Adfree Cities have created this resource to support local authorities in developing ethical advertising policies and strategies to limit the overdominance of public space advertising.

This page sets out extra information about which policies are available to local authorities for addressing the harms caused by outdoor advertising, identifies the different types of outdoor advertising, and answers frequently asked questions.

A shortened printable PDF version is also available to download:

Firstly, we establish some definitions, using policies from Bristol City Council as an illustrative example.

Local authorities should create ‘advertising policies’ to govern the content of advertisements
Bristol City Council, for example, created an ‘Advertising and Sponsorship Policy’ in March 2021. This is a new document with guidance and principles regarding the content of adverts on Council-controlled advertising spaces (such as bus stops) and sponsorship deals. You can read Bristol’s policy here. In summary, it prohibits advertising for junk food, gambling, payday loans and alcohol as well as advertising in parks and green spaces. There is a further Guidance Note on High Fat, Sugar or Salt (HFSS) products. There are calls for high carbon products such as SUVs, airline flights and fossil fuel companies to be added to this list of exclusions.

Read some examples of motions from other councils which are in the process of being implemented:

Other similar advertising policies have already been introduced by:

Internationally in the Netherlands, the municipality of Amsterdam has begun to prohibit all advertising and sponsorship arrangements for petrol and diesel cars, airlines and fossil fuel companies. Eight other Dutch cities have passed motions to ban fossil ads – the motions from Haarlem and Nijmegen also include ads for industrially-produced meat.

Local authorities also have ‘advertising concessions’ (contracts) with billboard companies to run bus stops
Bristol City Council, for example, has an Advertising Concession Agreement’ with Clear Channel UK. This is a commercial contract for Clear Channel to provide and maintain bus stop shelters with advertising spaces. The Council receives an annual rent from Clear Channel plus 10% of the advertising revenue. The contract is considered commercially confidential and so not available for public viewing.

Powers that local authorities have to limit advertising

Ethical advertising policies and wider strategies present an opportunity for local authorities to further their existing health and environmental policy goals. Adopting a policy to limit harmful advertising allows for joined-up thinking across different council departments and to accelerate behaviour change towards net zero climate targets. It should be noted that restricting advertising for harmful products  (e.g. tobacco or Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs)) is not the same as banning the products themselves.

Local authorities have control of the following areas of advertising:

  • The content of advertising on billboards and screens located on council-owned land covered by commercial contracts with companies such as JCDecaux and Clear Channel UK.
  • Planning consent for advertising infrastructure (e.g. new digital billboards) and some advertising content. 
  • Passenger Transport Executives (such as Transport for London, Transport for Greater Manchester, Merseytravel, etc) have control of advertising policies on their vehicles and transport infrastructure (such as bus stops), and are accountable to local democratic bodies such as Mayors’ offices.

Concerns raised over outdoor advertising

When residents become aware of planning applications for new advertising billboards in their area, there is usually a strong degree of opposition. (For example, recent planning applications for new digital advertising screens in Birmingham, Lambeth and Bristol received 267, 231 and 416 objections respectively.) Large numbers of residents object to corporate advertising, preferring a visual environment which reflects the unique identity of their local area, the values of local communities and the local economy. Certain types of advertising for products which are harmful to public health and the environment are also unwelcome in cities. 

Public health:

Some advertising content undermines  local government objectives regarding public health. For example, promoting High in Fat, Salt or Sugar (HFSS) products undermines health objectives and costly programmes, such as those encouraging healthy eating or tackling diabetes. Adverts for petrol and diesel private cars, especially for more polluting, larger SUVs, undermine air quality objectives and active travel initiatives. Alcohol and gambling adverts undermine council initiatives to reduce alcohol- and gambling-related harm and addiction.

