BBC local radio cuts 'a crippling blow', says MP

Austin Mitchell leads Commons attack on £15m cutback to 40 local radio stations in England

The BBC has faced further calls from MPs to reverse its controversial proposed cuts to local radio, which they said would deal the stations a "crippling blow".

Austin Mitchell, the former TV presenter and Labour MP for Great Grimsby, said BBC director general Mark Thompson's £670m package of cuts, of which the local radio proposals are a part, would be "deeply damaging" to the corporation's output.

Around £15m will be cut from the budget of the 40 local radio stations in England with the loss of 280 jobs.

"It is going to be a crippling blow," said Mitchell, who called a debate about the cuts in the Commons on Thursday.

"There are very strong feelings among our members that the cuts in local radio go too far and are too damaging. The BBC must consider the kind of objections coming from us and the rest of our society."

Another dozen MPs were due to speak at the debate, attended by the culture minister Jeremy Hunt.

Mitchell accused the government of "bullying tactics" over the way it negotiated last year's licence fee settlement, which necessitated the BBC's latest round of savings, and said the government should be ready with a "supplementary licence fee" if the corporation's output deteriorated.

"Another 7p on the licence fee [a day] and these cuts wouldn't be necessary," he added.

Mitchell said Thompson's "Delivering Quality First" initiative was playing into the hands of one of its fiercest critics, James Murdoch.

"The programme has an amazing resemblance to what Murdoch wanted in [2009's MacTaggart] lecture," he added.

Lib Dem MP Don Foster said the impact of the cuts on local radio station budgets would be "very significant" given their high level of fixed costs.

"I simply do not understand why something that is so important to so many of our constituents is under attack in this way," said Foster.

"It is worth remembering that something like 20% of people [who listen to BBC local radio] only listen to local radio. It is a lifeline for older people and the disabled and so on. I hope again the BBC will look at it agin, just as they will look again at the issue of regional TV."

Foster said it was wrong of the government to expand the remit of the Leveson inquiry to include broadcasting, which he said was another distraction for the BBC at a time when it was having to make big cuts.

He also added his voice to calls that the BBC should not have to pay transmission fees to BSkyB for the satellite broadcaster to carry its 49 radio and TV channels. The BBC pays about £10m a year in transmission fees.

Today's Commons debate was sparsely attended in comparison to a Westminster Hall discussion of the cuts in October, which attracted more than 50 MPs.

The BBC is expected to scale back its proposed local radio cuts, which have also been criticised by senior church leaders and the Salvation Army.

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John Plunkett

The GuardianTramp

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