Local campaign wins against a digital billboard in Frome (guest blog)

Thanks to Jerry Cripps for this guest blog telling the story of how a quickly organised local campaign managed to avert a digital billboard being built in a completely unsuitable location and challenge the local council’s complicity in this. You can also find the ‘Say NO to a Digital Billboard on Portway’ facebook campaign here.

Here is a warning to everyone of the potential underhand way local authorities take no notice of public opinion and try to force digital billboards onto the innocent public.

In early December 2022 purely by a chance Facebook message from a local councillor I was alerted to a planning application for a digital billboard on land directly outside our flat, on Portway in Frome, Somerset. This was on a site which previously had a paper and paste billboard but this had been removed for a number of years and the space is now green land with some trees and bushes.

An image of the proposed new digital billboard in From. A road stretches up the centre of the image. To the right is a row of houses. To the left is the billboard, in amongst trees.
Proposed location of the digital screen.

As a normal member of the public I was totally unaware of the planning process or even who deals with these applications let alone how I could make my voice heard in objection to this application.

I had to quickly learn the difference between Town Councillors and District Councillors and the different roles each of these have in the decision making process which actually, as you will learn, is very worrying. I also had to find out about Wildstone, the company who had made the application.

After some investigation I managed to find, register and access the planning portal and analyse all the documents associated with this application and lodged my objections to the planning application. Here is my objection:

Comment submitted date: Fri 09 Dec 2022

I have to submit a serious objection to the erection of the proposed digital advertising billboard.
The site of the billboard is on a junction which requires a high cognitive demand on the driver contrary to the claim. Although this site has previously had a billboard it was removed some years ago and since then the traffic has increased significantly. This is due to the Jewson site now being a B&Q which attracts a lot more traffic daily and also now 7 days a week. Also there are many events, like the Independent Market, that require the town centre to be closed which significantly increases traffic on Portway. The claim that there has only been one accident at this junction in 10 years is false. There are also many close calls with vehicles and pedestrians on a regular basis since the opening of the B&Q store.
Also Wildstone are claiming that they aim to reduce the number of billboards yet this will actually increase the number.
The site is in direct view of residential properties and will have a negative effect on these properties with added light pollution, the claim that we have bright street lighting is not a good reason as these bright street lights are already negatively effecting our light pollution.
Also this billboard will consume large amounts of electricity, the claim that it reduces site visits and paper waste cannot hold up as currently there is no billboard so this will be an additional waste of resources.
Also there has been zero consultation with residents in the local area that will be negatively effected by this sign

I also printed off some basic fliers and posted them to my direct neighbours to make them aware of the planning application as there was no public notice or letters from the council. This resulted in 27 public comments of objection on the planning portal.

Later investigation found that there should have been a notification to local residents as part of policy on planning applications (see below) but this seems not to happen when it is for advertising.

The policy which states that consultation should take place through notifications or a notice.

After further investigation I discovered that you are allowed to speak at planning meetings and so attended our Town Council planning meeting on the 15th December expecting to have to put a strong argument forward to object to this application. To my surprise the Town council unanimously objected to the application and so I felt my job was done.

How wrong I was!

On the 25th January 2023 Mendip Planning board pushed through the application following Officer Recommendations. This action took absolutely no consideration of Town Councillor and public opinion and all the issues raised by them against the erection of this digital billboard. This is a total dereliction of duty from our District Councillors.

After hearing of this decision I set up a Facebook group “Say NO to Digital Billboard on Portway” and printed off new leaflets again for my neighbours to make them aware of this travesty of justice.

The numbers quickly grew on this group and quickly attracted local press and also BBC Radio Somerset. We held a demonstration on the site to show the strength of feeling and more and more local people got involved.

A crowd of around 30-40 people stand on a pavement in front of trees at the site of the proposed new billboard. Many of the people hold placards although they are too far away to be read.
Placards left in the vegetation at the proposed new billboard site.

Interestingly Mendip and Somerset council claimed all systems had been followed and nothing could now be done now to overturn a planning decision once it had been decided. Mendip District Council have still up to this point (28.2.23) failed to respond to a complaint put in about the lack of due process during the application process e.g. no Planning notice on the site or any public notifications.

This was not however going to stop me and the now large group of public and councillors who objected to this decision. We started to write to Wildstone directly to ask them if they thought a digital screen was appropriate in this location and if they had even come to look at the proposed site?

I also spoke at the next Mendip Planning Board meeting (15th Feb 2023) to put my feelings forward. The Planning Board at district level is where this application should have gone but Mendip District Council deemed it was not required and so no one from the public had an opportunity to speak and councillors had no opportunity to debate it. There was no debate allowed at this meeting because the decision had already been made but my speech has now been put on public record about the lack of due process and due diligence and councillors acknowledged the complaint had been lodged.

Following many emails to the applicants by myself and other members of the public, Wildstone, I am pleased to say, have reconsidered their application and are now submitting a revised application for a paper and paste board instead of a digital board. This is not a complete victory but is at least progress and shows large organisations will listen if sufficient force is applied.

I am still not sure at this moment how this will pan out and I am still going to pursue the council for lack of due process and due diligence but it shows the need to be vigilant about planning applications in your local area and the need to stand up and voice your opinions. Individually we may feel insignificant and helpless but be sure you will not be alone in your opinion and together we can make a difference and ensure we have a world that we want and not accept what is sneakingly forced upon us.

When we stand together we can move mountains!

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