Councillors will be revisiting the issue of advertising boards on Wrexham’s pavements, with licensing being touted as a possible solution to the ‘hazards’.
A meeting earlier this week of the homes and environment scrutiny committee was exploring a revised protocol regarding highway street furniture and related temporary obstructions, with one councillor taking aim at ‘a-board’ style advertising.
Cllr Alun Jenkins told the meeting of how he arrived to educate them, noting he had passed eight a-boards heading into the town centre, and from Brook Street to the Guildhall he had passed twenty six on his short walk.
“Today is a nice sunny day with no wind and they were all upright,” said Cllr Jenkins.
“Come down on a windy day and the majority are on the floor. They create trip hazards and dangers, if you have sight problems or disabled they are a complete hazard.
“It is dangerous enough with the barriers we have put up with the street works, but the a-boards are making the narrow pavement more narrow.”
The issue has been one Cllr Jenkins has raised several times, with things being formalised back in 2013 with a larger piece of work being created that saw a three page policy document formed to create ‘uniformity’ across Wrexham – the town centre, and rural areas.
Referencing the document Cllr Jenkins said: “It suggested standard sizes and structures. Some out there are up to six foot high, some are on concrete blocks and some are not even outside the properties they are advertising. Some businesses have a number of signs not just a single one.
“The aim in 2013 was to standardise, to make things safe, and also to bring in a fee.
“It is nice to see some on the pavement and activity taking place, but when they block or make it difficult to walk around, that is a step too far.
“There is a reference to this in the report, ‘non approved advertising boards’. None of these a-boards have permission. One I passed today has had a chain and padlock on it for the last six years.
“I was told until we had a policy we would be unable to act. How should we proceed? There is a draft policy, it is not difficult to run with it.”
Head of Service for the Environment Department Darren Williams told the meeting about the context of the 2013 draft policy and how things work in practice.
He said: “Sometimes we can’t be as subtle as members would like, but also we can’t turn a blind eye. Cllr Jenkins is right, it was created to find the principles to manage not remove a-boards. We can be heavy handed but that will upset business not just in town but rural areas too.
“We have strict statutory guidelines on legalities, and they are legal, that is why a-boards do not appear in this protocol document before you. It was discussed as a town centre management issue.
“We do not have the resources to manage an a-board licence protocol. I believe the 2013 draft intention was to come up with a standard form and then licence. I don’t believe it was adopted.
“We are always being challenged on ‘why are you removing this what about the one down the road!’, and what we try to do is do a fair balance. If we cleared street clutter in the town centre you would all be asking ‘what the hell are you doing’. If members wish it to be debated I am happy to input, but it has to come from the town centre team.”
Lead Member for Environment, Cllr David A Bithell echoed the officer’s comments, noting: “If we started to introduce licensing for a-boards, given the current economic climate, I do not think that would be conducive to supporting local businesses.
“One, we would have to manage it, and two, it would be negative on the town centre.
“We all need to be sensible in trying to work with town centre businesses, and saying we will start to charge for a sing outside the shop when some are already struggling, that will have an impact.
“It is not something I would support. I am sure if Cllr Terry Evans was here he would echo this and say it is not appropriate at this time.”
Later Cllr Bithell said any move “would kill the town currently”.
Cllr Jenkins clarified he hoped a policy would help mitigate those issues: “I am not saying deprive them of advertising, just saying to them there are limits and what can be done to make things safe.
“It is something that needs to be managed, and someone has to pay for everything what we do in town. I can’t see why shop keepers should be different and saved from a small charge for advertising. It would reduce numbers, and make sure they have one outside their shop, not a-boards over 100 yards away.
“It is standardising, not clearing of it all. I asked for officers across the council to deal with matters of encroachment and a-boards as far back as 2013 and no body objected to it at the time. The working group did the job, and it died a death so I am asking to put it back on the agenda.”
Cllr Pemberton pointed out ‘We are in different world now than 2013 financially”, although Cllr Jenkins quickly countered that ‘other authorities are doing it now’.
A small debate took place on the best process to consider the issue again, be it via a topic request form or other methods.
Cllr Graham Rogers added: “You touched on the economic climate today than in 2012. Whichever way this committee decides, topic request or task and finish, my position if there was a suggestion as business struggling for a licence fee on a boards, well, you would not get my support.”
