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Blooming billboards controversy

Monday, April 21, 2014
Advertising billboards along the Sir Solomon Hochoy Highway. PHOTO: RISHI RAGOONATH

The “visual pollution” of advertising is defacing some of Trinidad’s areas of outstanding natural beauty, says the heritage enthusiasts’ organisation Citizens For Conservation (CFC).


The group, which holds weekly meetings in St Ann’s and whose membership includes gallery owners, conservationists, architects and lawyers, has been monitoring the increasing number of billboards, particularly those along roads and highways, which are restricted under the Advertisements and Hoardings regulations of the Town and Country Planning Act.


The group will be shocked to learn that yet more new digital billboards are about to be erected around the Savannah—one of the restricted areas. 


The T&T Guardian spoke to Sotal advertising, which claimed it will install a new hoarding in the next two weeks, charging clients $7,500 a month for a guaranteed 500 rotations per day. A Sotal sales agent said the billboard will go up close to First Citizens Bank head office, and will be on private property, not state-owned land. No ads are supposed to be placed around the Savannah, regardless of their location or who owns the land. 


CFC are also concerned about the way advertising space is bought and sold—often done anonymously or simply via a message on a hoarding with a telephone number that advertisers can contact to have their ad placed there. 


CFC feels the revenue generated by some of the illegal billboards is unlawful and wants to see better regulation. 


As well as the aesthetic issues involved when big or garish ads are placed in areas of important architectural or agricultural heritage, the group feel ads can be dangerously distracting for drivers (many contain images of semi-nude women, for example) and that advertisements for alcoholic drinks are inappropriate for road hoardings, given the high number of road fatalities caused by drunk driving.



Digital billboard controversy



Last October an electronic billboard appeared on government land next to the Queen’s Park Savannah, close to the roundabout by the Ministry of Food Production at St Clair. 


The Savannah is held sacred by most people, not just those interested in heritage preservation, as it represents the unspoiled face of the capital’s history. It was also considered virgin territory for commercial advertising.


CFC members wrote to the T&T Guardian, which published the letters voicing their concerns. 


Of particular interest to the group is the nature of the partnership that the Horticultural Services Division (HSD) entered into with advertising agency Carin Television Ltd, which owns the licence to sell ad space on the controversial sign. 


The HSD, which administers the land where the billboard stands, is based next to the Savannah at Cotton Hill, Maraval. 


Carin has sought to defend itself against accusations that the billboard is illegal. A spokesman said the company had written to the T&T Guardian denying CFC’s accusations. The director of the organisation is also seeking legal advice as to whether the accusations thrown at it were defamatory.


Carin says it responded to a public tender issued by the Ministry of Food Production in December 2012 and won a three-year contract, beating off rival companies.


The deal, Carin says, is not solely a commercial venture, as a large proportion of the ads displayed are public information messages. 


“We are partially dedicated to free advertising,” a spokesman said. “Right now we have information on a programme by Words of Peace. Previously we had a Red Cross ad carrying details of how people could donate to the typhoon crisis in the Philippines. We have also displayed ads for Arrive Alive (the safe driving campaign) and for the Office of Disaster Preparedness Management. It's not just about making money.”


As to the legality of the sign, Carin says it received an official letter of permission from the Highways Division before erecting the sign in October 2013 and was aware of the restrictions of the Highways Act. These checks, it believes, were all done by the Highways Division, and the requirements were met.


“We have been set back by CFC’s negativity and it is unfair to us,” the spokesman told the T&T Guardian. “What set out as a good venture, with us approaching NGOs and government agencies, has been obstructed. CFC has deemed our billboard illegal and large advertisers have shied away. 


“But we are not on the Savannah, we are on HSD land set back from the road. It is not visually polluting the area. Our sign is a high-quality sign, not bright or glaring at night.”


Carin does accept that the sign is visible from Queen’s Park West along the stretch of historical buildings known as “the Magnificent Seven” and that the modern signage is not in keeping with the ambience, but says its designers tried to make it as tasteful as possible. 


In a communication pitch to potential advertisers Carin said the sign “added a touch of modernisation to the area.” 


CFC, in its T&T Guardian letter, said that claim was “absurd” and asked: “Perhaps they would consider an electronic billboard appropriate outside Buckingham Palace or the White House?”


But Carin feels unfairly targeted, saying, “While 90 per cent of signage in the country does not have approval, we had a process (set out for us) which we followed to a T.”



Contract awarded by govt tender



The agreement with the Ministry of Food Production was arranged under former Permanent Secretary Myrna Thompson, who has since retired. The deal was set up as a revenue generator and also to publicise ministry events.


Thompson’s replacement Joan Phillips, when contacted by phone, said she had been in the job just a matter of weeks and was not yet au courant with the details of the tender or the public-private commercial venture on its land.


The price of placing an ad on the billboard is $2,950 a month for an ad that is displayed for five seconds on regular rotation.


Some months after the Savannah hoarding, Queen’s Hall erected a digital billboard 20-feet high, further provoking the ire of CFC, which again claimed the hoarding was in contravention of the Highways Act. 


Queen’s Hall wrote back to CFC citing the Town and Country Planning Act which it claimed it had abided by. 


In response, CFC is asking the government why one act of Parliament overrides another.



In Part Two tomorrow, Planning Minister Bhoe Tewarie talks about the new planning bill that is before Parliament. And how many billboards are there, anyway?


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