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Blots on the horizon

Proposals to scrap restrictions on rural advertising hoardings will change the face of the countryside.
Anyone who happened to drive along the M5 near Burlescombe, Devon, in June could hardly have failed to notice an unusual addition to the scenery - three 20ft-high giant tea bags, erected in a nearby field to celebrate the launch of PG Tips pyramid tea bags.

Hardly the sort of thing you expect to see adorning rural roadsides, but for how much longer? Government plans to relax planning restrictions on outdoor advertising have prompted nationwide protest from conservation groups, planners and residents alike, all opposed to Britain developing the kind of advertising clutter common on French, Spanish or US roads.

"The government's proposals reveal an astonishing disregard for the great public support for strict control over advertising," says Neil Sinden, national planning campaigner for the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), "One of the CPRE's earliest successes was the removal of unsightly advertisements in rural areas, including poster hoardings along roads. Our current system of strict advertisement control is one of the greatest achievements of post-war planning."

Last year the Department of Transport swept away restrictions governing the brown tourist signs. These restrictions had ensured that only the larger tourist attractions would be signposted. "Now more or less any facility will qualify for these signs, including pubs and restaurants," says Mr Sinden. "The effect will be a large increase in the number of these notices."

Now the Department of the Environment (DOE) proposes to scrap the areas of Special Control of Advertising (ASCA), introduced in 1948 to prevent people littering the countryside with advertising hoardings. ASCAs cover around half the country and provide controls by banning poster hoardings, requiring planning consent for illuminated signs, and limiting the size, design and location of any approved advertisements .

However, following research commissioned by the DOE, the government has pronounced ASCAs out-dated and poorly maintained. Sinden agrees that ASCAs are flawed, but wants the government to make them more effective, even extending their levels of control.

"The proposals to abolish ASCAs send out the wrong signal about the government's intent to safeguard the countryside. If they go through we will undoubtedly see an extension of intrusive advertising into unspoilt rural areas."

Merfyn Williams director of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales (CPRW), is equally worried. "ASCAs provided a backbone to councils facing local pressure - deregulation will make it much more difficult to maintain control. Some will stand up to the pressure and some won't. You could end up with huge variations in the number of signs in different districts."

Although local authorities will still have access to other controls on advertising, they share such concerns. South Lakeland District Council sits between the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales national parks, where strict advertising restrictions will remain.

"Planning authorities covering national parks have an easier time preventing the proliferation of signs," says Peter Ridgeway, head of development control."Our landscape quality is very similar, and so we tend to be a target for businesses wanting the cachet of being associated with the parks. ASCAs help us keep down the level of remote signs."

He points out that rural areas have many businesses like guest houses and craft shops tucked up little country lanes. "They all want signs on junctions of main roads to drag in passing trade, but that would create awful clutter and distract drivers. We have been fairly successful in resisting those, principally because of ASCAs. It's not so much that the restrictions give us power, but that we have confirmed areas of control."

South Lakeland is already seeing the effects of deregulating brown tourism signs. "In the last month we've had six new request for signs - previously it would have been unusual to have had any," says Mr Ridgeway. "It's still early days. We expect that number to burgeon very quickly as people start to prepare for next season. The change in ASCAs on top of this could really cause quite a lot of damage to the countryside."

John Eaton is assistant director of planning at South Hams, Devon, which has 97 per cent of its district covered by an ASCA. "A lot of small businesses are fighting for survival and feel that the more ads they can put up the better," he says.

Mr Eaton believes the government will live to regret its latest move. "It's pointless locking the stable door after the horse has bolted, which is just what the government is trying to do with out-of-town retail developments."

Mid Devon, which covers the area of Burlescombe, where the tea bags were put up, is equally unhappy about the proposals. "If anything we want greater controls," says David Valentine, assistant director of development control. "Inevitably this will make things harder - at least ASCAs gave a bit of extra weight to any refusal."

But his concerns are not limited to the visual impact on the countryside. "I've driven along the roads on the Continent and you see these ads all over the place. It's very tempting to look, but that moment you take your eyes off the road could be the one moment you regret."