It’s time to break up Britain’s London-centric media

Media City, Salford, Greater Manchester. Image: Getty.

To say that people living around the UK think there is something of a London-centric bias in the British media would be an understatement. Although the capital represents 13 per cent of the UK population, all of the country’s national English-language newspapers and broadcasters are based there – a level of concentration that is hard to justify on either economic or cultural grounds. The Conversation

The most obvious solution is to relocate a greater proportion of UK-wide media outside the capital. Following the BBC’s decision to relocate some of its operations to Media City in Salford, it might soon be Channel 4’s turn to venture out of the capital. The government will soon launch a consultation on the channel’s future which – inter alia – will explore whether some or all of its operations should be based outside London.

Think outside the M25

The lack of regional diversity in the UK media was acknowledged by the 2003 Communications Act, which required that a proportion of programmes by the UK’s main broadcasters (excluding Sky) be made outside the M25 (a 117-mile motorway which runs in a ring around Greater London). But the ambitions here were modest – so, for example, BBC channels were asked to produce 25 per cent of their programming hours and 30 per cent of their spending outside London. For Channel 4 and Five, those figures were 30 per cent and 10 per cent respectively.

But the Act still assumed the great majority of programming would be made in London – and, according to PACT, the body that represents the UK’s 500 independent media companies, this remains true. Around three-fifths of the UK’s independent media producers are based in London – four times the number in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland combined.

The BBC’s move to Salford was designed to address this. The move inevitably met with some resistance – London metropolitanism among parts of the creative establishment runs deep. Reports that the Guardian is considering a return to its Manchester roots have also been greeted with scepticism, even within the paper’s own ranks – former editor, Peter Preston concluding that as far as the UK media goes, London is “where it’s at”.

Radio Five Live at Media City, Salford. Image: James Cridland/creative commons.

There are, of course, moments when this is true. But for most people, most of the time, London is not where it’s at. The BBC’s move of some of its operation to a northern hub recognises this. But even this is only a modest move on the road towards regional diversity.

Forever England?

The case to move more media out of London is compelling, and Channel 4 – with its reputation for freshness and originality – is an obvious candidate. An early frontrunner for host city is Birmingham, which has already offered the broadcaster a prime city centre location (although Karen Bradley – the minister for Culture, Media and Sport – represents nearby Staffordshire, a potential conflict of interest that might give rise to accusations of pork-barrel politics).


Hot on Birmingham’s heels is Manchester. Andy Burnham, Labour’s mayoral candidate for Greater Manchester, is busily making the case, arguing that the media infrastructure in Salford’s Media City makes “Greater Manchester the only viable alternative outside of London”. The other city being talked about is Leeds, currently considered more of a long shot.

And all of this raises the question – why should we always assume that a UK broadcaster has to be based in England? The cultural bias of our broadcasters is not only London-centric, but England-centric.

Cardiff University has conducted four reviews for the BBC Trust looking at the UK broadcasters’ coverage of UK politics. Despite the fact that a great deal of power and responsibility has now been devolved to the four nations, political coverage continues to be largely Westminster-based. Most stories about topics of devolved responsibility – in areas such as health and education – tend to ignore this, and focus only on England.

As former BBC Trustee and Chair of the Editorial Standards Committee Richard Ayre put it, devolution “represents a growing challenge to UK-wide broadcasters”. But it is a challenge that it will be harder to meet if we assume that UK media must always be based in England. Imagine if Channel 4 moved to Edinburgh – which is after all – home to the UK’s premier cultural festival? This would be devo-max with a difference. It would send a powerful message that the UK union actually meant something – and that the Scottish capital has as much right to be at the centre of things as an English city.

BBC drama studios at Roath Lock in Cardiff. Image: Chris Sampson/Flickr/creative commons.

A more plausible contender, perhaps, is Cardiff – the UK’s youngest capital city. The success of the BBC’s drama studios in Cardiff Bay – the base of production for Sherlock, Dr Who and Casualty, among others – has helped create one of the most impressive media infrastructures outside London, with a healthy supply chain of graduates from the City’s three universities (20 per cent of Cardiff’s population are students) including one of the world’s leading media schools.

As a resident of the Welsh capital – and as an employee of the aforesaid media school – I have to declare a bias. But how many other cities have hosted a NATO summit, the Champions League final and the Rugby World Cup, while developing a cultural reputation for being edgy and innovative? In many ways, this City of the Unexpected would make a perfect home for Channel 4. Oh – and its only two hours by train to central London.

Justin Lewis is professor of communication at Cardiff University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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