A photo taken from a low angle shows a billboard decorated with artwork of children playing in a park. To the right of the image person is seen installing the artwork and behind them is a ladder propped against the billboard.

Levelling up consultation: let’s help all neighbourhoods be ad-free, not just the privileged ones

The government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda is all about addressing injustices and imbalances between communities across the UK. We know that outdoor advertising deepens inequalities. Its negative impacts are felt most by people and communities who are more vulnerable, and our emerging research indicates that outdoor advertising is concentrated in less affluent areas.

But the planning process which enables the introduction of new advertising sites into our cities is woefully out of date, and without reform it will continue to enable this injustice. The planning system doesn’t account for the multiple problems with huge modern digital advertising screens. And it doesn’t enable councils to reject planning applications for advertising sites in line with their priorities on health, climate or biodiversity for example. A resident can suddenly find a huge digital advertising screen outside their home having had no notice or opportunity to review the planning application, and now powerless to do anything about it, as happened to Julia in Dagenham.

The government’s consultation on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is an opportunity to begin reforming this system. The consultation: ‘Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: reforms to national planning policy’ is a lengthy one, but we’ve identified a few key questions where you could share your views on outdoor advertising and the need for change.

We’ve posted our response to the consultation below and we encourage you to submit your own response. Feel free to use ours as inspiration. The deadline is Thursday 2nd March 2023.

Click the button below to respond to the consultation. You can see the main consultation page for all the detail and background: Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill: reforms to national planning policy


Response from Adfree Cities to the consultation (click on each question to read our response):

Q.33 Do you agree with making changes to emphasise the role of beauty and placemaking in strategic policies and to further encourage well-designed and beautiful development?

We welcome the emphasis on beauty and the need for development which can boost civic pride. We are seeing a growth in planning applications for more intrusive digital out-of-home advertising (OOH) sites which are overwhelmingly unpopular with local residents. Our emerging research indicates that existing billboards are concentrated in more deprived areas, undermining civic pride and the Levelling Up agenda. Please see our website for more information about this emerging research: https://adfreecities.org.uk/research-mapping-social-inequalities-billboard-locations/

Updating planning policy is an opportunity for well overdue reforms to controls on outdoor advertising. The ‘separate consent process’ for advertisements referred to in Chapter 12 dates back to 2007 and was not designed with new digital billboard technology in mind. Digital advertising screens, in contrast to traditional paper posters, are very large and bright, cause light pollution, and are extremely intrusive particularly when situated near homes. Please see Adfree Cities’ 2021 guide to ‘Digital advertising and light pollution’ at: https://adfreecities.org.uk/light-pollution/   

These screens have multiple impacts on their near neighbours including on mental health, sleep quality and their ability to enjoy the area in which they live, as evidenced in a 2021 report on ‘Living next to digital billboards’ by Adblock Bristol: https://adfreecities.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/living-next-to-digital-billboards-M32.pdf 

Where local communities become aware of planning applications for digital advertising screens, there is significant opposition. In Bristol, 40 huge screens have been refused planning permission by the local council as a result of thousands of objections from local residents over the last six years. The cityscape is significantly different than it would have been if these digital screens had been built, unlike in other cities which have not benefited from this level of community awareness and engagement. The outdoor advertising industry itself boasts that digital billboards are ‘changing the face of London’ (Evening Standard 22 October 2014: https://www.standard.co.uk/business/media/media-rise-of-the-digital-billboards-changing-the-face-of-london-9810062.html). 

Even in residential areas, the current situation is that residents can suddenly find a new digital advertising screen facing their home, having had no notice or opportunity to review the planning application, and now powerless to do anything about it, as happened for example opposite an estate in Barking and Dagenham (see this account from a local resident in 2022: https://adfreecities.org.uk/2022/06/stop-the-screen-taking-on-a-giant-advertiser-guest-blog/). In Frome a digital screen has recently been given the go-ahead despite overwhelming opposition from people who live nearby who had no notification of the planning application: https://www.mnrjournal.co.uk/news/live-blog-digital-billboard-planning-causes-upset-amongst-local-residents-in-frome-protest-organised-at-site-594501

Digital advertising screens have also been associated with crime and anti-social behaviour. In 2018 Bristol City Council refused permission for 34 digital screens on the city’s streets due to such concerns: https://adfreecities.org.uk/2018/05/success-advertising-screens-rejected/   

Chapter 12 of the National Planning Policy Framework draft text on ‘Achieving well-designed and beautiful places’ advocates for policies and decisions that ensure developments “add to the overall quality of the area”, are “visually attractive”, that they “create places that are safe, inclusive and accessible and which promote health and well-being, with a high standard of amenity for existing and future users”. Chapter 12 also notes that “The quality and character of places can suffer when advertisements are poorly sited and designed. A separate consent process within the planning system controls the display of advertisements, which should be operated in a way which is simple, efficient and effective. Advertisements should be subject to control only in the interests of amenity and public safety, taking account of cumulative impacts.”

