London’s cafe culture has left a sour taste for stressed residents | Restaurants
Continental Europe has come to the UK – at least when the sun is shining. In cities and towns across the country, outdoor dining has exploded, with thousands of additional licensed outdoor seats.
Many in the hospitality industry say the move 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, London’s nightlife hub, residents say outdoor 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 nights because of the noise. “People are singing loudly and some are using my terrace as a toilet,” she said.
On numerous occasions, she saw or heard “drunken men” urinating outside her living room windows. “I yell at them and threaten to call the police but it’s too late. We have to wash it with buckets of water.
Pavement licenses were introduced by the government in July last year to help hospitality businesses increase guest 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 PwC study.
Westminster City Council, which covers Soho, said it had created more than 16,000 new outdoor seating areas for the hospitality sector and closed some roads to facilitate outdoor dining. Liverpool have received almost 350 license applications over the past year and Newcastle upon Tyne more than 100. The licenses were due to expire on September 30, but the government has confirmed an extension for a further 12 months and possibly on a permanent basis.
“Alfresco dining has been and is a lifesaver,” said David Taylor, owner of Balans restaurants in Soho. “Without that, Soho was dead. Suddenly there was a place to come, even in a pandemic – and there was a wonderful vibe.
Gary Henshaw, owner of gay bar group Ku Bar in Soho, said outdoor seating had been “absolutely hugely important” to the survival of his business. “We didn’t have any outdoor space, so being able to put tables on the sidewalk saved our lives. Even now that the restrictions have been lifted, there is a large cohort of people who are not comfortable going outside. “being inside. So that’s still important.”
Outdoor dining has rejuvenated town and city centers, said Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality. “It is difficult to overestimate the importance that deregulation of outdoor seating has had for the industry. It saved jobs, saved businesses, and saved many of our downtown areas.
“For example, the center of Newcastle has totally transformed the nature of public space by turning it into outdoor seating, and that has brought life and vibrancy to the city center which would otherwise have been absent.”
In Soho, hotel 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. We’re all going to have to start paying back the rent that hasn’t been paid in the last 17 months. Alfresco is going to play an important role in our recovery,” Taylor said.
Traders say they are sympathetic to the locals. “I have a great relationship with my neighbors,” Henshaw said. “We don’t allow our customers to get drunk or make excessive noise. We need an agreement between residents, businesses and council that works for everyone.
Taylor said there was a “small but very strong lobby” of residents who didn’t recognize the benefits of outdoor seating, such as less traffic. “If you choose to live in Soho, you have to accept that there will be a lot of people around,” he said.
Tim Lord, president of the Soho Society, said there had been no consultation with residents on the licensing of outdoor seating seven days a week until 11 p.m. “We are used to noise, but the large number of people on the streets late into the night has been difficult for those of us who live here,” he said. “Some who have been residents of Soho for decades are now leaving.”
The licensing regime amounted to the privatization of public roads for commercial purposes, he said.
Patrick Lilley, Labor candidate in next year’s Westminster City Council election, said there had been a “huge backlash” from residents. “We want Soho to thrive, but we would like al fresco to be temporary and well run,” he said.
Ameena Riaz, who lives in the same building as Samar Zia, is supporting the efforts of local hotel businesses to get back on their feet after months of Covid restrictions.
“It’s always been a very busy area, but we don’t want people having loud conversations and urinating outside our homes. I see men and women relieving themselves through my living room window and we have to keep the windows closed even when it’s hot,” she said.
Westminster City Council said its outdoor dining measures had helped save many hospitality jobs. “Since the temporary regimes restarted in April this year we have made it clear to businesses and residents that road closures and barriers will end and be removed on September 30,” a spokesperson said. “Businesses can still apply for pavement permits on existing sidewalks from October 1, and we are consulting with residents in certain parts of the city on whether new permanent projects should replace temporary ones.”