Research shows street advertising is mostly in more deprived areas

The most deprived areas of Leeds are home to 18 times more outdoor advertising than the city’s least deprived areas, according to new national research.

The research, from campaign group Adfree Cities, finds that of 1,597 roadside outdoor advertisements in Leeds, 550 (34%) are in the most deprived decile (10th) compared to just 30 (2%) in the least deprived decile. Hunslet & Riverside and Beeston & Holbeck wards have the second and third most outdoor adverts of the 33 wards in the city, at 170 and 165 respectively.

Adverts, including bus shelter ads, large digital billboards and pavement ad units, are also concentrated in areas of Leeds with lower income and higher air pollution. At a national scale, 82% of adverts are in the poorest half of England and Wales.

Adfree Cities say this mirrors existing patterns of social injustice and risks impacting communities through exposure to harmful advertising content, as well as the under-recognised impacts of brightly lit digital screens on health and wellbeing.

A spokesperson for local grassroots group Adblock Leeds, who object to new and existing advertising infrastructure in Leeds, said they hoped this research would “put the brakes” on the proliferation of advertising in the city.

Loup Suja from Adblock Leeds said:

“We keep being contacted by residents who wake up one day to a massive digital screen in front of their window. No one asked them for their opinion and no one cares how that affects their health and wellbeing. This new research shows the magnitude of the problem and reveals how more deprived areas of Leeds are disproportionately targeted by ad companies. We hope it will help put the brakes on the spread of billboards in Leeds and stop selling our city to whatever big company in London.”

Proposals for new outdoor advertisements, especially new digital billboards, can be hotly contested. In 2023, residents of Wharfedale fought against a proposal for a new digital billboard on Westgate Road, claiming that it was “unsociable and environmentally damaging”.

Industry data shows that digital billboards are energy intensive. Larger ad screens use the same electricity as 11 average UK households, while smaller screens such as those at bus shelters use the same electricity as 3 homes.

Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel launched a petition to switch off a new digital billboard in Otley at night, after hearing from residents struggling to sleep. He wrote “I would not want to live with that kind of intrusion, and I don’t want that for you either” and commented on the need for long-term change to “an out of date planning law that was never intended to deal with this kind of thing”.

Peter Brooks, who led the Adfree Cities research, said:

“Advertising billboards dominate public space, broadcasting unhealthy adverts and shining light pollution into homes. It’s clear from our research that while wealthier neighbourhoods are comparatively free from the intrusion of billboards, poorer communities are more likely to be surrounded by adverts that are detrimental to health and wellbeing.”

Adfree Cities are calling for national reform to outdoor advertising rules for England, which date from 2007,[5] to empower councils to take into account a wide range of impacts on local communities and to make advertising placement fairer.

Nicola Round, co-director at Adfree Cities, said:

“The out-of-home advertising industry routinely ignores the views of local residents who overwhelmingly oppose new advertising billboards, when consulted. And, while many local authorities recognise that the proliferation of outdoor advertising is undermining community pride, public health, wellbeing and climate targets – outdated planning regulations do not allow them to make decisions in line with these urgent priorities.

“We need to address the damaging, and unequal, impact of outdoor advertising across our cities, and to make space for a vision for public space where our health and environment matter more than corporate profit.”

The group also supports the introduction of local and national policies that restrict the most harmful advertising content, including for unhealthy food, gambling, alcohol and environmentally-damaging products and services.

Amongst the biggest spenders on outdoor advertising between 2022 and 2023 in the UK were McDonald’s, KFC, Coca Cola and Pepsico, who together spent over £170,000,000.

Speaking on behalf of Labour councillors in Beeston & Holbeck and Hunslet & Riverside wards, Cllr Paul Wray (Labour, Hunslet and Riverside) told South Leeds Life:

“It is unsurprising to hear both wards have some of the highest number of digital advertisement boards in the city. This is likely due to their dense population and the significant road network that supports these communities to function, with these types of billboards being located near busy roads in general.

“Although the impact of the digital billboards on the highways network is considered from a safety standpoint, the impact of the light pollution is not from a health perspective. Following contact from Adfree Cities, we’ve referred this issue for consideration to the local public health team and to the citywide planning department.

“We’re always looking to improve the health outcomes of local people and are therefore keen to explore and understand qualitative impact these billboards are having on the health and wellbeing of our residents, and if needed, to take steps to address these impacts.”

Cllr Ed Carlisle (Green, Hunslet & Riverside) said:

“The stats say it all: inner-city communities like ours are disproportionately overshadowed by advert billboards. They become part of the wallpaper of our lives – yet numerous studies have highlighted their significant and negative impact on the health and wellbeing of local people. Thanks and credit to Adfree Cities, for putting a spotlight on this – and I hope we can work together locally to resist, and to call for change.”

Tim Lumb, the director of the out of home advertising trade body Outsmart, told The Guardian the industry provided an important revenue stream for local authorities:

“Out of home advertising is an important revenue stream for cash-strapped councils … helping the public purse through rents, revenue-share agreements, and business rates.”

You can read the full report at:

For information, the below is the current planning assessment questions considered when planning are making a decision on a digital billboard application. The assessment will take into consideration the following:

  • Proximity to Traffic Signals:
    • Are there traffic signals close to the advert?
    • Does the advert obscure them?
    • Will the advert be seen behind the signals?
    • Will the advert cause a driver to look a significant distance from the signals?
  • Proximity to Traffic Signs:
    • Are there traffic signs close to the advert?
    • Are they regulatory and/or safety-critical?
    • Does the advert obscure them?
    • Will the advert be seen behind the signs?
    • Will the advert cause a driver to look a significant distance from the signs?
  • Footways:
    • Will the advert impact on pedestrians or cyclists?
    • What is the remaining footway width?
    • Does the advert affect pedestrian sightlines?
  • Any other visibility/sightline issues for road users?
  • Maintenance/Installation:
    • Can the advert be serviced safely (cleaning etc.)?
    • Is there a safe place for vehicles to stop and service the site (off highway or immediately adjacent)?

A Digital Roadside Advert will not normally be permitted if:

  • It is proposed to be installed within the controlled zig-zag area or within 20m of a pedestrian crossing (either approach or exit), bus stops or change in road characteristics (e.g. bus lane start, speed limit change etc).
  • It is proposed to be installed within 100m of a school or hospital entrance/exit.
  • It is proposed to be installed on a footway, unless fully compliant with the requirements for pedestrian traffic and is DDA compliant.
  • It is proposed to be installed where a slip road merges onto a high speed road.
  • It is proposed to be installed on or adjacent to a site or length for concern.

This post is based on a press release issued by Adfree Cities

Photo: Pepsi billboard advert on Dewsbury Road, Beeston. Credit: Google Streetview


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