Two people work to cover an ad screen with a large paper sheet.

40 monstrous digital screens blocked in 5 years!

Five years ago Adblock Bristol was formed with the ambition to rid Bristol of corporate advertising in public spaces. Given that the planning law in Britain is designed to allow billboards in all but the most sensitive sites, this was not likely to be easy. Nicola Round and Robbie Gillett shared their vision with an enthusiastic group back in 2017, and while there is a long way to go, Adblock has had a significant impact on the city and beyond. 

The immediate threat was a steady stream of applications for new digital advertising screens, which are even brighter and more distracting than the traditional advertising hoardings. A few screens had already got permission – the most notorious are on the M32 and St Phillips Causeway – but once the group became organised and started alerting Bristolians to new applications, objections flowed into the planning department for each new one.

First of all the councillors took up the issue, and then the planning and highways departments. Only four digital screens have since been granted permission by the Council, with 46 screens refused. Six of these were later allowed by central government’s Planning Inspector on appeal. Over 36 smaller screens have also been refused during this time, and the fight continues to stop all the bus stop ad spaces in Bristol going digital.

In total, combining the number of ‘adblocked’ smaller and larger screens, Bristol has over 70 fewer of these monstrous bright screens than it might have had!

Meanwhile Adblock Bristol worked with Bristol City Council to bring an end to the advertising of gambling, payday loans, junk food and alcohol on at least the Council owned sites (such as bus shelters). Carbon guzzling advertisements for cars, airlines and the fossil fuel industry need to be added to that – that’s a work in progress for our group. We also organised a massive petition signed by nearly 4,000 people to keep Bristol’s parks advertising-free, which successfully got this contentious council proposal scrapped for good.

Adblock also regularly coordinates community artwork installations on disused hoardings and holds street events such as the ‘six-sheet cover up‘, where we repurpose commercial ad sites for drawing, doodling and community conversation instead.

Adblock Bristol are now trying to persuade the Council to discontinue the two massive digital screens overlooking the M32. When digital screens have been installed it is very hard to remove them – but if, after 5 years, it can be shown that there are material changes in the conditions under which they were put up, it is possible to issue a ‘discontinuance notice’ to take them down. Our Screened Out petition to take down the M32 screens has over 2,400 signatures already but needs 3,500 to provoke a Council debate – Add your name too!

At present, applications for new hoardings can only be challenged on narrow ‘amenity’ and ‘safety’ grounds – with legislation dating to 2007, before the influx of digital billboards. The issues of brain pollution from the content of adverts, the social and environmental impacts of advertising-fuelled hyper-consumerism and the particular impact of digital screens, including light pollution and excessive consumption of electricity, are currently not allowed to be taken into account – we’re working with the Adfree Cities team to change this.

Now, Adblock Bristol has sister groups in Norwich, London, Exeter and more (find an Adblock group near you!), which now makes up the Adfree Cities network. Each Adblock group is working with their local council and getting prepared to tackle Planning regulations so that every city, town and village is allowed to protect their public spaces from the pressures of advertising. Get involved!

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