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The responsibility for regulating the display of advertisements, including fly-posting, falls to the Department of the Environment. However, inappropriate outdoor advertising has the potential to impact significantly on road safety and the environment. Under the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1993, my Department’s Roads Service has the power to remove unlawful advertising signs from within the curtilage of the public road.
The implementation of that policy, together with successful prosecutions, has resulted in a reduction in the number of unlawful advertising signs being erected within the public road boundaries, especially in the Belfast area.
Roads Service regularly removes fly-posters from its traffic signals, street lighting and cabinets. Although district councils have no statutory duty to remove such posters, they have the power of removal. I understand that some councils have requested that that statutory duty be included in the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act, the enactment of which is programmed for 2011.
I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware of the public perception that Roads Service is inclined to prosecute easy targets and to ignore the more difficult cases. A church that is advertising a car boot sale is liable to get fined before something more sinister is addressed. The Minister mentioned the Roads (Northern Ireland) Order 1993. Does the Minister agree that, in the future, the removal of fly-posters should be the responsibility of the district councils, to which he referred?
I do not agree with the suggestion that Roads Service targets easy prey. It is unlikely that sinister advertising will have a name attached to it or that the name of the individual who has responsibility for its display will be included. Not only are people putting up directional signs, but they are putting up signs that are advertising their businesses or promotions.
That is not the purpose of road signage. It is supposed to be to assist someone to find a place on the last step of his or her journey; it is not intended to replace other directional information. People are now putting signs up that advertise events, their business or some kind of promotion. When such signs impinge on road safety, Roads Service has a responsibility to take them down and fine those involved.
I recently met some MLAs, and we discussed the issue with particular reference to rural businesses. I accept that there is a need to discuss the policy and to talk to business organisations. The proliferation of business signs sometimes becomes unsightly, especially in the countryside — I am more familiar with the border area — and it has a detrimental impact on our ability to present this place as a green land that is attractive to tourists.
There is an opportunity, and perhaps an obligation, to address the issue. I have undertaken to talk to Roads Service about that and to talk to business organisations about trying to manage the issue better. That way, we should not end up fining some of the charitable people who want to provide some useful and charitable service or event and we can deal in some way with the increasing proliferation of signs along the roads.
My general approach to that issue is to transfer to local government as many powers as is sensible. Obviously, the discussions about the review of public administration (RPA) have not concluded. I know that during Holy Week, in the lead up to Easter, there were further discussions about the detail of the powers that will transfer, and those discussions have yet to be concluded. As I said, my general approach has been to be supportive if local councils feel that they want to exercise certain powers, and if it makes sense for those powers to transferred. I do not see any reason to stand in the way of that.
I welcome the Minister’s comments on the issue. It is a hugely important matter that affects many towns, cities and rural areas. Fly-posting is a blight on many communities.
The implementation of effective legislation is necessary, and that should be done in conjunction with the Department of the Environment. The only way to deal with the serial offenders that we are talking about — the nightclub owners and others who consistently abuse the law — is to take them to court and fine them. That would act as a deterrent.
I accept what the Member says. There is an increasing number of signs, and they become unsightly and are damaging to the environment. They also damage our ability to promote ourselves. However, during what are difficult economic times, we have to strike a balance when going after businesses, fining people and taking the signs down. There are also resource implications for Roads Service when its workers actually go out and take the signs down and then have to chase up businesses to fine them per sign.
There is a need for a discussion about the issue, because businesses obviously have a need to provide some sort of directional signage. Some of them do that, particularly in rural areas. However, there is a difference between that and advertising. At one stage, protocols were agreed. That was certainly the case with estate agents, who probably use signs more than any other businesses, particularly on Roads Service equipment. Those protocols had some effect, but that seems to have drifted. It is time for another discussion with business organisations — both rural and urban — about signage and what we can do about it.