Environment:

Advertising promotes an unsustainable and outdated model of consumerism that is incompatible with many councils’ declaration of Climate and Ecological Emergencies, including via the promotion of ‘high-carbon’ goods and services. For example, restricting advertisements that actively encourage us to buy large private cars or fly is a common sense policy measure that can be implemented by local councils today. It should be noted that prohibiting adverts for (e.g.) airline flights or cars is not the same as prohibiting the flights themselves, and will have no negative impact on those who need to fly or drive for work or family reasons.

Advertising for private cars also undercuts public transport services and prevents a behavioural shift to mass transportation that forms part of many local authorities’ roadmap to net zero.  Find more information on the environmental impacts of advertising

Energy use:

Large new digital advertising screens also require a large amount of electricity – the equivalent of 11 average UK homes. One double-sided digital bus stop advertising screen uses four times the electricity of the average British home. Therefore councils could go further than restricting the content of outdoor adverts, and move to prevent the introduction of new infrastructure – this could be done by adopting a presumption against planning applications for all new digital advertising screens, due to the high electricity use of these technologies. For example, including this in the Local Plan or equivalent.

Advertising billboards benefit big corporations over local businesses:

McDonald’s, Coca-cola, Amazon, KFC and Tesco are all in the top 10 companies using outdoor advertising. Local businesses are undermined and not able to compete even though they return more money back into the local economy, supporting high streets and local employment.

For more information on the harms caused by outdoor advertising to local economies, see Adfree Cities’ Local Economy briefing. 

Advertising and Sponsorship Policy Recommendations

POLICY RECOMMENDATION 1:
CREATE AN ADVERTISING POLICY TO GOVERN THE CONTENT OF ADVERTISING SITES WITHIN COUNCIL CONTROL (E.G BUS STOPS)

Councils have commercial contracts (sometimes known as Advertising Concession Agreements) with outdoor advertising companies such as Clear Channel UK or JCDecaux. It is possible for councils to limit the most harmful forms of advertising on these sites.  We recommend councils exclude advertising for the following products on these sites:

  • Advertising for ‘junk’ foods High in Fat Sugar and Salt (HFSS) (see Taking Down Junk Food Ads by food charity Sustain for more information).
  • Advertising for high carbon products such as polluting cars, airlines and fossil fuel companies (see Low Carbon Advertising Policies – Toolkit for Local Policymakers by Badvertising for more information). This category of climate-harming advertising can be extended further to include climate-damaging food and/or red meat, holidays abroad, and fossil financiers (see definitions drop-down below, and check this paper for more info: emerging issues in high-carbon advertising).
  • Advertising for gambling, payday loans, alcohol and vaping.
  • Advertising for industrially farmed animal products (new resource coming soon for more information).
A bus stop screen in Bristol advertising HFSS ‘junk’ food for a multinational company.

POLICY RECOMMENDATION 2:
Requirement for advertisers to donate 50% of their ad space to local projects

As stated above, local authorities will have commercial contracts with advertising firms regarding advertising spaces on council-owned infrastructure, e.g. bus stops. Advertising companies make hundreds of thousands of pounds in revenue from these contracts which dominate public space with commercial messages by multinational corporations. Whilst we appreciate that local authorities receive some income from these advertising concessions, our public spaces could be used for much more than promoting a new mobile phone or Big Mac deal. Local volunteer organisations, residents and neighbourhood associations, charities, mutual aid groups etc. should have access to these existing advertising panels as part of the democratisation of public space. Adfree Cities’ policy recommendation is that 50% of advertising space on existing bus stop advertising panels in public space should be available to civil society organisations and voluntary associations. The costs of this policy should be borne by the advertising companies themselves, not the local authority. We believe it is both affordable, desirable and progressive for a greater proportion of these advertising spaces to be made available for non-commercial and community purposes. This policy will need to be implemented when commercial contracts come up for renewal and re-tendering.