Given the size and nature of digital advertising screens, which are designed to be bright and attract attention, and the multiple adverse impacts on residents described above, it is difficult to imagine how any such screen in a residential area could be described as well sited or well designed, or visually attractive. Therefore we recommend that the planning framework prohibits placing a digital advertising screen near a residential dwelling – we propose within 100m. Additionally, consideration should be given to any residents further away whose home is within the line of sight of the proposed screen. 

Outdoor advertising companies submit more planning applications in more deprived areas because these areas are often already considered to be less well cared for and less beautiful; for example with more arterial roads, fewer heritage sites and conservation areas. Therefore advertising companies are able to make an argument that introducing more advertising hoardings or screens in these places is appropriate to the existing visual landscape. This is clearly a trend which needs to move in the opposite direction to enable levelling up. Reforming the planning framework would enable communities in all neighbourhoods, not just those which are already considered beautiful, to keep unwanted digital advertising away from their homes, boosting residents’ pride in their neighbourhoods.

Q.34 Do you agree to the proposed changes to the title of Chapter 12, existing paragraphs 84a and 124c to include the word ‘beautiful’ when referring to ‘well-designed places’, to further encourage well-designed and beautiful development?

Yes

Q.37 How do you think national policy on small scale nature interventions could be strengthened? For example, in relation to the use of artificial grass by developers in new development?

We welcome the government’s commitment to increasing biodiversity and tackling the climate crisis through planning. Interventions to help nature will be strengthened by cutting out unnecessary light pollution, cutting out unnecessary energy use, and preventing the destruction of trees and green spaces simply to erect an advertisement. All of these boosts for climate and biodiversity can be achieved by enabling councils to refuse planning applications for digital advertising screens on environmental grounds.

Artificial lighting in our cities creates light pollution and harms wildlife including insects, birds and bats. Insects are vital to ecosystems, however artificial light affects mating, feeding, navigation and development, for example in moths; and light pollution directly contributes to the decline of many insect species. Light pollution also affects migratory birds by disrupting their natural movement patterns, or causing them to mate too early, leading to declining populations. Artificial light can cause nocturnal birds to wander off-course and become exposed to danger. Artificial light near a bat roost can prevent bats from emerging to feed at the right time, limiting their chances of survival. Some bats avoid brightly lit areas, and at the same time their prey is attracted to these areas, so the bats miss out on the best feeding grounds. Lighting near a bat roost is likely to contravene legislation as both bats and their roosts are protected by law in the UK. Therefore, planning for digital advertising screens needs to take this into consideration.

There are excellent opportunities to rewild small urban green spaces by removing advertising structures which actively harm local biodiversity, and enabling communities to plant trees and wildflowers, install bat boxes or start local growing projects. We need national policy which prioritises such beneficial interventions over the installation of yet more digital advertising structures.

Q.39 What method or measure could provide a proportionate and effective means of undertaking a carbon impact assessment that would incorporate all measurable carbon demand created from plan-making and planning decisions?

Emissions from building and installing digital advertising screens, and running them, should be taken into account in planning decisions. Digital advertising screens use a great deal of electricity. A conservative estimate is that one large digital advertising screen (6.4 metres x 3.1 metres) uses more electricity than 11 average UK households. This is currently not taken into account in the planning process, undermining local authorities’ net zero ambitions.

For evidence on the electricity use of digital screens see: https://adfreecities.org.uk/2022/12/the-electricity-costs-of-digital-out-of-home-advertising-screens/

Q.51: Do you agree that selective additions should be considered for proposals to complement existing national policies for guiding decisions? 

Yes. We agree that there are policy gaps, such as the lack of up-to-date guidance on digital outdoor advertising.

Q.52: Are there other issues which apply across all or most of England that you think should be considered as possible options for National Development Management Policies?

Outdoor advertising is a common decision-making issue for councils across England and is a gap which National Development Management Policies could address. Currently decisions are made in line with out-of-date regulations, dating from 2007, which restrict the grounds for an outdoor advertisement planning application to ‘public safety’ and ‘amenity’. This does not take into account the unique problems with today’s digital advertising technology and does not enable councils to make decisions about advertising sites based on current priorities such as climate change, biodiversity and mental health. 

