Motorway Advertisements

– in the House of Lords at 9:39 pm on 15 June 2005.

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Photo of Lord Harrison Lord Harrison Labour 9:39, 15 June 2005

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what they will do to improve and enforce the current laws governing commercial advertisements abutting Britain's motorways.

My Lords, motorway adverts are on the march, and it is time that we stopped them dead in their tracks. They are an eyesore, they flout planning law and, worst of all, they are a potential road hazard. Before one of our citizens dies on one of our motorways, fatally distracted by a roadside advert, it is time for us to march against this invasion of motorway madness.

Those of us who habitually use the motorways of Britain have noticed a sharp rise in roadside ads peddling such goods and services as cheap loans, cheaper cars, and the cheapest fitted kitchens in Christendom. I have even seen an ad for old football programmes strategically placed at the motorway crossroads near Birmingham, with the intent of catching the interest of football fanzine fans as they pilgrimage from one soccer shrine to the next, unlike for instance the proposals from RoadChef and other service station operators, which is a separate subject that I will pass over tonight. Most of the ads merely seek to exploit the opportunity to advertise to some 400,000 customers on a daily basis simply on the happenstance of their being placed in fields abutting Britain's busy motorway network.

The figure of 400,000 was obtained from one of the many websites springing up as a new cottage industry promoting motorway advertising locations. Clearly it is a lucrative business, but it is a development that we, and the farmers who principally have permitted the ads to be erected, can do without. We all wish farmers well in their search for diversification from food production. The ads may well bring in £800 a week easy profit, but they are at odds with the farmers' welcome and important role as custodians of our countryside. If we do not act now, David Dimbleby's next evening TV blockbuster will be entitled, "A history of motorway advert artists and the blots and blights they have bequeathed on Britain's landscape".

That these adverts are aesthetically displeasing is hardly to be rebutted. They are often garish, and in time they become shabby and neglected. While I am dealing principally with motorways this evening, CPRE's graphic photo of garish ads sited along the A12 in Essex, reproduced in its fine publication The Cluttered Countryside, forcefully illustrates the ghastly nature of the problem. Those of us who have driven on motorways in parts of the Continent, the USA, and Russia, can truly testify to the dystopia of those ugly ads. Some countries such as France do exercise stringent controls on motorway adverts, to the benefit not only of French citizens but of tourists passing through that welcome country.

That ugliness would be reason enough to act now, but my instinct is that this rash of unsightly ads harbours a more deadly threat. The adverts are a road hazard whose dangers are intensified by the fact that traffic flows faster on motorways and requires concentration and split-second judgments from drivers. After all, as my friend and colleague Ben Chapman, MP for Wirral South, put it in his road accident adjournment debate a fortnight ago in another place,

"if they do not distract, they do not work".—[Hansard, Commons, 7/6/05; col. 1216.]

Is it really our intention that such extraneous distractions to drivers who are driving a potentially fatal weapon along a motorway should be multiplied by the growing number of advertising hoardings barking for attention from the roadside on Britain's motorways? I think not. Unfortunately, too little practical or academic research has been done into the vexed question of whether such distractions are a risk to good driving. I implore my noble friend the Minister to review urgently the need for better information on this hazard that most of us feel instinctively must exist.

Nor should we be discouraged from such research by the fact that in any serious or fatal motorway accident there may be a number of contributing factors, but if roadside advertising is one of them it should be tracked down and rooted out. In the meantime I am grateful for the work in 2003 of Dr Brendan Wallace of the Scottish Road Safety Campaign, brought to my attention by Mr Andrew Fraser of the Central Scotland Accident Investigation Unit, that points to the particular dangers of motorway monotony and the syndrome and potentially fatal factor of the driver being startled by the sudden appearance of an arresting motorway advert.

We desperately need new and updated data and research into the area. Surely RoSPA is right in pointing to the particular hazard offered to the motorist by the roadside advertisement, as the driver in the car or possibly a demanding passenger twists and turns in a fast-moving vehicle to jot down the details of an ad seen so fleetingly.

In addition, most of the ads are poorly designed in terms of compression of text and ease of memorising or writing down the link address. Often the address is obscured by hedges or trees that have blossomed in the spring. It is clear to me that most of the ads are badly drafted because they are not specifically designed for motorway use. The best of those awful ads is found on the bend of the M6/M55: pancake.uk.com tells all quickly and efficiently. Few match that compression and most are a menace—and I am not talking of pancakes.

Indeed, I have seen one such ad for fitted kitchens sprouting at the side of the West Coast Main Line rail track, offering an even more kaleidoscopic glimpse to the Pendolino passenger as the train rushes by. RoSPA rightly lists the types of hazard presented to motorway drivers by those ads. First, they are made less aware of the dangers on the road about them. Secondly, they may fail to read the road signs properly. Thirdly, they may fail to maintain lane discipline and a steady speed. Fourthly, the dangers of tailgating; fifthly, distracted drivers react more slowly to apply brakes. All those factors add to the heightened danger of crashing.

