Continental Europe has come to the UK – at least when the sun shines. In towns and cities all over the country, alfresco dining has exploded, with thousands of extra outdoor seats being licensed.
Many in the hospitality industry say the move has saved their business from bankruptcy after catastrophic losses during the pandemic. Now, although Covid restrictions have been lifted, the government is considering making outdoor dining a permanent feature rather than a short-term response to a crisis.
Not everyone is happy. In Soho, the centre of London’s nightlife, residents say alfresco dining and drinking has disrupted access and created intolerable noise. People who have lived there for decades are considering leaving, according to the Soho Society.
Samar Zia, who has lived in social housing in Soho since 2016 with her husband and two children, keeps her windows closed some evenings because of noise. “People are singing at the top of their lungs, and some use my terrace as a lavatory,” she said.
On many occasions she has seen or heard “drunk men” urinating outside her living room windows. “I scream at them and threaten to call the police but it’s too late. We have to wash it away with buckets of water.”
Pavement licences were introduced by the government in July last year to help hospitality businesses boost customer numbers while social distancing restricted indoor seating. In the year to June 2021, more than 3,300 fast track applications for outdoor seating were made by restaurants, cafes and bars in England, according to a study by PwC.
Westminster city council, which covers Soho, said it created more than 16,000 new outdoor seats for the hospitality sector and closed some roads to facilitate alfresco dining. Liverpool has received almost 350 licence applications over the past year, and Newcastle upon Tyne more than 100. Licences were due to expire on 30 September, but the government has confirmed an extension for another 12 months and possibly permanently.
“Alfresco dining was and is a complete life-saver,” said David Taylor, who owns the Balans restaurants in Soho. “Without it, Soho was dead. Suddenly, there was a place to come, even in a pandemic – and it had a wonderful vibe.”
Gary Henshaw, who owns the Ku Bar group of gay bars in Soho, said outdoor seating had been “absolutely hugely important” to his business’s survival. “We had no outdoor space, so being able to put tables on the pavement was life-saving. Even now restrictions have been lifted, there is a strong cohort of people who aren’t comfortable about being inside. So it remains important.”
Alfresco dining has rejuvenated city and town centres, said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality. “It’s hard to overestimate the importance that the deregulation of outside seating has had for the industry. It has saved jobs, saved businesses and saved many of our city centres.
“For example, central Newcastle has totally transformed the nature of the public space by turning it over to outdoor seating, and that’s brought life and vibrancy back to the city centre, which would otherwise have been missing.”
In Soho, hospitality business owners want licensing for outdoor seating to continue beyond the end of September. “It will take us a long time to get back to normal. All of us are going to have to start paying back rent that wasn’t paid in the last 17 months. Alfresco is going to be an important part of our recovery,” said Taylor.
Businesses say they are sympathetic to residents. “I have a great relationship with my neighbours,” said Henshaw. “We don’t allow our customers to get drunk or make excessive noise. We need an agreement between residents, businesses and the council that works for everyone.”
Taylor said there was a “small but very strong lobby” of residents who did not acknowledge the benefits of outdoor seating, such as less traffic. “If you choose to live in Soho, you have to accept there are going to be a lot of people around,” he said.
Tim Lord, chair of the Soho Society, said there had been no consultation with residents over the licensing of outdoor seating seven days a week until 11pm. “We’re used to noise, but the sheer numbers of people in the streets until late at night has been difficult for those of us who live here,” he said. “Some who’ve been Soho residents for decades are now leaving.”
The licensing regime amounted to privatisation of public streets for commercial benefit, he said.
Patrick Lilley, a Labour candidate in next year’s elections to Westminster city council, said there had been a “huge backlash” from residents. “We want Soho to prosper but we’d like alfresco to be temporary and well-managed,” he said.
Ameena Riaz, who lives in the same block of flats as Samar Zia, supports efforts by local hospitality businesses to get back on their feet after months of Covid restrictions.
“This has always been a very lively area, but we don’t want people having loud conversations and urinating outside our homes. I see men and women relieving themselves from my living room window, and we have to keep the windows closed even when it’s warm,” she said.
Westminster city council said its alfresco dining measures had helped to save many hospitality jobs. “Since the temporary schemes restarted in April this year, we’ve been clear to both businesses and residents that road closures and barriers will come to an end and will be removed on 30 September,” a spokesperson said. “Businesses can still apply for pavement licences on existing footways from 1 October, and we are consulting with residents in some parts of the city on whether new permanent schemes should replace the temporary ones.”