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Local councils in the UK, as well as the Netherlands, France and Australia, are introducing Ethical and Low Carbon Advertising Policies that manage advertising content to meet public health goals, reduce emissions and support the kind of healthy and sustainable choices that are increasingly recognised as vital to achieving climate change goals.

Councils can also protect residents from the harmful impacts of digital billboards, such as light pollution and risks to driver safety, by strengthening local planning policy.

What can local authorities do?

Here we summarise the powers councils have to reduce the harms caused by advertising, and point to resources that can be used by Councillors and Council Officers. We currently work with several local councils and are happy to answer questions or offer support – contact us at hello[at]adfreecities.org.uk with any questions or to request an online meeting with our experienced staff team.

Scroll down for case studies of councils who are leading the way.

HEALTHIER ADVERTISING POLICIES

Councils and public transport bodies can create an Advertising Policy to manage the content of advertising sites within their control (for councils, this can include bus stops and billboards on council land). This could include restrictions on advertising for products known to be harmful to public health, including ads for gambling, alcohol, and ‘junk’ foods defined as High in Fat, Salt or Sugar (HFSS).

For example, Bristol City Council has implemented restrictions on ads for unhealthy food, alcohol and gambling across council-owned ad sites after a new Advertising and Sponsorship Policy was adopted in 2021. A ban on HFSS advertising across the Transport for London network has reduced purchasing of unhealthy food and drinks, reduced cases of obesity and is expected to save the NHS £200 million. Twelve councils including Bristol, Luton, Haringey, Merton, Knowsley, Tower Hamlets, Newham, Barnsley, Brighton and Southwark have banned HFSS ads.

Councils can also restrict advertising for products that contribute to unhealthy air pollution, such as cars (see next section: Low Carbon Advertising Policies).

Resources for policymakers:

Image shows a bus stop poster at night. The poster is an advert for KFC, it reads "First bucket's on us when you order delivery on the KFC app".
Above: A KFC advert in Bristol, now in breach of the council’s Advertising and Sponsorship Policy banning ads for unhealthy foods on council-owned ad sites.

LOW CARBON ADVERTISING POLICIES

Many local authorities have declared a climate emergency and are working to meet net zero goals. Adopting ‘Low Carbon Advertising Policies‘ is a logical way to reduce emissions, drive down air pollution, and encourage a shift towards lower-carbon lifestyles.

Advertising in the UK was responsible for 208 million tonnes of CO2 in 2022 – 32% of the emissions of every single person in this country. This is due to the uplift in sales generated by advertising, particularly for the most polluting products such as flights and cars. Advertising for ‘high carbon’ products and services also delays a shift in social attitudes and behaviour that is required to urgently transition to lower-carbon lifestyles.

Liverpool, North Somerset, Hackney and Norwich Councils have all passed motions to restrict high carbon advertising including for fossil fuels, flights, SUVs and all non-electric cars. Restrictions on advertising for fossil fuels is now policy at Cambridgeshire County Council, Coventry City Council and Basingstoke and Deane Borough Council, and at Somerset Council (highways assets only).

Councils could also include restrictions on advertising for meat and dairy, as there is strong evidence for the need to dramatically reduce demand for these highy damaging industries.

Resources for policymakers:

Above: an advert for a Toyota SUV in Bristol, January 2023. The car advertised emits 259-248g CO2/km; more than double the average emissions of new cars in the UK in 2021 (119.7g CO2/km), and almost triple the EU’s 2021 target for new cars (95g CO2/km).

‘NO NEW BILLBOARDS’ POLICY

Local councils can pass a planning policy introducing a presumption against all new planning applications for outdoor advertising. This can be neatly summarised as ‘No New Billboards’.

A useful parallel here is Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s presumption against planning applications for fracking, introduced in 2019, even though national legislation at the time was in favour of fracking. A No New Billboards policy can be adopted in the council’s planning policy framework, such as a ‘Local Plan’ or ‘Local Development Framework’.

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).

Resources for policymakers:

Two images. On the left: a roundabout in front of a church, the church is obscured by three billboards. 
On the right: the same roundabout and church only now the billboards are gone.
The visual impact of removing billboards in Bristol.

PREVENTING SOCIAL INJUSTICE

Currently, applications for new billboards can only be determined on the grounds of ‘amenity’ and ‘public safety’. Under these vague terms, new billboard applications have been disproportionately made, and consented to, in less wealthy urban areas. This can compound existing health disparities through increased exposure to harmful advertising content, and the light pollution and intrusion caused by digital billboards.

Councils can include policies in local planning frameworks to prevent social injustices derived from billboard placement. For example, Bristol City Council has defined the terms ‘amenity’ and ‘public safety’ to be clearer, fairer and more relevant for local authorities in the council’s Local Plan Review: Draft Policy DC B – Advertisements (January 2023).

Bristol’s Local Plan Review clearly incorporates protection against the placement of large new billboards in less wealthy areas “The policy aims to guard against proposals which would be harmful to local character and amenity in any part of the city. Perception of lower levels of visual amenity in any area will not serve as a benchmark for harmful proposals including increased clutter of advertisements.

Resources for policymakers:

Image shows a large digital billboard at night. The glare from the screen is causing a flare on the photo, outshining everything else around it.

LEGAL ADVICE FOR COUNCILS

Legal advice commissioned by the New Weather Institute is now available to support local councils in introducing Advertising and Sponsorship Policies that end high-carbon advertising on the ad sites they control.

The legal opinion finds that Low Carbon Advertising Policies that curb adverts for environmentally-damaging products, such as cars, airlines and fossil fuel companies are lawful, proportionate and necessary

The legal opinion, written by Richard Wald KC of 39 Essex Chambers, London, found that is within local authorities’ power and discretion to exclude adverts and sponsorships for high-carbon products and services. The review concludes that there is a strong legislative background to do so, given that the need to reach net zero carbon emissions is part of the UK’s primary legislation, and that the UK’s latest carbon budget explicitly recognises the need to reduce demand for high-carbon activities. As a result, the legal opinion concludes that councils can act with minimal legal risk and that:

  • The adoption of an advertising policy banning ‘high-carbon’ advertising is squarely within the powers available to local authorities and therefore prima facie lawful.
  • The legal risks of adopting a high-carbon advertising ban are limited and the prospect of a successful challenge, low.
  • Councils have broad scope to design a policy according to their discretion, despite a lack of national definition of ‘high carbon’, with effective precedents already in place.

A template policy to curb polluting advertising: The legal opinion highlights Cambridgeshire County Council’s Advertising and Sponsorship Policy, which restricts advertising for fossil fuels, and other products and services that do not align with the Council’s climate objectives; naming this policy as a useful and thorough template for other councils. It also highlights other precedents in the UK, with Basingstoke & Deane Council and Coventry City Council having already also restricted advertising for fossil fuels.

Resources for policymakers:

Sheffield introduces trailblazing new ad policy

North Somerset votes to ban high carbon ads

Text reads "Low carbon Advertising Polices. A Toolkit for policymakers."

Why high carbon advertising is so harmful (and how you can stop it)