Electronic advertising screens that have been criticised for blocking pavements in Manchester each use the same amount of energy as three households, the Guardian has learned.
The council-branded screens, which became a pedestrian bugbear when they were covered with mysterious grey boxes during their installation, earn the local authority £2.4m a year in rent from the advertising firm JCDecaux, plus 2.8% of the revenue from each advert.
In recent weeks the boards have advertised GB News and Floki, a cryptocurrency whose marketing is being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).
According to analysis of data revealed by a freedom of information (FoI) request, each of the 86 digital advertising boards in Manchester city centre uses 11,501 kWh of energy every year.
Manchester city council, which declared a climate emergency in 2019, says the screens are powered by renewable energy, but they are connected to the mains supply, rather than powered, for example, by a solar panel.
“JCDecaux’s electricity supplier has supply agreements with independent UK wind generators and purchases renewable electricity certificates and renewable energy guarantees of origin (or Regos),” a council spokesperson said.
“The council’s aim of becoming zero-carbon by the year 2038 isn’t about not using electricity at all. This would be an absurd assumption. What it does mean is about a cultural change locally, which the council is trying to effect, to use electricity which is renewably sourced and does not involve the burning of fossil fuels to generate.”
Regos have been criticised for loopholes that risk “double counting” the UK’s renewable energy use or even claiming foreign renewables as its own.
The screens, which are almost three metres tall and a metre wide, have been condemned for taking up valuable pavement space in a city that claimed it wanted to prioritise pedestrians.
Asked why the boards could not take space away from cars instead of pedestrians, a council spokesperson said: “The placement of advertising boards in the road would not meet the criteria of highways safety.”
No equality impact assessments were done before the installation of the boards, but the council insisted that the placement of each would pass the “double buggy test”, by ensuring sufficient room is provided to allow pedestrians to pass.
In its brochure for the boards, under the heading “inclusivity and accessibility”, JCDecaux shows only a picture of a blind man with a cane and the caption “unit easily detectable by people using a white cane”.
Of the boards, 22 are able to monitor pedestrian footfall and air quality – something the council says will only be used internally to inform policy.
All but five of the 86 units replaced previous backlit paper displays and columns that had been in place since the late 1990s. All advertising appearing on the boards must comply with the ASA’s code of practice, the council said.
Roberta Fusco, the interim director of policy and communications for the walking charity Living Streets, said: “Creating streets that encourage walking has huge potential to reduce congestion and air pollution, tackle loneliness and isolation, and revive our local high streets. Cluttering streets with electronic advertising boards flies in the face of that.
“Local authorities need to prioritise clearing footways and pavements. This includes banning advertising boards, removing excessive signs and utility boxes, and ensuring there is always at least 1.5 metres of pavement space left when street furniture is in place.”