More billboards in poorer areas of Leeds is a problem – here’s what we can do about it. 

By Loup, Diana and Sarah, organisers with Adblock Leeds

To some it might come as no surprise that advertising billboards are overwhelmingly concentrated in neighbourhoods with more social deprivation, lower income and worse air pollution. Certainly the ad companies that put them there know it’s easier and cheaper to put a billboard in a part of town that already has a major road, for example – and you could say they’re just doing their job.

But the profits of out-of-home advertising companies, such as JCDecaux, Global and Clear Channel UK, and the global brands they overwhelmingly promote, are gained at the expense of our health and wellbeing. And these impacts aren’t evenly felt.

According to new Adfree Cities research, 82% of billboard adverts are in the poorest half of England and Wales. The most deprived tenth of England has more than six times as many roadside ads than the least deprived. 

From large digital screens, the cash cows of corporate ad giants, to ads on bus shelters, phone boxes and lamp posts, advertisements are often placed in urban centres where population densities are high. Within cities, it’s plain that ad placement tracks patterns of existing social inequalities. As organisers with Adblock Leeds, this is an issue we’ve noticed for some time. 

The research confirms that in Leeds, 34% of outdoor adverts are in the most deprived neighbourhoods in contrast with just 2% in the least deprived areas. When looking at income after housing, 37% of ads are in the poorest three deciles of the city. Ads often get placed by busy roads, meaning communities living with worse air pollution are also having to live near ad screens: 34% of advertising in Leeds is in the most polluted three deciles, with just 2% in the three deciles with the cleanest air.

We’ve seen advertising hoardings put over people’s windows, billboards placed where they shine directly into homes, pub gardens silenced by eerie blue light from LED monoliths, and trees cut down to make sure the latest commercial from KFC can shine through unimpeded.

The most recent Trojan horse tactic is to combine advertising with a public service, with planning approval sought for advertisements in the form of new pavement-blocking totems offering free wifi and calls, or, the worst so far, ads on defibrillators. Advertisers are profiting under a pretence of community care in the vacuum left by council cuts. 

Above: map of adverts in Leeds wards. Source: https://adfreecities.org.uk/unavoidable-impact/

Some years ago, a few of us from Adblock Leeds visited LS9 in Burmantofts to inform local residents that a big ad company was planning to build a massive digital billboard on their street, brightly lit 24/7 merely metres away from their windows. The ad company had not consulted with the residents, so they did not know about the application. They also did not know they could object to it in the council’s planning website. 

After a couple of hours of knocking on doors, we realised two things: no one wanted the billboard, but they also had no capacity to do anything about it. Burmantofts and Richmond Hill are among the wards with the most billboards but are also among the most deprived areas in Leeds. As shown by the Adfree Cities research, this is far from being an isolated case.

After a couple of hours of knocking on doors, we realised two things: no one wanted the billboard, but they also had no capacity to do anything about it.

Responding to the research, outdoor advertising trade body Outsmart, claimed that advertising provides economic benefits. According to director Tim Lumb,  “what advertising does is it generates economic growth, which improves living standards overall” – failing to recognise the vast chasm between the UK’s richest and poorest, with overall economic growth entirely failing to improve conditions equally

Advertising billboards do bring in some revenue for local councils. In Leeds for example, the council gets about £500,000 per year on advertising contracts. But the cost of health damage from cars and alcohol alone (very prominently displayed on billboards across the city) adds up to a whopping half a billion pounds per year

In addition, lining streets with adverts comes at a cost that’s difficult to quantify. A feeling of neglect. A loss of cultural expression as local values are subsumed into the corporate machine. And communities facing overlapping hardships are worst impacted.

The story of the LS9 digital billboard has a happy ending: we managed to rally support, mobilised several objections on the Leeds City Council planning portal and eventually the billboard was rejected. But every month new applications keep coming in, which begs the question: When is enough enough?

It’s time to put the brakes on billboards, and since corporate interests will follow a profit motive that effectively ignores human and environmental impacts, we’re asking the government to intervene. Rules for outdoor advertising date to 2007, when digital billboards had barely reached the UK. 

Our asks are simple. Update planning laws to take into account the impacts of digital billboards. Allow councils to prioritise local values in planning decisions for adverts. Restrict the most harmful types of ads, like those for junk food, gambling and polluting products, following a groundswell of local councils taking this step, most recently in a trailblazing new advertising policy in Sheffield. And then, following places like Grenoble, Lyons and Nantes, remove all remaining advertising billboards, for happier, healthier, ad-free cities. 

Featured image credit: CNS media

Adblock Leeds is part of the Adfree Cities network of local groups who hold the line against new billboards in their area. You can contact Adblock Leeds here, or see if there’s a group near you.

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