Advertisers are intent on taking over our public spaces – but Bristol deserves better

Residents didn’t want it. Councillors didn’t want it. But advertising giant JCDecaux got their way and a huge new digital advertising screen will go ahead in Bristol. In this blog, Nicola Round from Adblock Bristol explores the frustrating process which led to this decision, and why it needs to change.

The climate crisis is right here, right now. Progressive councils are being straightjacketed by archaic planning laws into accepting huge new energy-intensive advertising screens that push a damaging and outdated model of consumerism.

Advertising company JCDecaux has been given permission to install a new digital advertising screen on Bath Road in Bristol, despite opposition from the public and from Bristol City councillors who were minded to reject the plans. 

Image of the approved digital advertising screen taken taken from JCDecaux’s planning application document (including a misleading car advert)

The original application was for two new advertising screens on this traffic-heavy residential stretch of road (between the Thunderbolt Pub and Paintworks, for those who know the area) – which is about to become even more residential, with a new development planned directly opposite. The west-facing screen (facing traffic coming out of Bristol) has been refused on safety grounds, but the east-facing screen has been approved – as a driver would have ‘sufficient time to process the advert’ when approaching from the west. A certain level of danger can be justified to appease the advertisers, apparently. The screen will be able to show six adverts every minute: that means more unwanted advertising for us, pushing us to buy more stuff we don’t need including new cars, junk food and fast fashion.

These advertising screens are intended to attract the attention of passing motorists. This distraction for thousands of drivers – which is what puts cash in the pockets of the advertisers – is bad enough, but the people who live by them have to suffer this unwanted advertising all day, every day. We know that residents living near the recently installed digital screens by the M32 in Easton have been seriously impacted. The residents who will live opposite this screen on Bath Rd will suffer too.

It’s pretty clear that there are strong arguments against putting a digital billboard here. So you might be wondering how this one got through.

The location of the approved digital advertising screen on Bath Road in Bristol

A clear message: your ads aren’t welcome here

Usually a planning officer’s recommendation is enough to guide the decision on a planning application, but this one was escalated to a committee of elected councillors due to the level of public opposition. 67 separate objections were made to the plans, including from Bristol Civic Society and from Totterdown Residents Environmental and Social Action group (TRESA). I went to the committee meeting in February and listened with interest to the councillors – who spoke overwhelmingly against plans for both screens.

The planning officer’s report recommended a ‘split decision’: that is, to approve the east-facing screen, and refuse the west-facing one. But, at this initial planning committee meeting on 12th February 2020, councillors voted 6-2 to refuse permission for both screens.

Their reasons were wide-ranging and heartfelt. They were concerned with the impact on residents (a factor known as ‘visual amenity’), with the unacceptable danger of a distraction to road users, and with the carbon footprint of the screens. The planning officer’s report had said this screen would have an ‘acceptable impact on amenity’ but we heard councillors question whether this would be considered the case in an area where amenity is more highly valued, like Clifton. They suggested that we should be trying to level the gap between Bristol’s neighbourhoods, making them all more pleasant to live in – not sticking more unwanted advertising on streets which already have to suffer so much of it.

The west-facing screen was refused due to the ‘potentially severe consequences’ of a distraction here when drivers need to be concentrating on the road and on merging buses. But councillors expressed concern that the road is dangerous in both directions. And they felt they couldn’t approve a structure with such high and unnecessary electricity use when the council has declared a climate emergency and is working towards being carbon neutral. They need all the help they can get with this ambitious and challenging target. Concerns were also raised about the brightness of the screen, which seemed to be set very high in the application.

No councillors on the committee spoke in favour of these screens. Two members reluctantly voted to approve the officer’s recommendation for a split decision as it seemed like a reasonable compromise and – a crucial point here – because under nationally-determined planning guidelines councillors are only allowed to consider certain things in making decisions on behalf of the local neighbourhoods they represent. Visual amenity and public safety are the only valid grounds for refusal.

One councillor made a great suggestion that the area could be used for a garden and a mural which would greet road users on their way into Bristol – a much better welcome to our city than consumerist advertising. We saw, as we have done before, that Bristol City councillors are really not keen on our streets being plastered with billboards. They recognise that without them our streets are more pleasant, welcoming and reflect Bristol’s independent, creative, strong community identity.

A flawed system

Council officers warned that JCDecaux might appeal their decision. As we heard in the meeting, the council has a good record here. There have been 21 appeals by advertisers in the past three years and the council has won 19 of them. But one of the decisions that went against them was on this exact spot on Bath Road, three years ago. This precedent made councillors cautious: if the Planning Inspectorate overruled the decision again this may incur costs for the council. Even so, their opposition to these digital adverts were serious enough for committee members to vote against both screens.

The planning commitee on 12th February 2020 where the majority of councillors spoke against digital advertising screens

Following the indicative vote, they agreed to defer the formal decision to the next meeting to allow time to write up these well-founded reasons for refusal. So we were feeling pretty confident. It seemed like a done deal. The council had voted against this development.

But when it came to the next meeting on 18th March 2020, the ‘split decision’ (the proposal to reject one new digital screen but accept the other) was approved with a 4-3 vote, with some conditions attached to address just one of the concerns raised, regarding the brightness level of the screen. We didn’t go to the second meeting so we can only guess what the tone was, but undoubtedly they were thinking about the potential threat of an upheld appeal against their decision to refuse, and the fact that some of their strongest and most important concerns would not have even been valid under the current, narrow and not-fit-for-purpose planning guidelines. At the first meeting, one councillor expressed real frustration that their goals on carbon reduction could not be translated into decisive action through the planning process. The climate crisis is right here, right now and progressive councils are being straightjacketed by archaic planning rules.

So, the east-facing digital screen will go ahead, and has some conditions attached to it: such as being turned off at night and having a maximum light level. But make no mistake, this is a win for the advertisers who are hell bent on saturating our city with in-your-face digital advertising screens to push all that stuff we’d be better off without. There has been a swathe of applications over the past year and they are not letting up despite local opposition. And where screens are rejected, time and time again companies appeal against the Council – a costly and time consuming process.

Outdoor digital advertising in Bristol is not, yet, on the scale that our friends at Adblock Brum are having to contend with. We have a chance in Bristol to avoid going down the same road.

That’s why we need a city-wide policy against new outdoor advertising sites. The will is there, as we have seen from councillors and residents, so let’s take this powerful step to show that a happier, calmer, more welcoming vision for our public spaces is possible.

Nicola Round, Adblock Bristol

The documents related to the decision can currently be viewed on Bristol City Council’s website. Visit https://planningonline.bristol.gov.uk/online-applications/ and search for planning reference 19/04821/A 

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