How much money is involved?
Advertising concession contracts are considered commercially confidential and so are not available for public viewing. However, the February 2021 agenda notes of a Bristol Council meeting provides some information. Bristol City Council receives a fixed rent of £480,000 per year from Clear Channel UK. The Council also receives 10% of advertising revenue that Clear Channel receives from companies paying to advertising on the bus stop sites (which can vary each year depending on market conditions). In 2020, this 10% amounted to £180,000 per year. This means that Clear Channel makes £1.8 million in revenue from selling advertising space in Bristol, of which the Council receives £660,000 (£480k + £180k).

Adfree Cities appreciate that many bus stop advertising panels are already built, including many digital screens. Whilst we don’t wish to see any more digital screens built, and wish to reduce the amount of corporate outdoor advertising we’re exposed to in public space, we recognise it would not be financially prudent for these existing screens to be removed.

Extra notes:

Bristol Council’s Advertising Concession Agreement was extended by 12 months to last until 31st March 2022. It is expected that over the course of 2021, the subsequent concession for the following period will be re-tendered (a commecial process that takes around 6 months). That new concession (beginning 1st April 2022) is expected to last 10 years. Adblock Bristol has argued that the longer 10 year concession should be split into ‘five + five’ structure – where the 10 year contract can be updated with new terms after 5 years (such as changes to the council’s Advertising & Sponsorship Policy).

Planning policy to restrict outdoor advertising sites

POLICY RECOMMENDATION 3:
Adopt a moratorium on new digital advertising billboards

Planning authorities (councils) determine planning applications for new digital advertising screens. Currently, planning regulations only allow councils to consider such an application on two grounds: public safety and ‘amenity’. This does not take into account the multiple unique impacts of digital advertising screens including on light pollution, energy use and climate, biodiversity, health and wellbeing; and it does not allow councils to make decisions on these applications in line with current priorities.

A council could adopt a presumption against planning applications for all new advertising screens, for example in the local authority’s Local Plan. This would send a message to advertising companies wishing to build new screens that the local authority is not supportive. 

Alternatively the council could adopt a moratorium on all new advertising screens. This would be a temporary prohibition on granting new applications and could be in place until outdated national planning policy is reformed to allow councils to consider the specific impacts of digital billboards on local communities in planning decisions.

The alternative approach is for residents to spot and respond to planning applications one at a time. This ‘firefighting’ strategy is not sustainable and residents will struggle to keep up with the raft of applications being submitted. (For example, in Bristol where 86  new applications for screens were submitted at once.) Advertising firms can use their financial power and salaried staff to outpace residents who volunteer their time to object to applications.

For more information see FAQ Do local authorities have the powers to restrict planning consent for new billboards? below.

The impact of a bright digital screen. Light pollution is also a big issue with these advertising screens and has a huge negative impact on people and the environment.

POLICY RECOMMENDATION 4:
CREATE AREAS OF SPECIAL CONTROL FOR ADVERTISEMENTS

Councils can use special powers to create areas with stricter control over outdoor advertising. Part 3 of The Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007 contains measures for local authorities to create ‘areas of special control’. Residents who love and appreciate their neighbourhood and wish to take extra measures to protect it from new digital advertising screens should be able to argue for an Area of Special Control. It should not only be residents who live in more affluent or desirable areas who should be able to apply. We should all be able to take pride in where we live.

Removing billboards

POLICY RECOMMENDATION 5:
REMOVE LARGE BILLBOARDS THAT DON’T HAVE PLANNING PERMISSION

A billboard that was removed from Bristol City Centre after it was discovered it doesn’t have planning permission in 2018.

It is possible to remove some existing large billboards that do not have planning permission. For example, in Bristol local neighbourhood associations and Adblock Bristol have notified the Planning Enforcement team at Bristol City Council when the lack of planning permission on billboards has been discovered. However, some planning enforcement teams do not have sufficient resources to issue discontinuance notices where billboards exist without planning permission.

