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Council counts cost of ‘blot on landscape’ advertising row

Council counts cost of ‘blot on landscape’ advertising row

🕔26.Jan 2012

As a money-making wheeze, it seemed foolproof – even by Birmingham City Council’s standards.

The hard-up local authority is desperate for cash. It has to find about £400 million in Government-imposed public spending cuts by 2015.

Nothing, surely, could go wrong with a proposition to raise money by selling advertising space on the many prominent city centre buildings and land that the council owns.

So when several contracts worth £18 million for digital advertising panels were let to local firm Signature Outdoor, deputy council leader Paul Tilsley was understandably delighted, describing the deal as a “significant early win” in the race to identify new areas for income generation.

Unfortunately, Coun Tilsley’s advisers appeared to take no account of Birmingham’s famously independent Planning Committee, which promptly refused to grant permission for any of the sites requested by Signature for digital panels.

Members rejected as “unsightly” proposals to place panels on “iconic and landmark” sites, including one opposite the Grade 11 listed Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Chad’s.

Other locations rejected by the committee included the sides of the Hyatt Hotel bridge across Broad Street and the Dartmouth Circus roundabout, which is home to a James Watt beam engine as a reminder of Birmingham’s role in the Industrial Revolution.
When the matter came to the committee before Christmas, Signature agreed to withdraw seven applications.
Decisions on the remaining six were deferred, with the committee stating that it was minded to refuse planning permission when the matter returns for further consideration.

Although planning officers recommended approval for all 13 sites, councillors from across the political divide were deeply unhappy, with one describing the screens as “a blot on the Birmingham landscape”.

There was general bewilderment that the proposals could have been developed to submission stage and, crucially, gained backing from council planning officials.

A stand-off appears to be developing, with the Planning Committee chairman insisting that he is determined to protect historic sites and buildings even if that means continuing to block proposals for advertising panels at highly sensitive locations..

Peter Douglas Osborn admits that he is “probably not flavour of the month” with leaders of the city’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, but insists his committee will not back down.

Under the terms of a 10-year deal, Signature promised to help the council address its financial difficulties by providing up to £1.8 million a year in rent from 20 digital panels on 13 sites. The Birmingham-based company saw off opposition from top-name advertising firms to be appointed the council’s Commercial Advertising Partner last year.

The committee’s stance is the latest example of underlying tensions between planning councillors and their colleagues in the city council cabinet.

Flash points in the past have included the Big Screen television in Victoria Square, which horrified conservationists because of the impact it would have on historic buildings, and the high-rise British Land Tower in Colmore Row, which if it is ever built will soar into the sky ablove nearby St Philip’s Cathedral and the Council House.

On both occasions, former Regeneration Director Clive Dutton managed to persuade the planning committee to give approval on the grounds that the projects would boost Birmingham’s economy and its reputation.

As a quasi-judicial body, the planning committee must judge each application on its merits by deciding whether it fits in  with the Unitary Development Plan conservation guidelines.
Coun Douglas Osborn (Con Weoley) is making it clear that the applications are unlikely to be approved in their current form. He would not speculate on when the proposals might return to the committee for fresh consideration.

He said: “Discussions are going on about the size of the panels, the effect on the townscape and the importance of historical areas such as Dartmouth Circus and the reputation of the city.

“We are adamant about protecting the city’s reputation. I have always said if I am a popular chairman of the planning committee, then I am not doing my job properly.”

Coun Douglas Osborn added that the planning committee had to act as a “democratic backstop” to the council’s executive and could not be swayed by the fact that coalition leaders had approved a deal with Signature.

Meanwhile, council leaders have accepted reluctantly that none of the rental income expected from the panels will be delivered in this financial year – leaving an £800,000 black hole to be filled in Coun Tilsley’s portfolio.
When it approved the contract last year, the council claimed it would be “guaranteed” an annual income stream from the panels.
It said in a statement: “The council launched the tender process in recognition of the importance of advertising in promoting economic activity and the substantial revenues that can be generated from assets positioned in prime locations.
“In common with all local authorities, Birmingham has to meet challenging reductions in public spending and the strategic use of its advertising assets could help mitigate the impact of some of those spending reductions.”
Coun Tilsley, speaking when the contract was awarded, said: “This is a significant early win when it comes to the council’s aim to open up all channels of income generation.
“The city is home to many sites which are attractive from an advertising perspective, and our new strategic approach ensures we will maximise revenue, which will be reinvested into services for the people of Birmingham.”
The council says it is now considering a fresh approach following the planning committee decision and will work with Signature in an attempt to resolve the difficulties.
A spokesman said: “We are reviewing all of our options in respect of our advertising contract with Signature.”

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