Leafleting: Public menace or good for business?

By Tom de Castella
BBC News Magazine


Councils are cracking down on leafleting. Is it a public menace or part of a buzzing town centre?

Before bands and comedy acts establish themselves, they need an audience. The tried and trusted method has always been handing out flyers. But now councils are cracking down in a bid to clean up the streets.

A new report claims that since 2005 more than a quarter of councils have brought in charges and restrictions on handing out leaflets.

The survey by civil liberties group the Manifesto Club says 45 local authorities, including Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester and Leeds, have created "no flyer zones" or required leafleters to buy a licence.

Unsigned bands and struggling comics are not the only people who use the humble flyer.

In the tradition of the pamphleteers of the 18th and 19th Centuries, political, religious and pressure groups regularly hit the streets to hand out campaign literature.

But perhaps the biggest recent development has been the army of professional leafleters setting up outside stations and shops to distribute phone cards, drinks and music promotions.

Disaster zone

"In the digital age, it's harder to get people's attention," says Nigel Muntz, commercial director of leafleting firm Out of Hand.

image captionProfessional leafleters often employ distraction techniques

"If you send them a message on their smartphone they can delete it. Whereas with a flyer they have something in their hand that they have to decide what to do with."

In Basildon the council has introduced a complex pricing structure to reflect the different types of leafleting. Distributing flyers for one hour a day for a week costs £72 for community causes and £120 for commercial purposes. Charities like the Salvation Army are exempt from paying.

But even with the reduced rate, it is small arts venues that suffer, says the Manifesto Club's Josie Appleton, leading to the commercialisation of leafleting.

"It's not expensive for a full-time leafleting company. But for artists promoting their own event it's really going to hit them hard."

In Leicester the leafleting licence application fee is £103, on top of which an organisation must pay £26 per distributor per day. Appleton says that during the Leicester Comedy Festival, which has 200 acts, it would mean a total of £5,200 per day.

But Leicester City Council says it had no choice but to take action after the battle between leafleting clubs and bars escalated. "Every entertainment venue was handing out flyers to people who would then drop them in the street," says Mike Broster, the council's head of licensing.

"The city centre looked like a disaster zone in the morning."

But he says an exception has been made for the comedy festival. Organisers are given 50 badges for £100 and promoters are allowed to share the badges around between them. Without a badge, leafleting is an offence that is policed by city wardens and repeat offenders can be prosecuted.

DIY spirit

Keep Britain Tidy welcomes the crackdown. "Leaflets handed out in the street contribute to the litter problem, which costs the nation £885m per year," says spokeswoman Jill Partington.

But some commercial leafleters complain the rules are not being enforced.

"When the students come back, people ignore the law and flyer without it," says Jonny Graves, managing director of Flyerettes in Newcastle.

"And because the fine is so small they're no worse off if they get caught."

Local arts groups who struggle to get covered by the media say leafleting is their best tool for publicising events.

But Max Mason, founder of the Oxford Jazz Festival, says next year's festival is threatened by Oxford City Council's recent decision to impose a monthly £100 per person charge on leafleting. The jazz festival usually relies on 20 volunteers handing out flyers but the new rule will make this almost impossible.

"My concern is about keeping culture alive," Mason says. "This is another cost for brave folk who put on unsponsored, unsubsidised events."

Comedy clubs are another group who may lose out. Comedian Stephen K Amos says small venues like the 99 Club in London's Leicester Square, where he recently played, rely on flyers to attract passing trade.

For young aspiring comics it's part of the DIY spirit of stand-up. "Up in Edinburgh (Festival) leafleting is what all comics do. It's part and parcel of the job."

He questions whether these leaflets cause a litter problem.

Nine out of ten people don't accept them, he argues. But isn't it annoying to have leaflets thrust in your face by strangers? "No, because it takes me about three seconds to walk past."

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