To believe that that is not the result of the proliferation of motorway ads is, as the jargon has it these days, counterintuitive. We must investigate and base our legislation on sound evidence.

What is the position in law and who is responsible for implementing it? It is sometimes claimed that the current law is unclear or difficult to implement. I take the latter point first: identifying who is responsible for a roadway advert. The relevant legislation is Section 224(3) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. Section 224(4) clearly states that the owner or occupier of the land can be prosecuted, as well as the company concerned whose goods and services are being illegally advertised, so there is no excuse there.

It is sometimes claimed that mobile trailers are allowed to display ads simply by the technicality of their having wheels; they are technically capable of being driven away. But that is legal legerdemain. If the law decides that we do not want roadside ads—and it does—it matters not a jot whether the static advert has wheels on it.

The law is in any case clear. I allude to Schedule 2 of the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995, which details "permitted development"; that is, where no planning permission is required. It states that trailers which would fall under the part 4 temporary buildings and uses exemption are not to be granted such permission where, as stated in paragraph B1, class B category is negated,

"if the use of the land is for the display of an advert".

The 1992 advertisement regulations list ads that are allowed without planning permission. They include vehicles temporarily static and also the concept of miscellaneous temporary adverts. But again, the law is clear that, if the vehicle has been parked in a field for some time, it is no longer deemed temporary so loses its immunity. I ask the Minister to pay special attention to the courts, which I fear have been too lenient to offenders. Will he advise them of the public concern on the issue?

Who is responsible for bringing the matter before the courts? Local councils are, and some such as my own—Chester City Council—are already invoking current law to get rid of the unpermitted ads. But it is easy to sympathise with busy councils, especially as motorways running through their patch are hardly part of their regular local council services and responsibility. Surely that is the reply to my noble friend Lord Rooker, who, on two Starred Questions of mine on the subject, acknowledged local councils' theoretical responsibility but eschewed the Government's acting like a nanny state, characterised as interfering with local justice. Does it not border on fatuity to believe that a responsible citizen driving along a motorway will know, and hence be able to complain to, the relevant council in whose domain offending adverts are seen?

If the law is flouted, it looks like a goat, whether the nanny state prompts prosecution or not. Why not give that responsibility to authorities that use and patrol the motorways regularly; namely, the police and the Highways Agency? From time to time they alert local councils, which unfortunately can exercise discretion on the matter. Will my noble friend consider strengthening the active role of the Highways Agency in particular, either in conjunction with local councils or separately? It is surely more logical to put it in charge.

I shall begin to conclude. I am grateful to Dr Stephen Ladyman, a Minister in another place, who in reply to a debate there said that he would reconsult the Highways Agency and,

"discuss the matter with ministerial colleagues to see whether other powers can be deployed or whether future legislation should be modified to include provisions to deal with this problem".—[Hansard, Commons, 7/6/05; col. 1224.]

That is heartening, and I look forward to my noble friend's reply. I particularly seek an assurance from him that the Government, who are in the throes of reviewing some of the useless red tape that governs the law in the area, will not commit the error of weakening or abandoning current law. The general public and, especially, commercial and domestic drivers using our motorways should be shielded from illegal roadside ads that not only flout the law of the land, and thus the safety of road users, but despoil our green and pleasant land.

Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Transport 9:52, 15 June 2005

My Lords, I shall be brief. I am grateful to the noble Lord for introducing this short debate. I support him. We should not tolerate motorway advertising, and I suggest that he table an amendment to the Road Safety Bill.

Photo of Lord Bradshaw Lord Bradshaw Spokesperson in the Lords, Transport 9:53, 15 June 2005

My Lords, I too will be brief, because the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has amply demonstrated the need for action. We regard such advertisements as both litter and illegal. They constitute a road safety hazard. We seek that the Government give some comfort to local authorities, so that they might be encouraged to enforce the law.

Of course, local authorities have to enforce a huge number of regulations, and they do not include only roadside signs—there are thousands of others. In fact, I have been looking at the road traffic law books themselves; they fill volumes with what local authorities have to enforce. Does the Minister consider the penalties sufficient to encourage enforcement? When the law is enforced, are the costs awarded by the court sufficient to cover the cost of enforcement? Everyone who breaks the law has some regard to the penalties for not breaking it.

We are all keen to see the countryside cleared up. We are particularly concerned about temporary signs. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has said, simply because something is on wheels it is not temporary; it is temporary only if it is there for a short time.

