A ROW over a council purge on roadside signs in Northumberland is set to result in a more positive approach to rural businesses and community groups which need to advertise their services and events.
A storm of protests erupted last summer when county council officials ordered the removal of a number of adverts which businesses and local organisations had put up to attract vital customers, visitors and trade.
Rural farm enterprises, pubs, the annual Glanton Show and a village football club were among those threatened with enforcement action – or even prosecution – unless they took down the roadside signs and banners.
The widespread anger over the crackdown led to council chief executive Steve Stewart ordering an internal review.
The findings will be discussed by the executive next month with a view to agreeing a consistent policy across Northumberland. A report seeking the views of scrutiny committee members next week says there is a difficult challenge in striking a balance between supporting rural enterprises and protecting Northumberland’s natural assets against unsightly clutter.
But the review has concluded that the council should adopt a “positive approach” to advertising signs to help support businesses and community groups.
North area development manager Peter Rutherford says this is conditional on adverts not compromising public safety on the roads or damaging local amenity.
The row erupted in July after The Journal revealed how the owners of the award-winning, 32-job Country Barn farm and coffee shop at Widdrington near Morpeth were ordered to take down four signs telling customers and visitors how to find them.
Sarah and Hugh Annett said the roadside signs, which had been in place for five years, were vital to the future of the business, which would be at risk of closure without them. Other victims of the council’s purge included the committee of the annual Glanton Show, Rothbury football club, publicans and other rural businesses.
In September Mr Stewart ordered the review into how the authority had handled the issue, and further enforcement action was temporarily halted.
Yesterday the suggested way forward was welcomed by Mrs Annett, whose business is now operating with just two of its original four advertising signs. She said: “It is very good to hear, and very welcome for other rural businesses, that they will take a more positive and sympathetic approach to advertising signs.
“When we were told to take down our signs in the summer it was clear how much business we lost.
“When we were allowed to put two of them back up we did a survey of customers in the shop, and about 90% of them said they found out about us through the roadside signs.
“That speaks volumes and if the council are going to be more lenient it is a step in the right direction.
“At the end of the day, safety is paramount but our argument was that the council had no evidence at all that our signs caused any accidents. Each case must be looked at individually.”
Next week the scrutiny committee will be recommended to support a move to a “cohesive and positive” policy to guide the business and local communities towards the display of outdoor advertisements, while minimising impacts on local amenity and public safety.
In his report Mr Rutherford says: “At a time when many small businesses are operating against a background of national austerity, there is a need to support enterprise and to retain as much economic activity as possible.”
He says the review will recommend guidance and policy statements pointing businesses and community groups more clearly in the direction of what they can do, rather than what they are not allowed to do. It will also set out how the council will exercise its enforcement powers on unauthorised advertisements.