BBC’s bid to move spending out of London lacks clear plan – MPs

The BBC’s bid to move £700 million of spending out of London by March 2028 is being taken forward “without a clear plan”, a report by MPs has said.

A report by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has raised concerns that the BBC is focused on the moving of the spending as a measure of success in itself, rather than tracking what positive change it is achieving.

It said that as plans to evaluate the programme’s impact are only due to begin in 2025, it will be “too late to change course if needed”.

The effort to move the spending out of London and into the nations and regions is part of the BBC’s Across the UK (ATUK) programme.

Raac issues
Dame Meg Hillier chairs the committee (Richard Townshend/UK Parliament)

The PAC’s inquiry also raises concerns that the risks and impacts of changes made to ATUK’s scope were not well enough understood by the BBC, with changes made to local services potentially disadvantaging certain groups.

MPs said the moving budgets from its local radio to local online services, would “in effect reduce services for older people or those less able to access online platforms, which was part of the original ATUK programme”.

Dame Meg Hillier MP, chair of the PAC, said: “The BBC is seeking to liberate hundreds of millions in spending from the gravitational pull of London, and it is understandable that the simple act of having done so would feel like success.

“But as with every publicly-funded project, it is incumbent on the BBC to track what positive impact its spending is having at the same time.

“Parliament and the public must also be fully satisfied that the BBC is not simply cherry-picking examples of success in delivery of Across the UK, while sweeping bad news stories under the rug as not part of the programme, in particular cuts to local radio.

“It must also take care not to over-rely on partnerships with local authorities already dealing with extreme financial pressure. We wish the BBC fair wind with ATUK, and hope our report comes as a timely reminder of the importance of seeking value for money, rather than just money spent.”

The report said  the BBC’s reporting of ATUK, including in relation to local radio cuts, does not provide Parliament nor the public with a complete picture of progress and MPS are concerned the BBC is claiming benefits for ATUK publicly for activities that are not part of the programme when it is favourable for it to do so.

It accused the BBC of “dissociating other activities from ATUK when they could be seen as a bad news story, such as cuts to local radio”.

The report concludes: “The BBC’s plans for Across the UK are overly focused on the actions it will take, rather than what impact it intends to achieve.

“The BBC considered moving £700 million of expenditure outside London to be a key measure of success of the programme, but the BBC did not give us a coherent explanation of the impact it expects to deliver for licence fee payers from this commitment.

“The BBC plans to use a ‘basket of measures’ to assess the success of the programme. However, most of the measures it plans to use are input measures, referring to the BBC’s actions (such as moving jobs).

“It has limited outcome measures to demonstrate the positive change the BBC intends to achieve (such as improving the relevance of its content to its local audiences and creating new, local jobs in the creative sector), but the BBC recognised that it was currently focused on driving the input measures.”

MPs also said the BBC’s confidence it will deliver on the goals of ATUK is “misplaced, given it is behind schedule in key areas”.

The report added: “The BBC’s initial lack of planning resulted in unrealistic timelines for some areas of the programme, such as moving roles and local recruitment.”

The report recommends the BBC “refresh” its plans for ATUK and instead “set out its strategy for realising benefits and what it will deliver (including for licence fee payers, local communities, the wider sector and BBC staff) during the remainder of its Across the UK programme.”

In response to the report, Thomas Wrathmell, BBC’s director of Across the UK, said: “We have a very clear plan on how we will move investment, programming and decision-making across the UK to get closer to audiences, support the country’s diverse creative sectors, and develop and nurture new talent.

“Our pioneering programme is deliberately ambitious and has been fully assessed.

“We are incredibly proud of the progress we’ve made so far and remain focused on achieving our targets to deliver cultural and economic benefits across the UK.

“We are disappointed by some of the commentary in the Committee’s report and look forward to addressing the issues raised when we provide our written response. We will continue to provide ongoing updates to the general public and industry stakeholders through the BBC’s Annual Plan and Annual Report.”