There has always been something odd about the development of the bike-for-billboards scheme. Contracts were kept secret from councillors; the council refused to release contracts to journalists under FOI; by international standards a disproportionately small number of bikes were introduced for a large number of lucrative billboards; the majority of profit is going to the billboards-and-bikes company, not the council. I could go on. Just weird stuff that doesn’t add up, and lots of it. Even the Green Party’s Ciaran Cuffe termed it a “dodgy deal” back in August ’08.
The story got yet odder in the last few days when it emerged more structures, yet to be erected, will be exempt from planning permission, despite many applications for such structures having been rejected by An Bord Pleanala in the past. This will result in 10 per cent more advertising for the company running the scheme, JC Decaux.
[If you know the whole background of the scheme you're better off skipping the next seven paragraphs - yes seven , lots of stuff has happened - which just recaps what exactly has emerged over three-or-so years, otherwise, read on];
From the outset the scheme was eyebrow-raising. The deal to implement it only came to light after a contributor to Archiseek, the Irish architecture discussion website, started a thread on the topic in 2006. Bizarrely, by then it had been argeed by Council management without any consultation with councillors, in contravention with legislation which states only councillors can approve such a program. Apparently, the then Lord Mayor wasn’t even aware of the deal until the Archiseek thread and subsequent media attention.
Later, during the development, JC Decaux was permitted to make more than 100 separate planning applications for more than 100 individual billboard structures. With appeals costing €220 a pop, this effectively made it impossible to appeal against the broader plan. Still, many locals appealed against the massive “metropoles” and some of the smaller billboards resulting in almost half of those proposed in the JC Decaux plan being rejected by An Bord Pleanala.
In the end, permission was granted for 72 advertising boards. JC Decaux got use of these in exchange for implementing the bike scheme – which consists of 40 stations and 450 bikes - and erecting 100 tourist information boards around the City. This meant the ratio of board-to-bike was 1:4, as compared to the scheme in Paris where the ratio was 1:12. Such small numbers caused Labour councillors, originally all advocates, to express disappointment with how it was to be implemented. An Taisce, the National Council for the Blind and a group representing city business people also criticised the way the council was going about the implementation.
Journalists who have attempted to investigate what exactly has been going on have been hampered by council officials’ decisions. Colin Coyle of The Sunday Times has done sterling work on it. However, the council officials’ refused to release contracts relating to case to him under FOI, claiming they were commercially sensitive. Although such requests are fairly routine, Mr Coyle was forced to take his appeal to the Information Commissioner (meaning he had to request, appeal, and then appeal again, the next step was the High Court).
Futhermore, when the information commissioner was compiling her decision she found that the council had failed to supply her with all the relevant documentation. She decided it was in the public interest to release the documents while noting the “secrecy” surrounding them left scope for “abuse”.
The scheme has now been running almost nine months, although the billboards were operational - turning revenue for JC Decaux - a year before the bikes came on-stream. The bike element has been well-received and widely praised but the placements and sizes of the billboards have been heavily criticised. There is a thread on Boards.ie with many images showing the obstructive locations. This video is probably the best visual coverage of the dangerous billboard locations.
Many of these billboards are located in not-quite-yacht-club areas, in contrast to many of the bike stations. The council has been forced to remove several after motorists and pedestrians complained they blocked sight lines at corners and crossings, as shown in the video above. To this day there still appears to be no sign, from my experience of living in the city centre at least, of the “tourist information” boards.
Now it has been reported that the scheme will be expanded, with the next phase of billboards and stations being fully exempted [DCC has now clarified this situation, see footnote below] from planning permission. The Council’s spokesman told the Irish Times that this is due to an “urgent need” to satisfy demand. The increase will mean 10 per cent more advertisting boards in exchange for 100 bicycles – number going from 450 to 550 – and four new stations.
Exempting the sites from planning permission means An Bord Pleanala will not be able to reject the erection of the billboards, as they have done numerous times in the past. The council in doing so will effectively be exempting the building of private properties from planning permission and claiming their building is in the public interest. Such a claim is contestable; while the additional bikes and stations may be public utilities, the previously contested billboards are certainly not.
Lastly, as one Archiseek user, Hutton, notes in the informative and long-running thread on the site…
… an advertisement poster costs €1250 per fortnight for one of four sheets on one side of the current “metropanel” units – with the fee including the printing costs; the majority are dual-aspect – having two billboards on the one unit.
Each dual-aspect metropole may carry 4 adverts on either side, resulting in a turnover of €10,000 per fortnight – which over 15 years may generate €3.9 million per unit.
So once again, it appears Dublin City Council may be prepared to give away the revenue potential of €39 million over 15 years in exchange for 100 [updated] bicycles.
So there’s a lot of money involved, these advertising boards are lucrative. The bikes are useful but we shouldn’t be blinded by by the head-lamps. We may see more on this story soon.
Footnote: DCC has released a statement saying that the stations will be exempt but the billboards will go through Part VIII of the Planning and Development Act 2000, instead of the normal process. Under this section An Bord Pleanala will still be bypassed although individuals will be able to appeal, the merits of which will be judged by the council’s elected members. The Council’s statement was brought to my attention via Ryan’s comment.
Update: Further information about uses of Part VIII in Nyder O’Leary’s comment, where he concludes…
All in all, it’s difficult to get away from the impression that DCC are stretching the Act to take An Bórd Pleanála out of the picture