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Promises of extended local coverage dropped now charter is renewed...
Promises of extended local coverage dropped now charter is renewed

By Dan Drillsma-Milgrom, finance reporter

The BBC has come under fire for failing to keep a commitment to increase local news coverage, a plan many had hoped would strengthen communities and local democracy.

Geoff Mulgan, director of the Young Foundation and a former journalist and adviser to the prime minister, said that having promised to extend local and regional news to include neighbourhoods and communities in its charter renewal bid, two years on the BBC has made little progress.

'Many in the field fear that having largely won its charter bid, the commitments to community action and neighbourhood media are being junked. All its energies are going into traditional ratings wars with the commercial channels,' he said.

The BBC published Building public value: renewing the BBC for a digital world in 2004 as its contribution to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport's consultation on the renewal of the corporation's charter.

The document pledged to launch 'highly localised television news services' for up to 60 cities and counties and talks extensively about the BBC's contribution to public value through its role in connecting and uniting communities.

But so far, a new service has only been trialled in the West Midlands. A BBC spokesman said the corporation was 'assessing the results'.

There are also suggestions the BBC's Action Network, which brings together people to work on areas of common interest in neighbourhoods and communities, has seen its budget cut.

Paul Hilder, the Young Foundation's policy leader, said: 'There is a lot of rhetoric in the Building public value document. The BBC could be making a substantial contribution and if it is back-tracking the public's money should be channelled through other routes.'

Although the renewal of the charter has been secured, the funding settlement, which sets the licence fee, is not due to be finalised until the end of 2006.

'Until the settlement is finished, it is difficult for the BBC to make any firm commitment in terms of new services,' said Jocelyn Hay, president of lobby group the Voice of Listeners & Viewers.

'There are also huge costs associated with managing the switchover to digital.'

Paul Masterman, head of communications at Shropshire CC, one of the areas included in the West Midlands trial, said the council had received more coverage under the trial.

However, John Whittingdale MP (Con), chair of the culture, media & sport select committee, criticised hype surrounding BBC coverage of local affairs. He said: 'I went to look at the West Midlands trial of local TV. It was described as an 'ultra-local' news service, but I really don't think it is ultra-local. It is based on the radio regions and consists of 10-minute bulletins on a cycle of six per hour.

'Some of the hype may have left the impression that it was going to be rather more local and extensive than it has been. I don't think it provides a direct competitor to local papers.'

A BBC spokeswoman said: 'Citizenship remains an important area for us, we've learned valuable lessons from our Action Network project which we are incorporating into plans to provide users with information and platforms to engage with subjects important to them.

'People used the Action Network more for reference than the tools provided,' she added.

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