Talks on Telstra mega-ad screens

The City of Melbourne is negotiating with Telstra in an effort to prevent the installation of a further 80 pay-phone-disguised, 75-inch LED advertising screens on CBD footpaths.

About 40 of the three-metre structures have been rolled out in the Hoddle Grid which the council calls “visual clutter” and says are obstructing pedestrians.

Under the federal Telecommunications Act, Telstra doesn’t need permission to place phone structures anywhere in Australia, providing they are “low impact”.

Telstra stands to earn hundreds of millions of dollars from this dubious exploitation of 20th century legislation and has ambition to install 1800 screens nationally.

It seems the best strategy the council can adopt is to legally contest the notion that the structures are “low impact”.  But, with so much potential earnings at stake, Telstra is clearly more motivated and funded for such a legal challenge.

And the city is clearly disadvantaged by granting planning permission in 2016 for the electronic advertising component of the 39 structures in the CBD.  

Telstra provided the council with fine detail about the size, location and orientation of the structures when applying to renew and amend for another 10 years earlier outdoor advertising permission dating back to 2006.

The best the council could perhaps achieve is an agreement from Telstra not to proceed with the other 80 it is considering.

Telstra doesn’t need the council’s permission to install any number of phone/ad screens.  But it needs a permit before it can turn them on for third-party commercial advertising.

The council says in 2016 Telstra presented legal argument that the structures were “low impact”.  Now that the structures are installed, it seems obvious to everyone that they are indeed not “low impact”.

The council also needs amendments to the local planning scheme to shore up its position.

In a press release on September 3, planning chair Nicholas Reece said: “We need to urgently review the current advertising signs policy in the Melbourne Planning Scheme which has not kept pace with the proliferation of electronic signage.”

Cr Reece said: “These structures are advertising billboards masquerading as payphones. Complaints from the community tell us that they are impeding pedestrians, disrupting footpath traffic flow and negatively impacting a number of local retailers and businesses.”

“Walking trips within the City of Melbourne increased 14 per cent (by 38,000 trips) during a recent four year period. Travelling by foot is the most utilised mode of transport in the Hoddle Grid and as custodians of the city we have a responsibility to maintain space for people. We are not going to sit idly by and allow the plundering of the public realm for private profit.”

On September 21, Cr Reece said: “Our strong preference is to resolve the city’s concerns regarding Telstra’s supersize electronic advertising installations through discussions with Telstra senior management.

“Those discussions are ongoing and we will update the community when we are able to do so.”

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