Some good news. Over the last few years, Wandsworth has seen a big increase in the number of payphones. Which might seem strange, in the days of mobile phones – until you see these new ‘phone boxes’ and realise that they’re really just giant advertising boards, with a small payphone stuck somewhere on the side. Planning rules conveniently allow companies to put new phone boxes in without needing permission, and a few advertising companies spotted an obvious loophole and started to put in ever larger adverts (proposals for Lavender Hill involved structures well over three metres high, and close to a metre and a half wide), coupled with typically-non-functional and never-likely-to-be-used phones.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with advertising – but with companies trying to put in clusters of vast illuminated hoardings (well over three metres high!) on all the most prominent parts of the town centre, cluttering narrow pavements, blocking views of listed buildings, and making it hard for turning motorists to see oncoming traffic, things were getting out of hand. Some of the promoters took a distinctly aggressive approach – installing them despite refusals of permission, flooding Councils with dozens of applications for the same stretches of road, and taking all refusals to appeal. Westminster at one stage received 300 applications for these ‘phone boxes’ in just two years!
We’ve previously reported on this in some detail, and indeed fed in comments to the planning process on local applications (which were generally trying to argue that they did not need planning permission). We recognised that not all operators are bad – indeed, BT and New World Payphones both took a sensible and responsible approach of working with the Council to identify suitable locations, and of removing several old phone boxes before they put any new ones in. BT’s InLink ones even offer free calls.
However a company called Maximus Networks Ltd wanted to put a huge advertsing hoarding on Lavender Hill, on the street corner by the Church of the Ascension – which would make it very dangerous to turn out from Stormont Road, and block the views of the church. We (and others) were very concerned, and Wandsworth sensibly refused permission. Maximus took this to appeal, and the good news is that the Government Planning Inspector has agreed with us and Wandsworth that the development was not exempt from needing planning permission.
To roughly summarise the inspector’s judgement, they concluded that these mega-payphones would clearly have a “dual purpose” – being a payphone but also deliberately providing a disproportionately large advertising hoarding, that did not seem to be necessary for the payphone’s day to day operation. And because a recent High Court judgement (in a case involving Westminster) had concluded that the exemption from planning processes only applied to structures that were only for use as payphones (and not, say, snack vans that happened to also include a payphone…), the exemption from planning did not apply to these ‘dual purpose’ structures.
So it’s good news. Our planners listened to us and others, considered the cases carefully, and took the right decision, and the inspector agreed that they had followed the right processes and made the right decision. We may well see more adverts, and payphones, in the future – but they will need to go through the planning process. Companies can’t just ignore local residents’ desires to make their streets more attractive, and install adverts wherever they like without getting permission.