Yet more strange bike-scheme related decisions

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 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

5 thoughts on “Yet more strange bike-scheme related decisions”

  1. I too was very puzzled when I read in the Irish Times that “the council intends to exempt JC Decaux from applying for planning permission for the new advertising structures”, particularly as local authorities are not entitled to exempt anything from planning permission that’s not already allowed for in the regulations.

    However the Council since clarified:

    The proposed new advertising locations are subject to Part VIII planning applications. The provision of the new bike stations will be constructed by means of exempted development, similar to the scheme’s existing 40 stations.

    So the billboards will not be exempt, but they will go through the Part VIII process for local authority works rather than through the normal planning process of decision by the local authority followed by appeal to An Bord Pleanála if requested. The decision is made by resolution of the elected members, following public consultation, rather than by the City Manager.

    Hard to judge whether this is better or worse than the previous approach, which involved dozens of individual planning applications, only a handful of which were appealled.

  2. Part VIII of the Planning Regulations relates to prescribed works by a Local Authority within its own functional area. Effectively what happens is that the Council applies for permission from itself. There is no right of appeal to An Bord Pleanala. It’s made under Section 179 of the 2000 Planning Act.

    Section 179 extends this to any works carried out on behalf of a Local Authority, or in partnership with a Local Authority.

    The obvious reason for this extension is so that a Local Authority doesn’t have to construct its works in-house – it enables them to hire a builder to do it.

    In this case, the notion of “partnership” applies, but the definition has certainly been stretched. If JC Decaux are constructing billboards for their own use for the next 15 years, then how is this in partnership with DCC?

    The answer DCC will – presumably – give is that the billboards remain in their ownership, and JC Decaux are being given advertising space.

    It seems to be stretching a point. It’s also worth nothing that the catch-all definition of a “prescribed” work in Part VIII, under which I assume this qualifies, is any work of a value in excess of €126k. One might the reason these billboards are being applied for together is to top the €126k requirement.

    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.

  3. “by international standards a disproportionately small number of bikes were introduced for a large number of lucrative billboards;”

    This is key.

    Remember before the launch? Newspapers and radio stations kept telling us that all the bikes would end up in the river, canals, or half way across the world. Others would be smashed up.

    In Paris all of the bikes — Le Figaro reported nearly 20,000 of them — were stolen or vandalised in the first two years. Nearly everybody expected the same or worse would happen here. The media were at it non-stop, every thread on was full of people saying the same. Dublin is worse than Paris we kept being told.

    Even if you take out the hype. JCDecaux we not unreasonable looking to have possible theft and vandalism costs built in to the contract. Maybe Dublin City Council were wrong here to allow these possible costs to be taken into account before anything happened, but the majority of people talking about it were saying these were a given.

    I suppose this hype suited JCDecaux at the time. But Dublin City Council should make sure the lack of theft and vandalism is taken into account for expected expansion of the stations to other areas (the recent announcement is only seen as a stop gap measure).

    We we’re also told nobody would want to us them anyway, and when people did they were going to die. Only the very brave or very crazy people cycled in Dublin.

    The increase in ad stands is also not just for 100 new bikes and four new stations, the council has also said “Approx 300 new bike stands” will be provided at current station. This is trying to help one of the main problems of the system in operation — it’s too popular. More so than any other city apparently.

    Up to April 18 there were 21,134 long-term subs, 10,098 short-term with a total of 556,497 journeys. This is what the council were looking for out of the deal — more people cycling.

    “If JC Decaux are constructing billboards for their own use for the next 15 years, then how is this in partnership with DCC?”

    Whatever else about the deals, it does seem to be a partnership — bikes for ads (to simplify it). And Section 179 is normal for things like bus shelters (same size as the smaller ad boards?) and the traffic signs (nearly the same size as the larger ones?).

    In saying all of that — as always — I still have a problem with secrecy. And the placement of signs in dangerous locations isn’t on, some of the ones which were taken down were in unreal positions.

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