In 2015, the french city of Grenoble removed 326 advertising billboards, many of which were replaced with trees and other plants. The Mayor of Grenoble commented, “We want a city which is less aggressive and less stressful to live in.” 

Types of outdoor advertising

1. Large digital advertising screens. Most of these are on private land. Most planning applications are for new digital screens similar to these. Screens on private land are not covered by a local authority’s advertising policy – if they have one. These screens require a huge amount of electricity to run. 

The council usually receives a small amount of business rates from these billboards – but other than that the financial profits are accrued by the billboard company and advertiser. A small amount of rent goes to landowners.

Policy suggestion: Create ‘Areas of Special Control’ for advertisements which would restrict the spread of billboards.

2. Large ‘48 sheet’ size paper poster billboards – also mostly on private land.

Most of these billboards already have planning permission, either because they applied originally or have been there for 10 years so have ‘deemed consent’. But not all do.  

Some of them will be removed due to market trends away from static poster sites towards digital sites that display frequently changing adverts.

Policy suggestion: Remove all billboards that do not currently have planning permission. This will likely require an increase in Planning Enforcement resources.

Image of a 48 sheet paper billboard on the side of a building with bins below showing an advert for cars

3. Large ‘48 sheet’ size paper poster billboards – on council owned land (paper or digital).

The content of these billboards  should be governed by a new council policy, such as an advertising and concession agreements policy, or an update to an existing policy or contract.

Policy suggestion: The council could create a plan for phasing out these billboards. While it is assumed that this incurs a revenue loss, this is difficult to quantify: avoided public health costs should be taken into account, along with benefits to local economies, and benefits to health, wellbeing and community.  

What can replace billboards? The council could work with local community groups to install new green spaces and wildlife (e.g. planting) or murals.

4. Stand-alone digital screens or paper ads which can be ‘six sheet’ size, or other dimensions (for example, ‘BT Street Hub’ units). These might be on private land and not controlled by the local authority. A double-sided advertising screen like this requires the same electricity as four average UK homes.

5. Digital screens and paper ‘six sheet’ ads at bus stops. These are often covered by an advertising concession (commercial contract). The content of these ad spaces could be controlled by an ‘Advertising Policy’ created by a local authority, such as an advertising and concession agreements policy, or an update to an existing policy or contract: e.g prohibiting advertising for environmentally-damaging goods, junk food, gambling, payday loans, etc.

Policy suggestion: For existing screens, review the Advertising Concession Agreement with a plan to reduce electricity use and light pollution by reducing their hours of operation to between 8am – 8pm. 

Rewrite the contract so that 50% of advertising content on existing ad panels are allocated to local projects, artists and charities.

Frequently asked questions

Do local authorities have the powers to prohibit advertising for certain products?

Yes. As the ban on unhealthy food advertising adopted by councils including Bristol, Norwich, Barnsley and several London local authorities already shows, it is possible for councils to implement such measures. 

Do local authorities have the powers to restrict planning consent for new billboards?

Council planning departments will be able to advise on how to restrict the use of ‘deemed consent’ under the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007 including writing to the relevant Secretary of State.  

A presumption against new digital billboards, or a temporary moratorium until outdated national planning reform addresses the impacts of digital advertisements, can follow precedents from the anti-fracking goals of local councils. In 2019, mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, introduced planning measures to create a presumption against fracking across 10 councils in Greater Manchester as part of the region’s effort to become carbon neutral by 2038, although this was against national UK policy at the time.

Councils can also adjust their Local Plans or equivalent local planning framework to specify the impacts of digital billboards, and to guard against the disproportionate placement of new billboards in less affluent areas (see Bristol City Council’s revised Local Plan, Draft Policy DC B and Lambeth Council’s 2020-2035 Local Plan, Policy Q17 for useful precedents). 

Can a council legally restrict advertising for high-carbon and environmentally damaging goods and services?

