Fears have been raised over the future of the BBC's Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) amid news the television licence fee will be frozen and possibly abolished after 2027. 

LDRS journalists are responsible for scrutinising the work of councils and other local public bodies in their assigned area, such as the Police and Crime Commissioner’s office and health boards.

Focusing largely on untangling the decision-making processes of these bodies - and the impact of those decisions within communities - they report on issues including planning and development, the funding of services and housing policy.

The National Wales: The BBC licence fee pays for an array of services such as the Local Democracy Reporting Service and S4C. Photo: Andy Hepburn/PAThe BBC licence fee pays for an array of services such as the Local Democracy Reporting Service and S4C. Photo: Andy Hepburn/PA

The licence fee pays for BBC services including TV, radio, the BBC website, podcasts, the iPlayer and various apps. But crucially, it also pays for the LDRS. 

The salaries of LDRS journalists are funded by the BBC, but they are employed by 'contract holders' - news organisations which must pass a vetting process to qualify for the scheme. Senior BBC editorial staff award contracts based on organisations’ financial standing and established journalistic quality. 

The criteria were recently relaxed in order to make the bidding process more accessible to smaller publishers, after a review raised concerns that “LDR contracts had been primarily awarded to a combination of large organisations and print publishers”.

Work produced through the LDRS is made available to a pool of media outlets, with reports used by The Western Mail, The Daily Post and WalesOnline, as well as The National and other Newsquest titles, which include The Leader, The County Times, South Wales Argus, North Wales Chronicle and The Tivyside Advertiser amongst others

The LDRS has provided stories for The National on housing, planning and loan sharks.

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Editors from our local sister titles across Wales shared their concerns with The National over the potential impact slashing the licence fee might have on BBC’s Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), as fears mount over the institution’s future.

Calling the service “vital”, editors said that LDRS journalists provided “trusted and accurate information to the public throughout the coronavirus pandemic,” and that their “expertise and analysis” would not be easily replaced.

Thom Kennedy, editor of The County Times in Powys, said: “Public sector bodies have a reputation at all levels for being slightly labyrinthine structures that require an incredible level of time and know-how to deal with properly - That knowledge and understanding is exactly what the Local Democracy Reporting Service provides.

“This is a system and a service which ensures that democracy is played out in the public eye at a local as well as national level, and that decisions made by councils and local bodies are properly presented to the public and scrutinised.

“In more rural counties, which might otherwise find themselves drowned out by the noise from more densely-populated urban areas, having independent scrutiny of democratic bodies is essential.

“Our LDRs provide accountability for our councils, with expertise and analysis that would not be easily replaced.”

The National Wales: Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced the TV licence fee freeze on Monday. (Picture: PA Wire)Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced the TV licence fee freeze on Monday. (Picture: PA Wire)

Newsquest’s West Wales Editor, Clare Snowdon, said: “Katy Jenkins, our local democracy reporter, has played a vital role in providing trusted and accurate information to the public throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

“The service enables us as media outlets to shine a light on issues that are affecting people in their communities, and it is vital that funding is secured long-term to continue public service reporting.”

Gavin Thompson, editor of The National and South Wales Argus added: “The scheme plays a vital role in holding local politicians and decision makers to account and is widely supported across the local media.

“It enables local titles, regardless of size, to bring quality reporting to their readers that they might not otherwise be able to afford to provide, and ensures that there are journalists in most council meetings up and down the country.

"That, in turn, means decisions taken in dark rooms are exposed to the daylight of scrutiny.

“This service is paid for through the BBC licence fee and must not be sacrificed as part of future reform of the way the broadcaster is funded.”

Speculation about the scheme’s future was sparked on Sunday, when UK Culture Minister Nadine Dorries implied in a tweet that the TV licence fee would be abolished from 2028.

 

The licence fee, at £159 per year, funds around 75 percent of the BBC’s budget. This income is guaranteed until 2027, when the current funding agreement through the Royal Charter expires. New arrangements will then be decided by whichever political party is in government at that time. 

Speaking to Parliament on Monday, the Minister instead announced that while the licence fee would be frozen until 2024 - at which point it would increase in line with inflation - no final decision had been reached on the future of the charge beyond 2027.

 “It is not a policy – we are announcing a debate and a discussion,” she said.

“The decision as to what the future funding model looks like is up for discussion.”

The freeze to the licence fee, Ms Dorries claimed, was made to address the UK’s cost of living crisis.

“The BBC is a great institution - it has a unique place in our cultural heritage,” she said.

“Likewise the Welsh broadcaster, S4C, plays a unique and critical role in promoting the Welsh language and in supporting our wider public service broadcasting landscape.

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“However, in reaching this settlement, I had to be realistic about the economic situation facing households up and down the country.

“The global cost of living is rising, and this government is committed to supporting families as much as possible during these difficult times.”

Last week, the head of a Scottish children’s charity condemned the UK government’s October 2021 decision to cut Universal Credit payments by £20 per week, adding that child poverty in Scotland was "growing beyond anything which we've ever seen before".

The National Wales: The BBC's future remains uncertain. (Picture source: PA Wire)The BBC's future remains uncertain. (Picture source: PA Wire)

The UK Culture Minister also raised concerns with the BBC’s content.

“In the last few months, I’ve made it clear that the BBC needs to address issues around impartiality and groupthink,” she said.

Referencing the Nicholas Serota report into the organisation’s reporting standards, she added: “I have had constructive discussions about these issues with the BBC in recent months.

“But the BBC now needs to put those words into action.”

Dorries has been a vocal critic of the BBC’s editorial output for some time, tweeting in 2020: “The BBC favours strident, very Left-wing, often hypocritical and frequently patronising views that turn people away.”

The BBC has previously been criticised for the Conservative Party ties of some in its top ranks, however. 

The current Director General, Tim Davie, ran as a Conservative council candidate in the mid-nineties, and was deputy chairman of his local branch. BBC board member Robbie Gibb served as Theresa May’s director of communications in her time as Prime Minister, while the current BBC chair, Richard Sharp, has donated more than £400,000 to the Conservatives since 2001. 

Monday’s announcement also saw the Culture Secretary announce additional funding support for S4C, which is funded largely by the TV licence fee. It had been feared that future cutbacks at the Welsh language channel brought on by the fee freeze would damage the status of Cymraeg.

S4C will receive a further £7.5million per year, partially plugging the gap left by the freeze.

The episode has resulted in renewed calls for broadcasting powers to be devolved to the Senedd.

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