Tale of beauty and the outdoor beast

After years of bickering and infighting, the poster industry has been working hard on co-operating for the good of the medium. But now this show of unity is about to face one of its toughest tests.

There are ominous signs that outdoor advertising is coming under threat from overzealous town planners. Anecdotal evidence and Government statistics suggest that some local authorities are paying greater attention to the look of their surroundings, and becoming hostile to billboards, even though posters have been part of our towns and cities for more than 200 years.

Last week, the poster contractors’ trade body, the Outdoor Advertising Association (OAA), met its counterparts on the buying side, the Council of Outdoor Specialists (COS), to enlist their support.

Matthew Carrington, OAA chairman, says: “Sadly the outdoor industry doesn’t have a strong reputation in delivering environmentally sensitive sites. But we would argue that’s not a true reflection. An advertising location can improve the environment, as well as the poster being attractive in its own right.”

In Birmingham, where the situation has been getting tense, an OAA-led initiative is already underway to try to create a better dialogue with the planning department. John O’Hara, joint managing director of Birmingham-based contractor Vision Posters, says: “To the council, posters are just another problem in the street scene, just ‘neat fly-posting’.”

In recent years the outdoor medium has made great strides in improving its respectability, as it consolidates into fewer, bigger (often multinational) players which are prepared to invest in better-looking billboards supported by a consistent audience measurement system, Postar.

With the poster medium coming under scrutiny, there is increasing urgency, not only to lobby on the benefits of the industry, the jobs it creates and its value to the local and national economy, but also to tackle one of the industry’s darkest secrets – illegal sites.

A proportion of these contractors’ billboards are not, strictly speaking, legal. That is, they have been built without the necessary planning permission, or “express consent”.

Many of these sites have been in existence for more than 20 years, all the while being taxed and attracting no complaints from the public. Indeed, the industry would argue they add to the environment, by covering up ugly buildings, industrial landscapes, road junctions and so on.

But a local authority which adopts an anti-outdoor policy can issue a “discontinuance notice” on this sort of board and force contractors to pull it down, without having to pay any compensation.

Ron Zeghibe, chief executive of contractor Maiden Outdoor, says: “If a panel has been up for four to five years it should be made legal. Our attitude is: ‘Get off your high horse and let the thing exist.’ The Government is only too happy to tax these sites and yet they are technically illegal.”

Zeghibe is lobbying the Department of Environment, Transport & the Regions to put a consistent planning policy in place. What is acceptable in one part of the country is often refused in another, sometimes on what appears to be a whim.

Added to this, is the problem of unscrupulous contractors constructing “bang-ups”, the billboards which really anger the respectable members of the industry. These are cheap constructions put up in unsuitable positions, or on the site of a “discontinuance notice”.

It might take a local authority several months to force the owner to take it down, and all the while the contractor is pocketing revenue from selling it to advertisers.

As Zeghibe says: “The cheaters are rewarded. It puts huge pressure on the big contractors. It’s a downward spiral.”

Carrington says the OAA is in discussions about “some sort of strategy whereby we will put in a system of self-regulation” over illegal sites. He rejects the suggestion that contractors which erect “bang-ups” will be publicly named and shamed, but it seems clear that if the specialists are to do their bit, and not buy these illegal sites, they need to know which ones they are.

Annie Rickard, chief executive of specialist Posterscope, and chairwoman of COS, says: “If the OAA can give us a list of illegal sites, then we won’t buy them so long as we are not at risk of restrictive practice.”

IPM chief executive Chris Morley argues it can be done, although it could mean some pain for contractors which have to sacrifice some sites. But he adds: “We ought to be doing this now.”

He points to the situation in the US in the Sixties, when President Lyndon Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, almost snuffed the poster industry out of existence with her “Beautification of America” crusade, in which billboards along freeways were ripped down. “It really went to the wire,” says Morley. The medium fought back and survived, but only after frantic lobbying.

If the UK poster industry can accept some short-term pain now, it will surely boost its long-term health and lend more respectability to outdoor advertising.

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