect on the region.”
Mr Bradley, who is originally from Manchester, said he decided to launch the campaign after living in Birmingham for 23 years and seeing the BBC’s presence ebb away.
“I am concerned about the BBC because public service broadcasting is under threat and the BBC needs to prove it is justifying itself in the regions,” he said.
He said that the BBC needed a commissioning tsar for the Midlands, like there was in the North, but with expenditure falling – he believed it will account for £80 million in the Midlands next year – it is probably not needed.
Mr Bradley said: “The BBC doesn’t have a single production studio here in the Midlands. Cardiff has nine, Mediacity in Manchester, which the BBC rents, has 10 studios, as well as another two that ITV uses.
“There are 21 production studios in Greater Manchester but not one in the West Midlands. Twenty years ago Birmingham and Manchester had roughly equal facilities, with Pebble Mill here and New Broadcasting House in Manchester and ATV being the equal of Granada in Manchester.”
He added: “The BBC is telling people they are spending in the regions, but the truth is they are spending more in many areas and taking away from the Midlands. They are protecting their core.
“We are not against the licence fee. We believe in public service broadcasting and the BBC but not the one we have today.
“We believe in a British Broadcasting Corporation, not a north and south broadcasting corporation.”
A BBC spokesman said: “The BBC invests a significant amount in regional-based independent production companies. We are committed to playing a strong role in Birmingham’s Creative City Partnership.
“As part of this commitment BBC Birmingham recently hosted “Digital City News Day”.
“Working in partnership with Birmingham’s Digital Media Businesses Cluster, the BBC hosted a day of events aimed at all participants in the digital sector.
“The next session, scheduled to run in early spring, will focus on in- house and independent commissioning at the BBC and the types of output that the BBC are looking for.”
Creative sector backs call for action over regional spending
Major players in the region’s creative sector say the region is being hampered by the BBC spending only 2.5 per cent of its total expenditure in the Midlands.
Lucan Gray, owner and founder of Fazeley Studios and co-owner of the Custard Factory, labelled it “taxation without representation”, and “ridiculous”.
Mr Gray said: “I think it is absolutely ridiculous, when you think of Pebble Mill and all of the other things that were in Birmingham previously, that has been taken away.
“The fact that BBC spend is not proportional to the regions is ridiculous. You could understand it if it was one or two per cent, but it is completely different.”
Neil Hillman, managing director of Moseley post-production firm The Audio Suite, which recently worked on the Oscar-winning movie Lincoln, said the BBC’s influence in the West Midlands has waned in the past two decades.
Mr Hillman, who spent 10 years working for Central Television and 10 years freelancing mostly for the BBC before setting up on his own, said: “Twenty to 25 years ago there was a buoyant production sector around Pebble Mill, it was the centre for drama, but somewhere along the region lost that.
“As soon as the BBC said it was leaving there was a butterfly effect, our phone stopped ringing for the extra periphery work.
“We did work for BBC Glasgow, BBC London, but BBC Birmingham had an in-house policy.
“That was a sign that went out to the industry that Birmingham was no longer a valuable centre.
“Twenty-five per cent of the licence fee is collected in the Midlands but only 2.5 per cent is reinvested. It’s a taxation without representation.”
However, Jonnie Turpie MBE, deputy chair of Birmingham Creative City, said talks had taken place with the BBC to encourage a greater investment in the city.
Mr Turpie, founder and director of Maverick Television, which produces programmes for the BBC, said talks had taken place with creative industries bosses, local enterprise partnerships and authorities in the region.
He said: “The Creative City is extremely enthusiastic about assisting the BBC to think about future opportunities in Birmingham.
“There are discussions taking place with the BBC, the leader of the city council and the LEP in order to try and address that.
“There are many creative, talented people in the city and region that can deliver fantastic things for the BBC.”
• The Campaign for Regional Broadcasting Midlands calls for:
1. The promotion of the Midlands as a place to make TV, radio and film.
2. A far more equitable and transparent distribution of all broadcasting revenues across all nations and regions.
3. The broadcasters to accurately and positively reflect the Midlands’ rich and diverse cultural output and to provide more visibility for the people and places of this region.
4. The BBC to create a National Radio Drama Centre of Excellence in Birmingham.
5. The devolution of broadcasting expenditure in England from the centre.
6. The creation of a Midlands fund for TV drama and film making.
7. Increasing employment, training and investment in facilities by the national broadcasters in the Midlands, commensurate with the size of the region and to return a fairer proportion of the revenues that are generated here.
8. Programme makers to employ existing creative talent for commissions in the region.
9. The creation of a public or private sector facilities centre (to encourage commissions and production).
10. A greater share of ‘Outside M25’ commissions for Midlands-based independents.