City says no to super-sized pay phones

The City of Melbourne has drawn a line in the sand and is refusing permission for advertising on 81 more “super-sized” pay phones which, it says, are really “digital billboards masquerading as phone booths”.

The council is also requesting the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) to make a ruling on whether the phone structures themselves require planning permission.

Under the Telecommunications (Low-impact Facilities) Determination 2018, planning approval is not required to install telecommunications infrastructure provided it meets the criteria for “low-impact facility”.

The council’s planning portfolio chair Cr Nicholas Reece said the signage was certainly not low impact, would negatively affect heritage places, conflicts with the council’s urban design objectives and would result in streetscape and amenity issues. 

“As custodians of the city we have a responsibility to maintain the quality of the streets and public realm. We don’t want people to be bombarded with oversized and intrusive commercial advertising on public infrastructure,” Cr Reece said.   

“First and foremost, cities are for people, and the interests of the people who use our streets must come first. We have heard loud and clear the complaints from the community tell us that these new structures are distracting, impeding pedestrian traffic and negatively impacting a number of local retailers and businesses.” 

Other Australian capital cities, and a number of councils in greater Melbourne, have also raised concerns the new super-sized phone booths are significantly disrupting footpath traffic and negatively impacting the public realm.  

Outdoor advertising company, JCDecaux, has sought planning permission to display commercial advertising on 81 further public phone booths across central Melbourne. 

In 2016, the city granted permission for advertising on 39 of the structures in the CBD, which were installed last year.

At 2.7 metres high and 1.2 metres wide, the new pay-phone structures are 600mm taller and 400mm wider than the older phone booths. They are also fitted with 75-inch LCD screens – which are 60 per cent larger than the previous signage displays – and which are programmed to show up to four advertisements per minute. 

Cr Reece said: “We’re seeking a ruling from VCAT that the supersized payphones should require planning approval.”

“With nearly 90 per cent of Australians owning a mobile phone, it’s hard to believe there’s a need for this many supersized phone booths in the central city. Indeed, these new structures are more like digital billboards masquerading as phone booths on the footpaths of our city.” 

In October 2018, prior to receiving the 81 planning applications, the City Melbourne conducted community consultation on the impact of the digital advertising pay phone structures.   

 Of the 338 contributions received via Participate Melbourne:

More than 90 per cent of respondents provided negative feedback;

84 per cent of respondents reported the billboards impacted their movement around the city; and

81 per cent of respondents found advertising on digital billboards was distracting.

Walking trips within the City of Melbourne increased 14 per cent (by 38,000 trips) during a recent four-year period. 

Cr Reece said: “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.”  

Additionally, analysis of the pedestrian network has found that if the walking connectivity within the CBD was reduced by 10 per cent, the value of the economy of the Hoddle Grid will be reduced by up to $2.1 billion per annum. Pedestrian flow is vital to our city economy and, of course, retailers and other businesses.

The Telecommunications (Low-impact Facilities) Determination 2018 defines “low impact” pay phone booths or cabinets as: 

(a) used solely for carriage and content services; and

(b) not designed for other uses (for example, as a vending machine); and

(c) not fitted with devices or facilities for other uses; and

(d) not used to display commercial advertising other than advertising related to the supply of standard telephone services.

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