Within Greater Manchester between 1 August 2019 and 31 July 2020, there were 90 applications for LED digital billboards in Greater Manchester. To the advertisement industry, these are simply the result of improving technological progress. To Greater Manchester’s planning committees, they present a challenge to the character of the region, and introduce a new visual element to the streetscape that affects road users and residents.
Of these 90 applications, 50 were approved, but not all of them by the region’s planners. Six applications were refused by Greater Manchester councils, but were overruled by the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) and approved by national government. These applications were deemed detrimental to the areas in which they were proposed by residents and councillors, but the terms on which such advertisements can be refused are narrow. Advertising companies are therefore often successful if they appeal local council decisions.
PINS is part of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (headed by Robert Jenrick MP), and has responsibility for national infrastructure projects, reviewing local development frameworks, and ruling on Planning Appeals. PINS is the authority that applicants appeal to if they disagree with a planning decision made by the local council. Their decision is final.
Digital Billboards in Your Area
All the planning applications for advertisement consent in Greater Manchester over the 12-month period Aug 2019 to Aug 2020.
Advertisers may also appeal against conditions that are imposed on their successful applications, if they find the conditions too restrictive. Again, the Planning Inspectorate can remove or alter conditions imposed on a planning application. This occurred in Rochdale, where the planning committee imposed a condition on one application requiring that displays should not change more than once every 120 seconds, on the grounds of road safety.
The inspector sent to review the council’s decision found that there was “no evidence that the level of distraction from the changing in advertisement content every 10 seconds would be of a degree that it would [be] likely to result in driver confusion that would ultimately lead to adverse highways safety conditions.” The original condition was amended to allow a change of image every ten seconds.
In the Appeal Decision Report for this application, the inspector referred to the local legislation that had been used in the original decision, but concluded that “the proposal would not harm public safety, [therefore] the proposal does not conflict with these Policies.” This is in spite of the council’s original decision being based on a conflict with the policies they had cited.
Under the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) (England) Regulations 2007, local councils can only refuse advertisement consent on the grounds of amenity and public safety. While a council may object to an application on the basis of local policies, the Secretary of State can overturn an appeal against such a refusal if they think the evidence for a planning decision is weak. Effectively, this translates as national government interfering in local planning issues.
Residents in Chorlton objected to the replacement of an existing externally illuminated 48-sheet advertisement board with a digital LED screen with sequentially changing advertisement displays. The advertisement in question is proposed for the gable end of 350 Barlow Moor Road. Three local councillors and Chorlton Civic Society, made representations on the original planning application expressing concerns about the amenity of the advertisement site and surrounding area.
However, the applicant, Vivid Outdoor Media, appealed to the Planning Inspectorate for a reconsideration, and were successful in their bid. Writing on Twitter, Chorlton Civic Society said,
Manchester City Council rejected the application on the grounds that it would “form an incongruent feature, to the detriment of visual amenity within the area” and that its “close proximity to residential properties presents an intrusive feature to the residents of [nearby addresses]”. The inspector tasked with reviewing the appeal disagreed, and determined that “The proposed advertisement would not have a detrimental effect on the amenity of the appeal site and the surrounding area, including its residents”.
Across the Greater Manchester region, there are patterns in the decisions made by councils. The majority of applications were in Manchester, although the surrounding boroughs included sites on the main arterial routes into the city. Oldham and Bolton councils refused all of the LED billboard applications they received during the 12-month period The Meteor looked at, based on visual amenity criteria in Bolton, and mostly on road safety grounds in Oldham.
Tameside council also raised objections based mostly on road safety, including one digital billboard proposed for land adjacent to the M60. The majority of refusals in Manchester and Trafford were on the basis of visual amenity, and Wigan placed equal emphasis on amenity and road safety. Stockport council approved all LED billboard applications received during the 12 months, and Rochdale council approved all but one, albeit with conditions.
In addition to the standard conditions that all advertisement consents must include, councils also imposed conditions regarding the brightness, hours of operation, and the rate at which images would change on the screens. In cases where the advertisement is sited on Metrolink land, additional conditions were applied regarding site access, ground condition, working conditions and electromagnetic compatibility between the screen and Metrolink power supplies.
Overall, councils seemed to want to work with advertisers to allow development, but they want it to fit in with their Local Plans and enhance the places where they are sited. Where conflicts arise, councils have cited specific pieces of local legislation that would disallow the digital billboard in the chosen area or site. Planning inspectors have taken these into consideration in every appeal we looked at, but in all successful appeals it came down to a disagreement of opinion over whether the council’s interpretation of their own rules amounted to a threat to amenity or public safety.
In the end, it may be that local councils are delaying the inevitable by refusing applications for digital billboards. Most of the applications within Greater Manchester were for an upgrade to more traditional paper-and-paste or Trivision boards, and reflect technical developments in the industry. It is arguable that internally-illuminated changing screens may attract the eye more than traditional billboards, but that is the aim of any advertisement. If they are turned down today on the grounds of visual amenity, how long will it be before that argument no longer applies?
We seek to preserve elements of our environment, and the character of whole towns and districts, but with time we adopt new technologies and systems that leave their mark on the visual landscape. There may come a point when we decide that innovations like LED ad hoardings are as inoffensive as lampposts and litter bins. But the problem we currently face is one of central government imposing its will upon local councils and residents, which might be the bigger issue in how local areas are run.
Feature image: Katy Preen