Although this has been a relatively mild winter in east Kent we have now seen another major storm break on our shores. Storm Dennis has caused loss of life and brought more disruption to homes and services across the country. It has had a major impact on travel plans with the temporary closure of the Dartford crossing bridge and the cancellation of many flights from airports like Gatwick. At the Port of Dover, we saw long delays with lorries queuing for miles waiting to leave the country. We cannot control the weather, but we can prepare for what it might throw at us. Once again, I would like to thank our emergency services, local councils, the highways teams, UK Power Networks and the Environment Agency for all they have done to support residents and communities over the last week.
The Government has launched a consultation on the future of the BBC licence fee, and in particular whether or not it should be a criminal offence, rather than a civil offence, not to pay it. I can understand their concerns that the time of the courts should be focused on other more serious matters than non-payment of the BBC licence fee. However, the consequence of this change, should it be made, would most probably be that the income the BBC receives from this charge will decrease. In fact, last year for the first time in a decade the BBC’s licence fee revenue declined, as increasingly younger audiences have opted out of the BBC’s services in favour of alternative online providers of news and entertainment. As a national broadcaster the BBC is required to deliver programmes that cater for all interests, and news that reports on the issues that matter to people right around the country. Much of this content might be that for which there is little commercial value, but it is still a service many people enjoy. A publicly funded broadcaster which does not need to go out and find sponsorship and advertising revenue, should not be looking to compete directly with its commercial rivals, but instead support more distinctive programming which might not otherwise be made. However, there is a danger that a BBC with much more limited resources will have to cut back on what it makes, and the first victims of these cuts will be more specialist content and localised services. Local radio, like Radio Kent, is a much-valued service and many residents would not like to see it suffer because of budget savings across the BBC.
Some people will say that the BBC should become a fully commercial service and that we should scrap the licence fee altogether. We should consider carefully though what that would mean. Firstly, the BBC would then focus on providing content just for the people who wanted to pay to view it, rather than for everyone. Also, a commercial BBC with the freedom to run adverts could have a major adverse impact on other stations. In Kent for example, if Radio Kent could run adverts, the biggest losers would probably be other local news services who would see their revenue fall.
The BBC is a long way from being perfect, and it's right that we continue to question and challenge it with regards to the services it provides. I also believe there are ways in which it could increase its funding from commercial services in addition to the money it gets from the licence fee. However, we should be concerned about what the longer-term impact would be of radical changes to its funding formula. I would be interested to hear the views of readers of this column on this - please do email me, at [email protected]