Outdoor eating and drinking in a Soho street last year. Photo: Westminster City Council.

Westminster council has announced that its temporary licensing scheme for expanded outdoor eating and drinking will return this summer, and is considering allowing it to continue in the longer term.

While many residents in the West End neighbourhoods have welcomed provision to support the hospitality industry and its employees in this way on a temporary basis due to the pandemic, the prospect of longer term or permanent outdoor eating and drinking is unlikely to be universally welcomed due to the noise and other nuisance it causes.

Under government plans to ease lockdown, restaurants, pubs and bars are expected to re-open to outdoor diners on Monday 12 April.

The temporary measures to fast-track outdoor dining in the summer and autumn last year, will again be rolled out to support the hospitality industry and will continue until the end of September says Westminster Council.

Last year more than 560 premises were allowed to have pavement licences and 60 streets were transformed with temporary road closures and pavement widening to create outdoor venues. 

However there are no plans to increase the area handed over to eating and drinking.

“Given the need to keep access for emergency vehicles open and to accommodate residents and other businesses, we are unlikely to be able to have additional road closures or new pavement extensions at this time,” says the council.  

But Westminster will try to make it easier for businesses, who already applied for pavement licences last year, to re-apply again this year.   

Cllr Rachael Robathan, leader of Westminster City Council, said:   

“Hospitality is a major employer in Westminster supporting around 80,000 jobs and a big part of the reason people visit the West End. But with shutters down and doors barred, this sector has been amongst the hardest hit during lockdown.   

“We know how hard this has been, which is why we are relaunching our al fresco scheme as soon as the easing of restrictions allows to help struggling businesses as much as we can. We have more pubs, restaurants and bars than any other local authority area — around 3,700 — and we want to see them welcoming back customers in a safe way. The majority of our residents have supported these schemes in the past and we hope they will understand the need to continue the temporary measures until the end of September. 

“We stand ready to back our hospitality trade and continue to fight for the financial support they need to survive this period,” she said.

However, many residents in Soho strongly criticised the scheme last year, saying it was not being properly regulated and little was being done to enforce social distancing regulations, reported the West End Extra.

The Soho Society is alarmed at the prospect of Westminster Council granting licences for the sale of alcohol in the street until 11pm 7 days a week without any consultation with Soho’s residents.

The council also said in a statement that it “will consider the possibility of what a longer-term al fresco provision could look like” and will be “consulting with communities as and when designs are created and as the city recovers”.

In Camden, the Fitzrovia Partnership business group are lobbying the council hard to create more permanent outdoor eating and drinking in what they are calling the “Fitzrovia Village“. However, Camden have yet to announce any temporary plans for outdoor licensable activities or to make any statement about consulting with residents on any permanent changes. But the Fitzrovia Partnership says it will assist businesses so the “restaurants and bars without outdoor space can take advantage of the new streateries on Charlotte Street, Goodge Street, Cleveland Street and Warren Street”. 

Applications for outdoor seating and the expansion of licensed premises are often fiercely contested by local residents who have seen increasing numbers of new restaurants and bars open, taking the place of shops and other services which have declined over the years. And a great number of residents complain that the first they hear of such applications is from Fitzrovia News, not the councils who are supposed to be carrying out the public consultations.

Fitzrovia has traditionally had a lively mix of trades and its streets are often quiet especially in the evening and at weekends. But the character of the area is changing which threatens the delicate balance and happy co-existence of commerce and city living.

“Residents are particularly concerned about the rapid growth in licensed premises and restaurants”, states the draft Fitzrovia West Neighbourhood Plan. This is echoed by the Charlotte Street Association which responds to planning and licensing applications on the Camden side of the neighbourhood.

As one member of a West End community group put it: “There will be mixed reactions from residents to this.” Which means that outside eating and drinking is fine just as long as it is someone else’s problem.

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 8am on Tuesday 2 March to include a sentence about the Soho Society and its concerns about outside drinking.

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