Calling in Digital Billboards

The new council year has started with two Call-Ins of recent decisions by the Mayor. One was instigated by the Green Group. A successful Call In gets a poorly made decision referred to the Full Council for debate by all city councillors where the process that’s been challenged can be revisited and the principle underlying the decision as well. So what did we object to and why? 

Some months ago, five of the then six-strong Green Group on the council (the sixth being our member of the Mayor’s cabinet)  “Called In”  the Mayor’s proposal where he decided, at his January Cabinet meeting, that the council would hire out new Digital Billboard sites in the city.

We did this for a reason, and we argued successfully that it was a flawed process.

This is what we said:

The decision in cabinet breached the presumption in favour of openness, and that material contributing to the decision should have been made available:

– we felt that financial and revenue implications should be open to the public;

– that we ought to know as far as possible the plans for other commercial operators to bring forward other similar plans for digital street advertising so that all residents can contribute to an open dialogue around any decision by the Mayor and the issues around use of public space for private purposes; and

– there should be evidence and process to show a strategy is in place for public and private sites (which seems to be absent). For instance the recently approved Core Strategy for the city has no such strategy to deal with or locate proposed digital billboards. Planning controls to manage proliferation will therefore be weak.

Without this we felt there should be no rush to sell off or let these initial sites for commercial advertising.

We were supported at a special hearing in March where our case was heard by various public submissions, backed up by images from other places,  including a statement from the Bristol Civic Society.

I argued that there needed to be a balance of policy priorities demonstrated, and that the issue of defending the Public Realm and our built environment has to be weighed against undefined income.

I said that given that reduction of visual clutter on our streets has been a priority (eg removing excess signeage and traders’ bins) this should be taken into account.

I pointed out that the targeting of these initial facilities in so called “less sensitive sites” does not bode well: which areas are protected and in which neighbourhoods will these be allowed? Are conservation areas, listed buildings and areas with Amenity Societies to be avoided, but all other wards across the city and locations without protection OK for more, future digital billboards?

In the special committee we were initially advised that our case was weak and our call in could not be sustained. However we did make a strong case and we gained the support of committee for this challenge: the decision-making process had been proved to be inadequate. Officers argued strongly that the company bidding to gain the concession would lose interest if a rapid decision was not concluded; they are, however, still interested in taking over our space.

Thanks to our successful case at the March call-in hearing the issues finally came to an Extraordinary Full Council this June for open debate before it could be implemented.

So all councillors were able, at the meeting, to debate both the process followed and the principle of the Mayor’s proposals in public for the first time.

Our view is that adopting this approach to renting our Public Realm to commercial advertisers for unavoidable, dynamic, and relentless advertising will be bad for Bristol people and bad for the city. If digital advertising gets established the expansion of commercial messaging beyond the initial sites to locations all over the city where advertisers can prey on the public will be inevitable. A range of future ‘strategic routes’ was already mentioned. Is this the image of the city and the type of product-laden environment we want to live?

Members therefore had the opportunity to make a recommendation to the Mayor and Cabinet to show their wishes.

In the event most other councillors took an interesting but disappointing line. Many agreed the process was flawed, ie we were right and the decision should be referred back, and that more openness remains an issue and should not be the way the council operates. But at the same time most of them stated they would not support the motion that the council agreed to refer the decision back to the Mayor for reconsideration – which is what a successful Call In should lead to if the grounds are agreed that the process was found to be flawed. Instead many of our colleagues from other groups chose both to agree and yet to disagree with the Greens and say they nevertheless want to see digital billboards (or regard them as inevitable ) and want the council to use this as a source of revenue in times of austerity. Of course the council needs funds, and we support a number of innovative ways to raise income. But I believe the attitude that we must therefore see the start of digital advertising boards across the city despite a flawed process is muddled. A bad process needs to be rejected. If the principle remains acceptable then let the correct process be followed to get there – put in place a meaningful strategy to manage this and ensure a suitable, open process.

Sadly the majority of the other groups chose instead to ridicule and criticise the new, much larger Green Group, and sought to agree we were right about the process but they did not want to follow this through. It seems that we are now seen as a political threat and the damage to the visual realm of the city and the pressure on children to consume is therefore ok. One stated his lack of understanding of Green Economics as a reason.  Another said local residents want digital billboards and would like the funds spent in their area. We made a call for leadership and a rethink to the Mayor on this issue but he revealed that this had been his idea and he would not ensure Bristol sets an example in this country (as many cities abroad have done) and bans these billboards. He added that he had considered a Picaddilly Circus style route from the M32 to the Old Market roundabout in fact.

With two or three exceptions from other parties the other councillors at the meeting voted to allow the decision to remain. It’s a sad day when bright, unavoidable, compelling digital adverts can promote unhealthy products and excess consumption across the city and most local politicians support this on the pretext that this helps replace cuts to local services. Without a strategy in place to manage the now inevitable expansion of these sites planning controls will be weak and the temptation to maximise income will affect our city and residents of many areas for the worse.

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