The problem exists not only on motorways but also on trunk roads. Companies such as McDonald's, for instance, regularly tie canvas signs to the sides of their establishments encouraging drivers to stop for breakfast at 6.10 am or something of the sort. Often such advertisements are placed on roundabouts. I can point the Minister to several where the distraction factor is at its worst.

We do not need to detain the House long. I hope that the Minister will give some encouragement regarding the taking of more forceful action on the problem to which the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has drawn our attention.

Photo of Lord Hanningfield Lord Hanningfield Spokespersons In the Lords, Local Government Affairs & Communities, Deputy Chief Whip, Whips, Spokespersons In the Lords, Transport 9:55, 15 June 2005

My Lords, given the time of night, I will not detain the House with the speech I had prepared to make much earlier. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, on securing this debate, and also on his tenacity in pursuing this subject. He obviously feels strongly about it. He has asked Starred Questions, and is also pursuing it tonight. The issue is well worthy of debate, and it is a pity we are discussing it at this late hour.

Like it or loathe it, advertising is, I am afraid, part of our society and the commercial activity of our country. Just recently, all parties have used it for the general election. I happened to prefer my own party's adverts, but the public seemed to prefer others. Anyway, it is very much part of society, whether we are electioneering or selling things. We have to recognise in this day and age that advertising is there.

Those of us who travel a lot realise that the situation is much worse in places such as the United States, where I travel extensively. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, mentioned the A12, which is part of my own territory. I do not think the A12 has a particularly large number of adverts along it. In the United States enormous adverts, almost a hundred feet long, are destroying the environment. One would want to make certain that that does not happen here.

As noble Lords know, I believe in local government and local people taking decisions on such matters. I would not want to remove that in any way. Therefore I support the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, the previous Minister, in saying that we do not want to be a centralised and controlling nanny state. What we need are some standards, and then local people can get on and pass the appropriate planning permissions locally. There is a case for national guidance, and we can discuss it, as my noble friend Lord Attlee said, during the Road Safety Bill.

We should not be too prescriptive nationally. The situation might differ in different parts of the country. We need to help local authorities, with perhaps some national guidance, but then leave them to take decisions. I hope the Minister will support that, coming from the local authority side, and that he will be as brief in his summing-up as we are trying to be in our speeches.

I thank again the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for moving this Motion tonight. I hope that the Minister will give us some good news, but will not centralise all aspects of advertising.

Photo of Lord Bassam of Brighton Lord Bassam of Brighton Government Whip, Government Whip 9:58, 15 June 2005

My Lords, I will not be excessively brief. I thank my noble friend Lord Harrison for bringing the matter to our attention in his forthright and robust way. It is a subject worthy of parliamentary concern.

There is no doubt that an increasing number of adverts is appearing in farmers' fields alongside motorways and trunk roads. I am not picking out farmers in particular; I know the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, has a background in farming. As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, says, the adverts are ugly. Most of them are placed on wheeled vehicles or trailers and are inappropriately designed. Nevertheless, they are designed to attract the attention of the passing motorist, and if you go on train journeys, you see these things from the window—increasingly, from my own observation.

I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Hanningfield, that a chunk of the A12 has ugly ads—Witham is the place that comes to mind. I spent many years driving up and down that road to see my mum, and I was always astonished by the simple ghastliness of it all. But there we are—it is down to the local authority to look at and enforce, as the noble Lord said.

The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, rightly quoted the legislation. Adverts are controlled by the Town and Country (Control of Advertisements) Regulations 1992, and the local authority is responsible for the day-to-day operation of the advertisement control system and for deciding whether a particular advertisement should be permitted. Local planning authorities also have powers in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to take action against advertisements displayed in contravention of the regulations.

Most of the adverts that have been mentioned are on land directly facing motorways and trunk roads—and some are by rail lines. The adverts require the express consent of the relevant local planning authority, as well as prior permission from the landowner, before they may be displayed lawfully. There are only two issues that a local planning authority must take into account when considering whether an advert should be granted express consent: amenity and, importantly, public safety.

The local planning authority would wish to protect the amenity of the countryside. They would consult the Highways Agency on the road safety aspects of ads in fields alongside motorways and trunk roads, and those that are likely to distract motorists are unlikely—extremely unlikely, I hope—to be approved.

Local planning authorities have enforcement powers that they can use, and they have powers to enter land and remove or obliterate unlawfully displayed advertisements. Local planning authorities have confirmed to us that the legislative powers in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the 1992 regulations are more than adequate to deal with the enforcement issues.

The adverts that have been appearing in fields alongside motorways require express consent from the planning authority before they can be lawfully displayed. As there are road safety and amenity issues connected with displaying the ads, it is unlikely that express consent would be given. It is an immediate offence to display an advertisement without the required consent.

