Everyday, tens of thousands of motorists – workers, shoppers, tourists – arrive into Bristol via the M32.
Towering over the roadway to greet them are two illuminated billboards, bathing all that pass in the artificial light of 24-hour rolling advertisements.
These M32 billboards have stood for almost five years. If a new community campaign is successful, they could soon be removed.
The M32 billboards were installed between 2016 and 2017 by advertising company Global in two locations on Stapleton Road.
Rising 15 meters above the street level, the billboards are a fixture of daily life for many people who live, work or pass through this part of the city.
A survey conducted by Adblock Bristol over winter 2020-2021 collected the views of local residents regarding the billboards. With over 100 responses, the survey makes for sobering reading.
One resident said: ‘It feels like a horrible dystopian nightmare.’
Another: ‘I feel frustrated and disappointed whenever I pass the billboard. I find it invasive, and feel like the advertisers’ agenda is being forced on me.’
And a third: ‘They make our part of the city feel like an unloved industrial wasteland.’
The survey is part of Adblock Bristol‘s Screened Out campaign, a joint effort with local people to pressure the council into removing the billboards when their existing five-year planning permission comes to an end.
Since 2017, Adblock Bristol, the local branch of the Ad Free Cities network, have been active in opposing planning applications for new billboards, as well as engaging communities and local decision-makers in conversations about the impacts of corporate advertising.
Speaking to TBA, Adblock Bristol’s policy coordinator said that they are campaigning for ‘a city where our public space is reflective of the values of the people that live here, and not handed over to corporate giants who have never asked the public’s permission to be present in that public space.’
Adblock have collected a wealth of evidence to argue that billboards harm mental health, people’s pride in where they live, local economies, and the environment.
The group hopes that the removal of the M32 billboards will send a message that Bristol cares more about people and the environment than about corporate profit.
Adblock have succeeded in preventing new billboards being erected previously. In July this year a digital billboard proposed in Bedminster was refused following 230 objections from locals.
This is the first time the group has attempted to remove an existing billboard, however, and in doing so they face an uphill struggle against the weight of planning regulations.
As they near their fifth anniversary, the M32 billboards’ planning permission will lapse from “express consent” – i.e. explicit approval – into “deemed consent,” or assumed approval.
Bristol City Council will, at this point, be able to revoke the original permission granted to Global via what is known as a discontinuance notice.
Adblock Bristol have launched a petition addressed to Mayor Marvin Rees, as cabinet member for planning, asking that he support a discontinuance notice against the M32 billboards when the five year express consent ends. No response from Rees has yet been received, although at 3,500 signatures the petition would automatically trigger a full council debate.
By law, local authorities can issue a discontinuance notice for billboards when ‘it is necessary to do so to remedy a substantial injury to the amenity of the locality or a danger to members of the public.’
This makes removing the M32 billboards much harder than blocking a new proposal, since Adblock need to prove that they have actually caused harm.
In the case of public safety, many survey responses spoke of the adverse effect on driver concentration that the billboards pose, and they are backed by local councillor Tim Wye, who in comments to TBA that the billboards distract to drivers and therefore ‘from a safety point alone I think they should go.’
The case of visual amenity is a difficult one. “Amenity” is not properly defined within the national regulations and planners are simply advised to consider whether the billboard is “in keeping with” the “scenic, historic, architectural or cultural features” of the area.
Easton Councillor Barry Parsons has spoken out against the billboards, calling them ‘a blight on our city.’ He went on to say: ‘As someone who lives not far from these billboards, I find them really intrusive and especially empathise with the impacts on people’s mental health.’
Amenity is a coded phrase, essentially meaning how attractive an area is. This, according to Adblock, makes the siting of billboards a social justice issue as they often go up in ‘areas that probably are already feeling the impacts of greater air pollution, they’re already feeling the impacts of less economic income.’
A number of survey respondents expressed feelings of resentment that illuminated billboards can be granted permission in Easton or Lawrence Hill, but would be refused in an area like Clifton.
Whilst not conclusive, there is some evidence to support such a view. Since January 1st 2016, Lawrence Hill has had 19 applications submitted for new illuminated billboards, Ashley four and Easton five. In the same period only one submission was made in Clifton which was later withdrawn and another in Clifton Down which was refused.
This year has already seen several local councils take on outdoor advertising. In March, Bristol Council banned ads for junk food, alcohol, gambling and pay-day loans on all sites it owns, in part thanks to lobbying by Adblock.
In June, Norwich Council went further and agreed to limit advertising of high-carbon products. Liverpool Council is in the process of doing the same.
Whereas each of these motions targets only the content of advertising, Adblock Bristol’s M32 billboards campaign targets the very notion of corporate advertising itself and questions whether it is something that we want in our public spaces.
If successful in removing the M32 billboards, Adblock and the wider community around Stapleton Road would show that people can take control of their public spaces and can make decisions about the kind of city in which we wish to live.
The petition is available to Marvin Rees is available to sign here.
If you would like to be involved in the M32 billboards “Screened Out” campaign, or would like to share your thoughts on the billboards, contact Adblock Bristol at firstname.lastname@example.org.