The future of Pebble Mill

The future of Birmingham's Pebble Mill building has been discussed.

Members of the unions’ National Joint Council and local representatives met with a group of senior managers on 6 May 1999 at Pebble Mill for discussions on the future of the Birmingham building.

Staff and local political figures have been airing their concerns at the loss of commissions, particularly in day-time programming, and the recent job losses.

The unions believed directorates had been "passing the buck" to avoid addressing the issue directly. Was BBC Broadcast prepared to continue commissioning work from Pebble Mill and maintain Birmingham as a production centre? The decision had consequences for other regional centres, notably Manchester and Bristol. Had the building itself outlived its usefulness and was the BBC planning to move to another site?

The Birmingham Production Centre

Mark Thompson (Director, National and Regional Broadcast) said there was a considerable commitment to regional television and local radio based in the West Midlands. Pebble Mill housed successfully the headquarters of the English regions. The BBC was totally committed to continuing the provision of local radio and television and, increasingly, online. Broadcast had a commitment to a production centre in Birmingham. He accepted that changes in commissioning had a big impact in the area. He had therefore agreed some levels of guarantees for commissions even before the programmes were clear. This would enable a critical mass of talent to be maintained in Birmingham.

Sandra Horne (Controller of Personnel, BBC Production) referred to a Production directorate liaison meeting the previous week which had been addressed by Matthew Bannister (Chief Executive, Production). He had emphasised the need for streamlining the commissioning process and for longer-term commitments. Bannister was committed to production at Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester in a "thriving atmosphere". This could not happen by a spot commissioning process. The BBC needed to decide what kind of content it needed at the regional centres and train the people to meet those needs. Production needed to look over a five-year horizon so it could be sure of getting the right commissions and having the right people.

The Chief Executive was examining supplier strategy and would report to the BBC’s executive committee at the end of June. He was restructuring the top team to address the two key issues "sell and make". A Director of Production would be appointed. There would be more central control for better planning.

An income of £15M for 1999-2000 was guaranteed which could be increased by further commissions. There was a commitment for day-time commissions from Broadcast for £6.5M of the total amount. Local representatives believed that such figures were misleading. It did not mean that £15M would be spent at Pebble Mill. In areas such as drama, most of the money was spent elsewhere.

Resources

Alan Jones (Head of Resources, Birmingham) told the meeting that Resources Limited and Production Resources had over 300 staff at Pebble Mill. There had been a change in volume and in the style of making programmes – less studio and more location work – which affected Resources. It had made efficiencies and changed the way it did things. Resources had a high share of production work, studios, post production and graphics. Studio A was equipped for digital wide-screen and the building had been equipped with a digital infrastructure at a cost of about £4M in the last 15 months. Fifty per cent of the output of studio A had been from independent companies. Resources got most of the business in the Midlands by offering a whole range of activities. He was confident a difficult period was behind the centre and there was a reasonably good future for Resources in Birmingham.

Pebble Mill

Mark Thompson said the future of the building had not yet been decided. The BBC had established the "20-20 Property Vision Group" to explore the way all of its buildings were used in the future. The directorates were working towards a network plan. This was a key part of the development of the supplier strategy. That needed to be clear before the BBC could say that Pebble Mill was the right building for the future. It was possible that this would become known by the end of the year.

He was aware of the building’s status in Birmingham and its advantages and disadvantages for staff. If it was decided that the BBC should move, it would create a new central regional and local production centre in Birmingham. He was not aware that other sites were being examined. The BBC had to look at Pebble Mill over 5, 10 and 20 years. There was a possibility of a move over that sort of timescale.

Alan Jones added that there were problems with the external cladding and windows and the heating. This work would be expensive to carry out and the BBC had to be sure the building had enough life to make this cost effective.

7 May 1999