New billboard approved in Frome.

Wildstone to push ahead with new billboard in Frome

Bad news from Frome, Somerset, as outdoor advertising company Wildstone have won planning permission to install a new billboard following an appeal to the planning inspectorate. 

Adding insult to injury, Wildstone has billed the local council, who like many councils are in financial hardship, for the cost of the appeal. 

This story – of outdoor ads against local communities – highlights once again the imbalance of power in the UK planning system, the harm done by outdoor advertising, and makes clear why we need urgent reform. 

How did we get here?

The sorry saga began in January 2023 when Wildstone made an application for a new digital billboard on Portway in Frome. This application was approved by Somerset council planning officers, despite unanimous opposition from councillors. Local residents strongly objected to the billboard on the grounds that it would damage the character of the area, even protesting at the proposed site of the screen

In a display of people power, the residents forced Wildstone to withdraw their plans for a digital screen and instead apply for a paper billboard. This time, bearing in mind new public momentum to keep new billboards out of Frome, Somerset council refused planning permission on the grounds of amenity and road safety. 

Unhappy with that result, Wildstone took the issue to the planning inspectorate, who, in March 2024, found in the ad company’s favour, ruling that Somerset council had been inconsistent in their decision making by approving the original digital screen but refusing the revised paper version. 

Frome billboard protest 28.02.23
A protest by local residents against the proposed billboard in January 2023.

The lesser of two evils?

The planning inspector’s decision argues that if refused permission for the paper billboards, Wildstone could revert to their earlier, successful application for a digital billboard, which would create “a risk of harm to amenity which would be, in my view, significantly greater than that which would arise from the refused proposal [the paper billboard].”

It is worth dwelling on this wording. The planning inspector seems to accept that digital billboards are a blight on the local area, and for this reason approves the paper billboard simply as the lesser of two evils. Which begs the question: why should communities have to accept any evil in their neighbourhood, simply for the purposes of more advertising?

How the planning system disempowers communities

It is common that well-resourced advertising companies appeal local councils’ decisions to refuse new advertisements. Local residents have no such recourse. 

Once up, Frome’s new billboard will be very difficult to take down again, with at least five years before anyone can even try. From Frome to Bristol to Dagenham there are many stories of people whose lives are overshadowed by intrusive outdoor advertising screens but who – under present rules – lack the ability to do anything about it. 

Recent research by Adfree Cities showed that this is a national trend, with outdoor advertising overwhelmingly found in lower income, higher deprivation areas of towns and cities, where it risks compounding existing inequalities. 

A large digital billboard outside a residential building.
A digital billboard that appeared outside the home of Dagenham resident Julia Williams.

What can we do to stop this from happening again?

We need reforms to the UK’s planning system that empower communities and local councils to say no to new billboards. Firstly, the grounds on which ads can be refused planning permission need to be expanded beyond ‘road safety’ and ‘amenity’, to include the full range of potential harms such ads can cause such as light pollution, biodiversity loss and electricity use. 

Secondly, just as in the 2010s council took a presumption against fracking, we want to see councils given the power to adopt a presumption against new advertising sites. This could take the form of updates to a councils Local Plan, such as Bristol Council introduced in their 2025 Plan, which make it harder for new ads to receive planning permission. 

The story of Wildstone running roughshod over local democracy in Frome is a sad one, but unfortunately not a surprising one. Until the planning system is updated we will continue to see episodes like this one play out in neighbourhoods across the country

Join our call for action today. Write to your MP and ask that they protect local decision making. 

Published by