By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
Branded dangerous and said to be defacing the countryside - why illegal roadside advertising is making people see red.
They are "spreading like a rash" across the country and the firms selling them are "eyesore merchants" who are "defacing the countryside", say their critics.
The items causing such uproar? Unauthorised advertisements in fields along motorways and major roads.
At one hotspot - the M6 in Staffordshire - a motorist can see, on average, a hoarding every 30 seconds, according to a survey jointly carried out by the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), the Countryside Agency and Highways Agency.
It is a lucrative business, with the advertisements costing about £1,000 a month and the companies who sell them claim they are seen by anything from 60,000 to 175,000 drivers a day.
For years planning controls have saved the rural landscape from advertising but marketing firms and websites have sprung up, offering such displays to advertisers and money to farmers willing to install them on their land.
The government is now planning a crackdown. Housing and planning minister Yvette Cooper wants to build a database of persistent offenders to help local authorities mount prosecutions.
M1 in Yorkshire
M5 in Worcestershire and Somerset
M6 in Cheshire and Staffordshire
M40 between Oxford and Birmingham
M62 in Lancashire and Yorkshire
Many of the hoardings are mounted on trailers, to exploit a common misconception that formal permission is not needed for advertisements on wheels. In fact, advertisement regulations clearly state that such an exemption does not apply if the trailer has been stationary for some time or if it is used for the display of an advertisement.
Companies need to apply for authorisation from the local council under the advertising regulations - and it should almost always refuse permission. The government has sent a letter to all local planning authorities reminding them that land alongside motorways should be kept free of advertisements that either blot the landscape or are a possible danger to drivers.
"For too long cowboy firms have been able to get away with cheapening our countryside with tatty trailers touting things like used cars and printer cartridges," says Paul Miner, planning campaigner for the CPRE.
"For more than 50 years, planning controls have saved the English landscape from the pox of outdoor advertising. This achievement is now in danger. Billboards and hoardings are mushrooming alongside motorways and major roads across England, despite government policy and regulations clearly stating they should be strictly controlled."
Displaying an advertisement without consent can result in a maximum fine of £2,500 plus £250 a day on conviction for a continuing offence. The advertiser, the company that sells the ads and the landowner are all potentially liable to prosecution.
Most trailers do not have consent, says the Outdoor Advertising Council (OAC). It "deplores" the signs, has nothing to do with the firms that sell them and says they bring advertising into disrepute.
"These companies try and hide themselves," says spokesman, Chris Thomas. "They usually only use mobile phone numbers and are hard to track down. They do nothing but harm reputable outside advertising companies."
Campaigners say the hoardings are also dangerous, as they are designed to be read and to distract. Combined with the high speeds normal on main roads and motorways, they have the potential to cause serious accidents, says the CPRE.
A major study into the issue gets under way next week. Up until now most studies have concentrated on distractions in a car, such as mobile phones and satellite navigation.
"This is a massive issue at the moment," says Dr Mark Young, an expert in transport safety at Brunel University and the academic leading the research.
"We already know that things like signs increase the mental workload of drivers and are a distraction. Previous research has shown that 78% of accidents are due to distraction, we will hopefully now find out how much of that is due to distractions inside and outside the car."
But companies who sell the adverts say they are being unfairly targeted and provide a valuable source of income to cash-strapped farmers.
One company, M6 Media, says it is no longer in business. "It is unfortunate the way things have developed as this is an industry that causes the countryside or green belt no harm. It is an activity just as commercial as farming or property speculation," it said in a statement.
Another firm, which did not want to be named, says some farmers have told them items such as the hoardings and telephone masts "are the best crop the farm now has". It has also stopped providing the hoardings, saying the government tells farmers to diversify and then clamps down on anyone who shows entrepreneurial skills.
The company refused to disclose what cut farmers got of the money made from the hoardings.
Drivers already have many distractions
The National Farmers' Union says the advertisements are a way of earning additional cash, but the proportion of farmers who allow them is very small.
"Very few farms border motorways and of those that do an even smaller amount actually allow the hoardings. It is not really a big money earner for the industry."
The CPRE says it recognises many farmers are facing economic hardship but blighting the countryside with advertising hoardings is not the way forward.
The pressure group has "named and shamed" companies who have advertised this way, resulting in some pledging not to do so again, including Tesco.
"It was never our policy to advertise in this way," says a spokeswoman for the supermarket. "There were a handful of local store initiatives in which this type of advertising may have been used, but this was stopped."
But with an estimated 900 such hoardings along the country's motorways, there is still some way to go.
Beauty and the Beasts...
