Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has unveiled his plan to make local television “a reality". The minister announced an Action Plan For Local Media at the Oxford Media Convention and invited firms to register their interest in running a new channel, which will carry local news and content, by 1 March.
In a speech to the convention, Mr Hunt said: “To make this vision a reality I am today inviting existing and new media providers to come forward with suggestions as to how this network channel - or local TV 'spine' - could work.
"What this will mean, for consumers, is a new channel dedicated to the provision of local news and content. One that will sit alongside other public service broadcasters, offering a new voice for local communities, with local perspectives that are directly relevant to them.
"We won't be prescriptive. We will wait for the necessary technical assessment to be completed and we will listen to the commercially viable proposals that come forward.
"Our goal is to be able to award the relevant licences by the end of 2012, and for local TV to be up and running soon after."
Mr Hunt added that “impartiality regulations" would apply to the television services.
A panel set up to examine the idea said local television channels might broadcast in only “10 to 12" areas to begin with.
The review chaired by investment banker Nicholas Shott said it would take “significant effort" to make the plan a success.
Its report, published last year, said the channels “may initially be focused in and around 10 to 12 conurbations" and provide “at least two hours of reasonably low-cost but high quality content a day".
Mr Hunt continued: “It is easy to be patronising about hyper-local services, but take a look at the evidence of what consumers truly value.
"Eight out of 10 consider local news important, nearly seven out of 10 adults feel localness of stories is more important than them being professionally produced."
He added: “People in Barnham don't want to watch what is going on in Southampton. People in Chelmsford aren't interested in what's happening in Watford. That is the system we currently have at the moment, so that is what we are trying to rethink."
Mr Hunt said 24 hours a day of local news and content is “not viable".
"However passionate people are about what is going on in Oxford, they probably have broader interests in what is going on in the rest of the world," he said.
Mr Hunt has long championed the concept of local television.
In an interview at last year's Edinburgh International Television Festival, he described the media as “chronically over-centralised".
He said: “It is crazy that a city like Sheffield, for example, does not have its own television station like it would have in most other developed countries."
The Government's masterplan said its goal is “10-20 local TV services operating by 2015".
But it adds: “The eventual aim for local TV is that it is made available throughout the UK, providing local and relevant content to all who want to access it.
"However, given the commercial uncertainty involved in relation to acquiring capacity and developing a sustainable revenue proposition, it is clear that local TV cannot simply be launched across the UK immediately."
The BBC agreed to cover start-up costs of up to £25 million in 2013/14 for local TV, for up to 20 services, as part of last year's licence fee settlement.
It will also offer funding up to £5 million a year for three years from 2014/15 as part of the deal.
At the convention, Mr Hunt also vowed to create a new Communications Act.
The last Act, created seven years ago, needs to be updated to facilitate “fast-paced" media, he said.