Legal advice commissioned by the New Weather Institute provides assurance to councils that they are within their rights to introduce Low Carbon Advertising Policies in line with anti-pollution goals. It is within local authorities’ power and discretion to exclude adverts and sponsorships for high-carbon products and services from sites they control and there is a strong legislative background to do so. Therefore, councils can act with minimal legal risk and this review provides strong evidence that a policy banning high-carbon advertising is not only lawful, but also proportionate and necessary

Won’t the council suffer a loss in revenue by prohibiting adverts for certain products?

It is possible to replace adverts for harmful products with adverts for less damaging products. Any small drop in council revenues by excluding adverts for high carbon products such as SUVs or airlines needs to be considered against the environmental benefits of cleaner air and reduced greenhouse gas emissions (and the avoided public health costs). 

Should Scrutiny Committees have a role in developing Advertising and Sponsorship policies?

Whilst Scrutiny Committees for some councils may not be a suitable forum (and do not exist in all local authorities), they can provide a supplementary pathway for developing advertising policies with officers.  Bristol City Council’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee held conversations about the council’s Advertising and Sponsorship Policy which strengthened the policy before it was adopted.

Should a fossil fuel company be allowed to advertise its ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘best in class’ products?

No. The advertising ban must prevent companies such as Shell, Esso and BP from using advertising to appear greener than they actually are. Any advertising by a company whose principal product is fossil fuels, even if the advert is focused on a minor activity of the company, will effectively promote the whole company. Fossil fuel companies disproportionately feature their renewable products in their advertising compared to their actual renewables investments. 

BP’s advertising, for example, was the subject of a complaint by ClientEarth to the UK’s National Contact Point under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK also ruled against Shell for making misleading green claims in their advertising in January 2020.

Could ‘high-carbon’ be defined in absolute terms rather than designating certain industries as ‘high carbon’?

Yes it could be defined in this way. For example, a council could define high carbon transport (cars, flights, etc), by its carbon intensity per passenger kilometre (gCO2e/pkm) and energy products by carbon intensity per quantity of usable energy generated (gCO2e/kWh). Or a council could define a single metric to apply to any product being advertised, e.g. carbon intensity per retail value of the product or service (gCO2e/retail£). 

However, there is not yet a universally accepted definition of high, medium and low carbon intensity per £, so a council may find it difficult to persuade advertising companies to assess adverts using this metric, and therefore enforcement would be challenging.

An attempt at a ‘universal’ metric for all advertised products could also have unintended side effects. For example, carbon intensity per retail value (gCO2e/retail£) would artificially inflate the carbon intensity of lower cost products. A low cost budget flight would appear to have a higher carbon intensity per retail pound than an expensive first class flight, even though the true carbon intensity per kilometre travelled per passenger on a budget flight (gCO2e/passenger-km) is actually lower. This is because a budget flight has more passengers per aeroplane. Other attempts at universal metrics might have other unintended consequences.

Legal advice states that councils have broad scope to design a policy according to their discretion; this could use carbon intensity metrics, or, for example, since there is currently no way to fly that is low carbon, advertisements for airlines, airports and holidays abroad that necessitate air travel could be broadly excluded as ‘high-carbon’.  
Policies could be designed to incorporate both categorical exclusions for the highest-carbon industries, such as fossil fuel companies, and polluting sectors that must see demand-side reduction, such as aviation, with a more fine-grained measure that would allow a sliding scale of regulation. Advertising for moderately high carbon products could be required to display a climate change warning.

Definitions of harmful and high carbon products

Category and definitionNotes
Pay-day loans: loan advancers which meet the Financial Standards Authority’s definition of ‘High Cost Short Term (HCST)’
High Fat, Salt or Sugar foods: products High in Fat, Salt or Sugar (HFSS) are identified using nutrient profiling. The Department of Health Nutrient Profiling Model (NPM) compares energy, saturated fat, total sugar and sodium against fruit, vegetables and nut content, fibre and protein. When the scores are added up, foods scoring 4 or more points, and drinks, scoring 1 or more points, are classified as ‘less healthy’ / HFSS and are subject to advertising restrictions. 