The general lack of huge advertising billboards along roadsides and the lack of ads on the BBC are two of the greatest features of Britain; please let's not besmirch our countryside views as they have in so many parts of America (...and I'm an ex-pat Yank, having lived here most of my adult life). Entrepreneurship is great until it encroaches on other people's enjoyment of the environment. I'm not one for the 'nanny state' and too many regulations, but common sense is hard to come by (particularly from the gov't!); drivers do have plenty distractions along motorways (where a split second of inattention can lead to tragedy for many families) yet we STILL see so many drivers peering into SatNavs and mobile phones when driving at speed.
As a frequent traveller on the M6, these adverts are an eyesore and unwelcome distraction
Andrew Kerr, Wantage, UK
What a load of old nonsense! If these trailers are so distracting, then logic dictates that attractive scenery must be absolutely lethal - presumably these busybodies want that covered up too. Lets all drive around in concrete tunnels and while we're at it lets ban radios, CD players and passengers too... all very distracting.
Andrew Granger, Northampton
While I agree that advertisements along motorways and roads are unsightly and are probably dangerous, I do think that the number of road signs which are cropping up everywhere (the UK is apparently the most signposted and road signed country in Europe) are equally as dangerous and equally as unsightly. Maybe someone should look into this too.
Farmers need all the help they can get, especially with the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) serving them so badly. Farming is a business and if it can't make a profit from producing food then the countryside will suffer. Anyway, the lorry drivers delivering our food from Eastern Europe and South America need something to read enroute.
James Bainbridge, Bristol
Personally I'd stop all advertising. It's no less of an eyesore in towns, it's an irritant on the net, it's rubbish in the TV Guide. Am I right that the King of Nepal or Bhutan or somewhere just did exactly that, as it was not contributing to people's happiness?
As a farmer I understand the importance of being able to generate more revenue from the land, I'd like to know who are these campaigners? The people who drive up and down the motorway each morning? Is their pretty view spoiled by adverts? Are these campaigners the same people who would of objected to the motorway being built in the middle of their pretty countryside? Admittedly when I'm driving on the motorway the last thing I'm thinking about is where to get my bathroom tiles, but should i need new tiles....
I agree entirely with the sentiment of this article - especially the stretch of the M6 between J13 &16. Another place that needs looking at is the conglomeration around spaghetti junction M6, both before and after the split to the M5, where otherwise invisible businesses advertise by virtue of 50mtr 'lollipops' and the whole side of derelict buildings are turned into massive advertising hoardings.
steve potts, Somerset
Whilst I believe this proposal should be welcomed on its own merits it seems to me yet another example of this government's obsession with trivial detail. I despair of them ever tackling the real issues (in relation to planning and development, let alone Iraq, the NHS etc.) with anything more substantial than spin and double speak.
So we've managed to solve hunger, global warming and war then? Thought not. The complainers need to get a life. Also, roadside adverts are dangerously distracting eh? So does that apply to traffic signs?
Get A Life, Preston, UK
These eyesores are a constant distraction from the important information-the motorway signs on the M62 in West Yorks. Tow them away and burn them!
A J Callan, Halifax, West Yorks
The only "eyesore merchants" who are "defacing the countryside" are the planning departments sponsored by the Government. Can we legislate against them too?
All hoardings are an eyesore, but at least they are temporary and potentially useful, unlike HMG's version.
Paul, Marlborough, UK
Yes, these old vans & trailers are an eyesore & a distraction, and quite clearly flout the planning laws, but sometimes they can brighten up your journey - in a field next to the A1M in the North East of England there is a Russian army truck, complete with a full size missile with an advert on the side! Slightly too original though, as I cannot remember what it was advertising!
Larry JW, Dunstable England
Adverts alongside motorways deface the countryside? That's a bit like saying a Christmas tree on a sewage works spoils the view.
Melanie Rimmer, Cheshire, UK
I've stopped using the regular laptop provider for our company, after seeing their name plastered across lorries in fields in cheshire - boycotting the offenders is something we can all do...
Jon Martin, york
If it's so hard to go after the companies selling the advertising space, why not go after the advertisers instead? How hard can that be, given that they have to put their contact details on the advert for it to be of any use?
Adam, London, UK
It is the motorways themselves that are an eyesore and the government is currently planning to widen them so I don't know why they are so worried about advertising hoardings. At least the hoardings don't generate a lot of noise and air pollution.
You can add the M55 leading to Blackpool to the list. You are even told how much it would be to rent one of these eyesores & they are more frequent than every 30 seconds. Has anyone noticed the trend has now slipped onto the A roads as well?
Nick, Poulton Le Fylde England
What a farmer puts on his own land is his own business as far as I am concerned. If this is profitable for the farmers & reduces their subsides from the state then I am all for it.
Dave Crenshaw, Nothants
In the thousands of miles I have travelled on the M6, I've never been distracted by one of these signs - although I do read them. Well done farmers for coming up with a use to the fields now that Defra have managed to kill off most of your animals!
We also need to ban good-looking men and women from walking near roads because they are a big distraction...
R, Baldock, UK
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