A national policy on outdoor advertising could enable councils to make decisions based on the impact of digital advertisements on a city’s carbon emissions, public health priorities or wildlife protection, for example. If councils can refuse planning applications based on carbon emissions, it will help local authorities in their transition to net zero. 

A policy could also guard against introducing outdoor advertisements in residential areas. And such a policy could provide the basis for reform of the 2007 planning regulations on outdoor advertising to enable decisions to take into account the unique problems with digital billboards, including: excessive electricity use; light pollution; being extremely intrusive to local residents and distracting to road users; raising questions over privacy, as some structures incorporate surveillance technology; and impacts on neighbours’ mental health, sleep quality and the ability to enjoy the area in which they live.

We provided more detailed evidence on these problems and the need for reform of the regulations in our August 2022 Briefing for the Commons Committee Stage of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill: https://bills.parliament.uk/publications/47695/documents/2234 

The appeal process is also in need of reform. It is deeply frustrating and unjust when local authorities make a decision to refuse a planning application in response to major concerns over the impact on local people, wildlife and climate, only to have the Planning Inspector overturn the decision when the case is taken to appeal. We propose removing the right of appeal, placing decision making power in favour of local authorities, not the advertising companies who have no regard for the impact of their screens on the local community, environment or climate. We have evidence from residents and councils that planning applications or appeals by outdoor advertising companies often make no reference to the sometimes hundreds of objections made by local residents to plans for digital screens which would have a significant impact on their daily lives. See for example these cases in Bristol: https://adfreecities.org.uk/2020/04/aggressive-advertisers/

Q.58 We continue to keep the impacts of these proposals under review and would be grateful for your comments on any potential impacts that might arise under the Public Sector Equality Duty as a result of the proposals in this document.

The use of LED sources for lighting and display screens has an impact on human health. The registered charity LightAware says that ‘the spread of new light sources has resulted in a dramatic increase in the numbers suffering light sensitivity and increased exclusion for society of light-sensitive people’ who can suffer ‘symptoms including eye pain, headaches and migraines, skin rashes, burning, insomnia, dizziness and nausea’ from exposure to LED lighting (see https://lightaware.org/).  

For some sufferers, the severity of their physical reactions to LED lighting and advertising boards means they have to avoid even minimal exposure, and the adverse impact on their day-to-day life is so extreme that they meet the test for disability under the Equality Act. This means that local authorities have legal duties towards them regarding planning decisions concerning the installation of lights and LED advertising boards. However these duties are currently frequently ignored, with devastating consequences. 

The Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) requires local authorities to have ‘due regard’ to the impact of any proposed policy – including planning decisions regarding the installation of LED advertising boards – on groups with protected characteristics, which includes light-disabled people.

Having due regard involves: removing or minimising disadvantages suffered by light-disabled people; taking steps to meet the needs of light-disabled people when they are different from the needs of other people; encouraging participation by light-disabled people in public life or other activities.

Planning decisions taken regarding nearby premises without due regard to the needs of light-disabled people can have devastating consequences, trapping them in their homes, cutting them off from participation in all outside activities and making them dependent on others for basic needs. Allowing any digital advertising screens in public spaces has a particularly severe effect as it makes accessing society even in daylight (a time that previously was relatively safe) impossible in many cases, preventing them from leaving their homes.

LED advertising boards should never be installed without full prospective planning permission being sought, never retrospective permission. Full impact assessments must be made to identify all those with light sensitivity conditions who live in the area or pass through it before any permission is granted. 

The way the current planning system works in relation to LED advertising boards is extremely discriminatory against light-sensitive and light disabled people. It is vital for these people that the planning process is reformed. Councils should have the ability to protect residents by rejecting planning applications for digital advertising screens in places that are intended to be publicly accessible, particularly those near homes. Such screens are unnecessary, existing only to display advertisements, bringing no benefit to the people who live near them, only potential harm, and cannot be compatible with equalities and disability legislation. Under the current system which allows councils to consider an application only on the grounds of ‘public safety’ or ‘amenity’, no protection is given to light-sensitive and light-disabled people.

Sensitivity to LEDs is also recognised in the Eco-Design Regulations (SI 1095/2021) which lists photosensitivity as a reason for access to non-LED lighting. 

Additionally, there have been a huge number of planning applications for on-pavement digital advertising screens (attached to ‘BT Street Hubs’). These cause unnecessary street clutter, obstructing pedestrians and particularly people with mobility issues. Councils across the UK are fighting against these units being introduced (including Brighton and Hove, Westminster, Bristol and Edinburgh). For more on this please see: https://adfreecities.org.uk/2022/11/the-hubs-are-coming-how-bt-invaded-public-space/ 

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