A pedestrian tunnel at a train station is lined with digital screens.

The hubs are coming! How BT invaded public space

Digital ad screens have sadly become a familiar sight on our streets, and you might soon see a whole lot more thanks to BT. 

Without changes to advertising policies, corporations and their ads will continue to walk all over local democracy. 

What is happening?

BT’s Street Hubs have unfortunately become a familiar site in many towns and cities already. They are hard to miss, standing two metres tall and blazing out adverts from an LCD screen day and night. 

Like the pretext to a Doctor Who-style alien invasion, BT have quietly rolled out hundreds of hubs across the UK.  

BT have made applications in cities and towns from Brighton to Westminster, where 24 new applications have been submitted since July, to Bristol, which is looking down the barrel of 27 Street Hubs, and this time BT are applying for a 10-year licence instead of the usual five for outdoor ads!

Ben, an Adblock Bristol member who has been campaigning against the new screens, said:

“Every digital billboard that goes up on the streets serves to make our public spaces more bland, corporate and homogeneous. 

“There is no part of the city where they won’t look utterly out of place. The screens are a source of light pollution and use a staggering amount of energy at a time when the country is facing an energy crisis. 

“They block the pavements and for many of the proposals their siting next to major roads and junctions puts them directly at odds with any notions of road safety, designed as they are to be deliberately distracting.”

False advertising

BT say that the hubs will benefit our high streets, bringing free wifi, charging and calls to anyone nearby. 

In reality they are more likely to bring, street clutter, anti-social behaviour and crime. 

In November, Brighton and Hove council refused permissions for 6 hubs, with one of the planning officers calling them “street clutter” and arguing that they will add to pedestrian congestion. 

Back in 2018 a raft of 34 hubs were all refused with planning reports specifying concerns including

  • the threat of crime, especially drug dealers making use of the free calls
  • the unanswered question of who pays to fix the hubs when they are damaged
  • and the creation of pedestrian pinch-points on the pavement around the hubs. 
An image of a BT street hub on a busy street in Norwich.
A Street Hub seen in Norwich.

Why is this happening?

Stopping new ad screens is an uphill battle. 

Under planning regulations there are only two reasons planning officers can refuse permission: road safety and public amenity (a vaguely defined term meaning how pretty an area is). 

The system is also stacked in favour of companies like BT, who have the resources to not only submit hundreds of applications, but to appeal those that aren’t accepted the first time round. 

Case study: Edinburgh

Over the summer, BT unleashed a barrage of planning applications for new hubs in Edinburgh. Some gained 85 objections and yet were still approved. 

Edinburgh council did refuse planning permission for 18 of the proposed new hubs. In August it was reported that BT is appealing the decision, which now sits with the Scottish government. 

One Edinburgh councillor said that BT were “holding the city to ransom.”

The Edinburgh case is a useful, if terrifying, reminder of how easily local democracy can be overpowered by corporate interests. 

Taking back public space

Ad screens that collect your personal data without your permission or knowledge, installed by companies that ride roughshod over local democracy and the views of local residents. 

Is that what comes to mind when you think of public space? Me neither. 

But that is increasingly looking like what the future will hold, unless we reclaim public control over public spaces. 

At a local level, Adfree Cities suggests that councils adopt certain measures which would help reduce corporate advertising in public space.

A “no new billboards” policy and designating “areas of special control”, where new ad screens would be prohibited, would signal to ad companies that new billboard applications will not be welcomed

And you can help too! Every objection made to a billboard helps push the balance in favour of local people. And can be especially helpful if the decision goes to appeal. 

If you’re worried about BT Street Hubs where you live, get in touch and we can talk about how to object.

If you live in Westminster, you can find all current planning applications by going here and searching for “LCD”.

If you’re interested in Adfree Cities and the work we do, don’t hesitate to contact us, and join our mailing list for the latest updates and actions.

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