four people stand holding a banner reading "Adblock Bristol" they are smiling. Behind them is a large digital advertising screen.

Campaigners welcome Bristol Council’s ‘Local Plan’ – but what does it say?

Synopsis: Bristol City Council have added a new policy on advertisements to their Local Plan, which provides significant detail beyond national planning regulations. New criteria regarding when a new billboard could be said to harm the ‘amenity’ of an area should make it harder for advertisers to build large, new, intrusive screens in the city. This is the first time Bristol’s Local Plan has a dedicated policy on advertising – a big step forwards that reflects the strength of local feeling and campaigning on the matter.

Campaigning often involves ‘staying the course’, staying vigilant and generally staying around. Certainly that was the case for Adblock Bristol’s engagement in the revision of Bristol Council’s ‘Local Plan’. Since 2018, we were consulted, we waited, we were consulted again, there were pandemic delays and set backs from the West of England Combined Authority. Finally in November 2023, the (near) final document emerged from the Council. And to the relief of around 1,800 Bristolians who engaged in the process, it contains some reasonably strengthened criteria for the circumstances for which digital advertising screens will be refused or granted planning permission.

What is a ‘Local Plan’?

The ‘Local Plan’ is the framework under which all planning decisions will be considered to 2040. If it is accepted by the Planning Inspectorate, it will become a ‘material consideration’ in all planning applications submitted to Bristol Council going forward.

What did we ask for?

Adblock Bristol were calling for a policy of ‘No New Billboards’ in the city – or in planning language, a presumption against all planning applications for new outdoor advertising billboards. The precedent for this was the stance which Greater Manchester councils took in 2018 to have a presumption against planning applications for new fracking sites in their area – even though national policy at the time was pro-fracking.

Over 1,700 people signed our petition supporting these aims, which we submitted in May 2019 as part of our second consultation response.

What did we get?

BBC News coverage, 2nd November 2023

Whilst Bristol Council didn’t go as far as we feel would be sufficient to protect residents, the new policy does strengthen national planning guidance – whilst staying within its confines. National guidance (from 2007) stipulates that planning permission for advertisement sites should only be considered on two narrow issues of ‘harm to amenity’ and ‘danger to road safety’. In particular, we welcome the clauses which state that just because an area is already perceived to be run down, that should not be used by advertisers as justification for adding unwelcome and unsightly advertising screens (see section 13.2.19 below).

We’re also glad to see clauses regarding impacts of ad screens on long-distance views in the city. Residents living close to existing advertising screens near the M32 motorway have commented on how the view from Purdown green space is worsened by these screens, and similarly the view from the popular Troopers Hill park is blighted by advertising screens on the St Philips causeway – especially at dusk and at night.

Bristol Council is not the first local authority to take pro-active action against large digital advertising screens. Lambeth Council have stated in their 2021 Local Plan that “in order to enhance the environment, proposals for the renewal of advertisement consents for existing large panel advertisements will generally be resisted” (p206, Policy Q17 B).

In summary: the new Local Plan won’t automatically stop new advertising screens from receiving planning permission – but it should make it harder. Nor will it affect existing ad screens that are already standing – we will need different approaches to remove those. But the policy should send a message to advertising companies that Bristol, and other cities, do not share their dystopian vision of urban modernity – where our cities become filled with intrusive screens serving up ads for junk food, new cars and fast fashion from the world’s biggest corporations. We have better hopes for our public spaces.

What does the Local Plan say about digital advertising screens?

Bristol Council’s Local Plan (Publication Version – November 2023), page 198, reads:

Policy AD1: Advertisements

13.2.18: As set out in The Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007, the LPA [Local Planning Authority] may exercise its powers in the control of advertisements in the interest of amenity and public safety only. This policy sets out criteria against which proposal’s response to amenity and public safety will be assessed.

Policy text

An advertisement will be considered to have an unacceptable impact on amenity where it would: „
– Create or reinforce an incongruous feature in, or result in a negative visual impact on, its immediate neighbourhood;
– Result in harmful clutter or visual commercialisation of residential areas;
– Detract from the character or setting of any feature of scenic, historic, architectural, cultural or similar interest;
– Be unduly prominent in medium or long-distance views;
– Cause a noise or other nuisance; or
– Result in a negative impact upon residents’ living conditions by reason of its siting or illumination.

Advertisement proposals of all types will be considered harmful to public and road safety where they would:
– Obscure views into an area, reducing natural surveillance;
– Create an unwelcoming sense of enclosure;
– Obscure safety cameras;
– Unsafely reduce natural or street lighting; or
– Create visual distraction which would be harmful to the attention of road users or the ready interpretation of road signs, traffic signals and visibility of junctions.

Explanation

13.2.19 The policy aims to guard against proposals which would be harmful to local character and amenity. Perception of low visual amenity in any area will not serve as a benchmark for harmful proposals including increased clutter of advertisements.

13.2.20 The use of digital advertisements has increased in urban settings including within Bristol. The illumination and movement associated with such advertisements can considerably extend their capacity to harmfully impact the amenities of an area or to affect public safety. Digital and illuminated advertisements should have regard to the Institute of Lighting Professionals (ILP) Professional Lighting Guide 05 ‘The Brightness of Illuminated Advertisements’. Such advertisement may be able to ensure they will not have harmful impacts associated with their luminance through:
– Restricted operation hours.
„- Maximum luminance levels.
„- Provision of ambient lighting sensors.
„- Provision of a default black screen.

13.2.21 In conservation areas, proposals will also be expected to demonstrate how they would conserve or enhance the character and appearance of the area, as required under Section 72 of the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.

Earlier versions of the Local Plan (2022) had noted the impact of Adblock Bristol’s engagement in the consulation process:

“During consultation on the local plan in 2019 many responses were received raising concerns about the impacts advertisements could have across the city. Comments raised included the impacts of digital advertising and the commercialising effect of advertisement hoardings and digital displays, in particular in relation to residential neighbourhoods. To provide a clear set of principles to manage the amenity and public safety impacts of advertisements the following new draft policy is proposed.”

Adblock Bristol extends its thanks and gratitude to all the councillors and officers who took the time to listen and accommodate residents’ grievances with advertising screens – and for steering this document through the difficult waters of local and national governement.

Robbie Gillett is the co-founder of Adblock Bristol and Director at Adfree Cities

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