Back in 2012 we wrote how ‘tough economic times’ back then meant they were seen as valuable advertising, a position that was reiterated in this week’s meeting.
Returning to the meat of the report before the meeting, councillors were told the overall protocol was being reviewed not because there had been major changes in law, but larger changes internally in Wrexham Council, so those who have final approval in certain areas may have altered.
Details were given on the number of licences issued for ‘placement of temporary obstructions on the public highway’, with different charges depending on the item. Skips will cost £52.50 up to 7 days, and an additional £52.50 for periods beyond 7 days (full pricing matrix in this document).
The meeting was told there were 159 licences issued for skips last year, 66 for scaffolding, 10 for containers on the highway and none for hoardings. The revenue raised was described by the officer as ‘not massive’ but ‘does help provide the service’.
Cllr Mike Morris spoke of issues in and around his ward where unauthorised street furniture relating to a business had been subject to ‘enforcement’, however the notice served on the business in 2015 was never followed up.
Cllr Morris pointed out ‘no one is against business, but I am against people taking over pavements with tables so people cannot physically get through without riding onto the highway’.
Cllr Bithell did not answer the specific point, but enquired what the committee would see as a priority to give his department a steer on what action to priorities with ‘diminishing resources’, pointing to the -0.6% figure announced 24 hours earlier.
He added: “To put it into perspective we have lots of policies, the difficulty is to manage everything with level of resources we have. Given the poor settlement from Welsh Government we will have to do the best we can with limited resources.
“We can have all these policies, but again it is down to workload and resources.”
Cllr Morris also described several yellow temporary signs that have now changed colour as they had been up so long. The councillor was told no fees were paid for the signs, and as long as a valid application was received by Wrexham Council the signage was allowed.
Cllr Morris noted several signs around the Industrial Estate that were ‘hanging off’, and suggested that as the application contained information on a firm end date that should be used to ensure they are taken down.
Another issue raised by Cllr Morris was regarding what was described as ‘Non approved advertising boards’ in the report, giving specific examples of recent promotion by the ‘Rock The Park’ event.
Cllr Morris pointed out it was an event with a licence from Wrexham Council, stating: “All of a sudden we got a massive amount of hoardings and I had to ring the environment department a few times to get them removed”.
He described the promotional material being ‘strewn around roundabouts’ and described a ‘huge board on a trailer chained to a lamppost outside a school’, with the same or similar trailer being ‘abandoned in the central reservation outside Eagles Meadow’.
“These things are known to the department, and are known to cost money to remove. Do you feed back to licensing to explain, and to highlight the difficulties? If this is an annual thing perhaps we should be looking at it in terms of how they advertise?”
The council officer replied to explain they attend a ‘Safety Advisory Group’ for the event: “If that event does come back it is something we would definitely feed back. We do not have the resources to go chasing them around.”
Cllr Morris agreed, “They are a commercial entity, and should not expect us to have to chase them.”
Earlier this year we wrote how the Town Centre Forum were looking at taking more direct action after a large amount of fly posting in part for that event hit the town centre – more here.
Cllr Pemberton pointed out he had helped promote some events for charities and hoped a more nuanced approach could be taken for them: “When promoting charity events it can be very difficult and the policy could be relaxed.
“If it is for profit then fair enough, but if we are doing our best for a charity that is there to keep a council facility open, to get knocked back by the same department is a bit annoying!”
The Council Officer explained they were always available to ‘give advice’ if a councillor or others wished to discuss what is permitted, where, when and for how long.
With some many sub-variants of the terms used in the report before them discussed, business became a discussion on what the output of the meeting would be, and what would come back in the future to meet the requests demanded by some councillors.
The officer explained: “I do not want to present a case that it is not the Environment Department to deal with a-boards, but because the issue is so wide ranging and elements to consider or not. You have to make officers make you the right bit of work.
“You are aware we are trying our best to provide services that you want us to do, and you need to give us steer on what you want to see.”
Speaking about the wider debate, he added: “It is such a wide ranging discussion, and I thought this report would be a simple principle, but we have had a long debate. Be it fly tipping, public bins, commercial bins, the scope is so wide, you need to define what you want to see. I am not looking to deflect, but it needs to be defined.”
Finally it was agreed a further report would come back to the committee in future ‘on associated matters raised in debate today’ and the committee would take advice on the best way forward to discuss several issues raised – including the a-board topic revived from 2013.