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Department U-turn on motorway advertising

Applegreen advertising on the side of the M2 motorway. Pictures by Matt Bohill
John Monaghan

OFFICIAL policy on motorway advertising was amended by the DRD to allow signage for a new M2 service station, despite the department arguing against the move for more than two years.

The department has also been criticised by UKIP MLA David McNarry after it confirmed it is not receiving any payment for the advertising, which is not subject to any time limit, for Applegreen service station near Templepatrick.

Mr McNarry said: "One of the other points is that this department doesn’t have two dimes to put together. Well done to Applegreen for wiping the eye of the department here."

Mr McNarry added that it was a "very serious matter" that the issue was not referred to the DRD assembly committee for debate and scrutiny.

Applegreen is a major retailer in the Republic and is opening four stations as part of a £25 million investment in the north.

In correspondence with Applegreen in 2013 a DRD official wrote: "The use of the operator panel was justified in the Great Britain context on the basis of choice, there being different operators on what is a much more extensive motorway network."

In a section with an exclamation mark scribbled beside it, the civil servant continued: "Neither reason applies here. We also view the operator panels as advertising which lies outside of the strict legal reasons why the department can provide signing.”

"These new signs are neither prescribed or authorised for use in Northern Ireland, so cannot be legally used here. There are no plans to adopt their use here."

Nonetheless, the official added that it would "not be the department’s intention" to prevent the sign being altered "to meet the needs of the operator."

In July 2014, the DRD again repeated that branded advertising on motorway signage in the north was not policy.

Arguing the case in a letter to the department in January, Barry Owens, project director for Applegreen, stated the signs would "lower the fatigue-related accident count."

Mr Owens wrote: "These logos are not seen as advertising as none of these facilities are destinations in themselves as they all operate off the passing traffic only."

By April 2015, there was a prompt U-turn by the DRD, with the department stating it was updating the guidelines "with immediate effect" as it had "not previously seen the need to make specific provision for service areas."

UKIP MLA David McNarry, who is a member of the DRD committee, said the agreement had "set a dangerous precedent".

He said: "I am from a commercial background and I will give any businessman or entrepreneur the help they need. I commend Applegreen for what they have done but is this now a precedent?"

Mr McNarry added: "I think the whole DRD committee would have had something to say. That it hasn’t gone before the committee is a very serious matter. That would mean they are taking decisions without consultation."

A spokeswoman for DRD said the signs were considered to be "enhanced road user information."

She said: "The department’s policy for the provision of signing to motorway service areas was first published in 2012 and was subsequently updated in April 2015 to reflect the changes in signing practices in GB."

Applegreen is set to open two service stations on opposite sides of the M1 at Ballyskeagh, outside Lisburn, the first of which will open in January, with the second scheduled to be in operation from late next year.

An identical station across from the existing premises in Templepatrick is due to be opened at the end of 2016.

Last month Applegreen posted a net profit of almost £2 million for the six month period to the end of June.

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