The NPM is widely used and has been subject to rigorous scientific scrutiny, extensive consultation, and review. Furthermore, the scoring system it uses balances the contribution made by beneficial nutrients that are particularly important in children’s diets with components in the food that children should eat less of. It has therefore been concluded that the NPM model is the best way of identifying food that contributes to child obesity.
See the Guidance Note for the Bristol City Council Advertising and Sponsorship Policy on HFSS products and find out more about the Nutrient Profiling Model

There is also more information in food charity Sustain’s Healthier Food Advertising Toolkit.

This includes advertisements where there is a range of food/drink featured, some of which is HFSS.
Fossil fuel companies: we define fossil fuel companies as firms that have over 80% of their investments in coal, oil and gas and / or operate as companies primarily concerned with selling fossil fuels and their derivative petrochemicals.Carbon Underground 200 provides a useful background on issues and methodologies for defining fossil fuel companies.
Cars: exclude all advertising and promotions for petrol, diesel and hybrid vehicles and Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEV).Advertising for Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) as distinct from PHEV could still be permitted, and in principle hydrogen fuelled vehicles. PHEVs have been shown not to yield meaningful emissions savings over conventional vehicles.
Airlines and airports: all advertising by airports and airlines which might reasonably be deemed to promote more flying.There are no low carbon options for commercial air travel available currently or for the foreseeable future, so air travel per se should be treated as high carbon.
Holidays abroad: all advertising and promotions for holidays abroad that can be expected to include air travel; this can be defined as advertising and promotions for holiday ‘package deals’ with flights included, and those for destinations outside of the UK and Ireland.There are no low carbon options for commercial air travel available currently or for the foreseeable future, so holidays abroad involving air travel should be treated as high carbon.
Red meat and dairy: we define red meat as beef, lamb and pork, owing to the disproportionately large contribution of ruminant animals (cows, sheep) to greenhouse gas emissions, and the role of all livestock production (especially cows, sheep and pigs) in producing GHG emissions and as a key driver of land change and deforestation for pasture and feed production.

Red meat is also known to have a negative impact on public health.

Animal products: As well as the environmental impacts of livestock production, animal welfare is an issue that deeply affects many citizens, more and more of whom are choosing to eat a plant-based diet as a result. Therefore this category could be broadened to include all animal products – this would also be easier to implement.
Rearing livestock for food is highly carbon, water and land intensive regardless of the means of production (intensive or extensive). 
The UK’s Climate Change Committee has recommended a reduction in meat and dairy consumption by 20% by 2030 to meet net zero goals, and 35% reduction for meat by 2050. 

Advertising has been identified as a targeted policy intervention to help lower meat and dairy consumption in favour of plant-based alternatives.

To halve global meat consumption by 2050, Europe needs to reduce its consumption by 70% in the next 10 years. At the current rate of growth, meat consumption will rise by 76% by 2050

More information about the disproportionately large environmental impacts of animal products can be found in a review of 57,000 foods in the journal PNAS, and an analysis of food products under different production systems published in the journal Science.  

This includes advertisements where there is a range of food featured, some of which is red meat and dairy.
Fossil fuel financiers: we define fossil fuel financiers as banks or insurers that are listed in the top 60 global banks for financing fossil fuel companies.The Rainforest Action Network’s annual Banking on Climate Chaos report examines commercial and investment bank financing for the fossil fuel industry. The report lists the world’s 60 largest banks in order of their fossil fuel financing: https://www.bankingonclimatechaos.org
Any bank financing fossil fuel companies can be defined as ‘high-carbon’ as the bank is providing money directly to support the fossil fuel industry.

More on defining ‘high carbon’ and how this might work in terms of banning high carbon goods and services in this background paper