It is only fair to say that the large advertising agencies and companies are not involved in these methods of advertising. I understand that a media marketing company has, however, targeted farmers and offered them extra income in the manner described by the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, for displaying advertisements on their land. That company is prepared to leave the advertisement on site until the local planning authority takes steps to have it removed.

It is not usually necessary to take the advertiser to court to get the advert removed. It will often be sufficient for the local planning authority simply to alert the farmer to the penalties for displaying an unlawful advertisement. I understand that in 80 per cent of cases in the Manchester area, where the majority of the adverts are found, such action has resulted in the ads being taken down. Where that approach fails, the local planning authority has the choice of taking to court the owner or occupier of the land or the person who benefited from the publicity.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 increased the maximum fine on conviction of displaying an unlawful ad to £2,500, and for a continuing offence the fine was increased to £250 for each day that the offence continued. Such fines do not necessarily reflect the considerable profits that advertisers can make while unlawfully displaying their ads. That is one reason why we are considering whether there may be scope for providing guidance for magistrates to assist them when dealing with that type of case. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Harrison for reminding us of the importance of ensuring that the courts get it right.

We are also working on new control of advertisement regulations that we expect to consult on later this year. We intend to take the opportunity of revising and updating the guidance in Circular 5/92. The matter is very much at the forefront of our thinking on environmental enforcement. The current circular advises local planning authorities that particular consideration should be given to proposals to site advertisements at points where drivers need to take exceptional care, for instance at junctions, roundabouts, pedestrian crossings, on the approach to a low bridge or a level crossing or other places where local conditions present specific traffic hazards.

Concern about large advertisements next to motorways is primarily an issue of local aesthetics and not of road safety. However, there may be occasions when the Highways Agency judges that an advertisement poses a safety issue. The Highways Agency would then contact the local planning authority where signs appear to carry a risk and ask that action is taken to remove them. Advertisements that distract motorists are unlikely to be approved. In these cases, the decision whether to prosecute is for the local planning authority. Of course, if it is on Highways Agency land, they have the power to intervene.

Concern has been expressed about the potential distraction caused by adverts next to motorways. Although there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that adverts alongside motorways can have a detrimental effect on road safety, the results of studies carried out to date have been inconclusive. However, my noble friend Lord Harrison's point about distraction is a telling one. The point of the adverts is to distract; if people are distracted there is the potential for problems.

One cause of road traffic that is causing the Government especial concern is the number of drivers falling asleep at the wheel of their vehicle. The Department for Transport has a number of initiatives to tackle that problem. One is the "Tiredness Kills: Take a Break" signs currently sited on the approaches to some motorway service areas, especially where there are few other opportunities to stop. They are generally located in advance of the signs for service areas where drivers can stop at a secure place.

The Highways Agency is responsible for the location of the 57 signs in England. I understand that the Department for Transport is considering with the agency whether there should be more of those signs and where they should be located.

Many of the adverts in fields are on wheeled vehicles or trailers, as noble Lords have said. An advertisement on a vehicle is not subject to control under the regulations, provided that the vehicle is normally used as a moving vehicle, and is not used primarily for the display of advertisements. A planning authority cannot usually take action against an advert on a vehicle that complies with these provisions. However, it is clear that most of the ads on such vehicles are not in that category, so we take the view that the law should be enforced.

The situation alters during any period when a vehicle is used principally for the display of adverts. If the same vehicle is parked in one place for a prolonged period, that piece of land might be regarded as the site for the display of an advert. It may consequently be possible for the council to maintain that the vehicle's purpose is for the display of an advertisement, rather than as a moving vehicle, during that period. In that event, the vehicle would come within the scope of advertising control, so that the local planning authority's prior specific or express consent would be needed to display any advertisement lawfully. If the trailer is not classified as a vehicle, any advertisement displayed on it would require express consent from the local planning authority before it could be displayed lawfully.

In areas of special control, poster hoardings are not permitted under the regulations. Areas of special control are areas defined by a planning authority because they consider that its scenic, historical, architectural or cultural features are so significant that a stricter degree of advertisement control is justified to conserve visual amenity within that area.

We are anxious to safeguard the visual amenity of the countryside. We are also determined to ensure the safety of all those who use the motorways. Therefore, the new circular will place renewed emphasis on the importance of amenity and public safety issues when allowing an advert to be displayed. It will also remind local planning authorities of their powers to remove advertisements displayed in contravention of the regulations.

A further positive step that we intend to take very rapidly is to write to all local planning authorities to remind them of their powers to deal with adverts in fields alongside motorways and trunk roads. Although enforcement is discretionary and local planning authorities cannot be compelled to take action in individual cases, the letter will highlight ministerial concern and reflect concern expressed this evening and in another place and remind authorities that they have the necessary powers and that the onus is on them to act.

We share the concern of my noble friend Lord Harrison and I congratulate him again on raising this important issue.