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BBC radio cuts could cause emergency chaos, councils warn

Emergency radio broadcasts could be jeopardised by BBC plans to turn off medium wave radio transmitters and lay off local reporters, council leaders have warned.

In times of crisis such as flooding, severe weather or other major emergencies, town halls and their partner police and fire authorities often rely on local radio to keep residents informed and issue safety advice.

As part of cost-cutting measures, the BBC is proposing to cut medium wave coverage across swathes of the country, replace hours of local radio content with national programmes and lay off many regional staff.

It says local radio will be able to leave national schedules to broadcast during "times of civil emergency or bad weather" and medium wave will only be turned off in areas with an alternative FM service.

However, what appears as FM coverage on paper is in reality only crackling static in many areas where the signal is disrupted by hills or valleys. Councils warn the medium wave switch off will lead to thousands of their residents in rural communities losing local radio entirely.

The Local Government Association fears these swingeing cuts could seriously compromise local radio's effectiveness during emergencies and potentially put lives at risk, especially in areas which are losing medium wave coverage. It has submitted its concerns as part of the BBC's consultation, which closes this week, and called for clarification about how new systems would work in an emergency.

Cllr Chris White, Chair of the LGA's Culture, Tourism and Sport Board, said:

"Local radio plays a key role in how councils manage an emergency and the BBC regularly sits on resilience planning panels along with police and fire authorities. It's particularly important in rural areas which don't receive FM, for elderly residents who rely on it for information or tourist hotspots where the population can increase rapidly and the best way to communicate with them is local radio.

"Time and time again these arrangements have proven invaluable to local communities, from updates about school closures, heavy snowfall, road accidents and flooding, to bulletins about more unforeseen emergencies such as train crashes or dangerous criminals on the loose. People rely on councils for the latest information in many circumstances, and in turn we rely on local radio.

"Councils are aware of the need to make savings but we fear the BBC underestimates the serious implications and risks to people's safety that a simple flick of a switch could have to communities across the country.

"The BBC has a public service duty which it mustn't forget. Currently its proposed contingencies barely sound adequate on paper and in the reality of an emergency could well be found wanting. Residents may end up with confused broadcasts from inexperienced journalists reporting on places they know nothing about, while others with no medium wave service could be left entirely in the dark. Both are unacceptable."

Case Studies

Cumbria County Council – BBC Radio is facing a 20 per cent cut in services. It is the council's only county-wide media outlet and has been instrumental in its response to several major events including the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak, 2005 and 2009 floods, 2007 Grayrigg derailment and the 2010 West Cumbria shootings.

Taunton Deane Borough Council – Large swathes of the borough cannot receive FM because of the Quantock and Blackdown hills and it is estimated about 30,000 people will be left without local radio coverage if the BBC goes ahead with plans to turn off the medium wave transmitter in Taunton. The council, along with West Somerset Council which also has residents who cannot receive FM and risk losing medium wave services, has launched a campaign to encourage the BBC to rethink its plans.

Norfolk Resilience Forum – which includes the county and borough councils, police, firefighters, coastguard and health trusts – promotes the BBC 'Connecting in a Crisis' initiative and often advises people to "Go in, stay in and tune in" as well as providing the MW frequency in a number of publications. It has concerns about how many residents can actually access FM or digital signals and how switching from national to local broadcasting in a quickly unfolding emergency, such as a tidal surge across the east coast, would work in reality.

ends

Author: LGA Media Office
Contact: LGA Media Office, Telephone: 020 7664 3333

Notes to editors

The BBC is consulting on plans to reduce local radio output by 22 per cent and cut its budget by 19 per cent, a far greater reduction than other budget areas. It proposes medium wave transmission for its services should end in areas of England where coverage duplicates FM. Subject to further technical analysis, across the UK the stations which BBC management would expect to continue to transmit in medium wave include Radio 5 Live, BBC Asian Network, BBC Radio Jersey, BBC Radio Guernsey, BBC Gloucester, BBC Derby, Radio Scotland, Radio Wales and Radio Ulster/Foyle.

Read the LGA's submission:

LGA response to BBC Trust service review of BBC local radio (PDF, 4 pages, 23KB)

Further information on the cuts to on Cumbria County Council's website:

County Council to fight local radio cut

Read about Taunton Deane's campaign on Taunton Deane Borough Council's website: 
 
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