No elected councillor or town hall official needs to be reminded of how badly the COVID pandemic has hit local authority finances. It struck out of the blue at the very worst time, contributing to a drop in income just as councils across the country faced up to an ever-tighter squeeze on their finances from central Government.
As we begin to recover from the pandemic, but with balance sheets still looking precarious, the onus is on councils to come up with innovative and meaningful partnerships to help them support their communities.
Advertising is of course one such tried-and-tested way of bringing in much-needed cash, but this must be done in a non-invasive manner which supports and even empowers local communities without hindering or enraging people.
It is easy to go wrong. Manchester has recently suffered a residents’ revolution after the city council placed 86 mysterious grey one-metre-wide boxes on pavements around the city. They were explained to be ‘part of the installation of upgraded digital advertising displays.’
Mancunians were not impressed. ‘They’re in the way,’ was one of the more printable expressions of anger, as some pedestrians literally plastered the offending boxes with protests.
But there is a better way: find a solution that hugely upgrades existing facilities and provides a valuable income stream for local authorities in difficult financial times. One such solution is the humble bus shelter.
Taking a bus is a near-universal experience: almost everybody hops on one now and again. And when taking refuge from the weather, it is handy if a bus shelter is provided. According to the Moovit Public Transit Index, the average time to wait at a bus stop or a train station in London, every day of the week, is 10 minutes.
That’s a lot of time that could be spent, with a captive audience, looking at advertising. Nobody would pretend that people waiting 10 minutes for a bus are going to spend the whole time staring at the adverts on a shelter. But they are likely to spend at least some of their wait doing so.
What an opportunity to display targeted advertising and generate revenue which can be funnelled back to a council’s coffers, to be spent on a whole array of services to benefit local communities, including schools, social care and of course transport improvements.
At VALO Smart City, we have entered into a new type partnership with the London Borough of Croydon. Our 10-year concession deal will provide the next generation of street furniture, including at least 110 smart bus shelters, generating more than £6.75m in revenue for the council.
The shelters will provide free public Wi-Fi, creating a truly connected borough, while integrated air quality, noise, and traffic sensors will provide new borough-wide environmental data in real time. Digitised timings will keep people updated on bus arrivals.
Advertisements can be properly targeted (no alcohol ads near schools for example) and without the need for a large amount of street ‘clutter’, all providing different services, accessibility is improved.
The new system can challenge the monolithic ‘out of home’ forms of advertising that traditionally dominate our public spaces. The digital nature of the format gives rise to endless possibilities and the fact that there are several models for placing ads means that smaller, local businesses who are often crowded or priced out of the space, can be involved.
The buzzwords are: smart tech, innovation, and sustainability. The recovery from the pandemic has helped start the process of re-evaluating exactly what it is we need from our towns and cities. At the forefront are public health and greater connectivity.
Many councils already, quite rightly, put a premium on ‘greening’ their communities and on encouraging the use of public transport and active travel. In London, for example, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, aims that by 2041 80% of all journeys will be made on foot, by cycle or using public transport.
Partnering with smart technology companies means our communities can better serve the travelling public while monitoring air quality and traffic levels – contributing both to the sustainability agenda and to public finances.
It all opens up a wealth of opportunities: street lights that collect data, record traffic movements, and brighten or dim themselves accordingly; smart transport hubs with contactless technology; solar-powered billboards – all these are well within our reach as we bid to make our towns and cities even smarter in the next decade and beyond.
Isaac Sutton is CEO at VALO Smart City.