Soho restaurants and bars continue battle to extend alfresco scheme

26 August 2021 by
Soho restaurants and bars continue battle to extend alfresco scheme

Hospitality businesses in London's Soho are continuing to fight the winding down of the area's popular alfresco scheme, warning bars and restaurant will struggle to survive without it.

The Caterer reported earlier this month that Westminster City Council had banned the use of outdoor furniture such umbrellas, gazebos and heaters in certain Soho streets since 19 July, though chairs and tables are still allowed.

This has left hospitality venues facing a drop in trade as diners sitting outdoors are unable to shelter from the hot or rainy weather. One restaurant owner told The Caterer footfall had immediately dropped 15% and he has had to reduce staff hours due to a fall in customers.

Traffic will also be reintroduced to Soho's streets from 30 September, when the outdoor dining scheme is due to end.

Westminster City Council's alfresco initiative was widely praised when it launched last year and many Soho restaurants credited it with their survival. The scheme, which was reintroduced in April, provided an additional 16,000 outdoor covers for businesses where inside seating was prohibited.

Now many business owners believe it is being wound down too early for hospitality to recover. The Soho Business Alliance (SBA), which represents operators in the area, is lobbying the council to overturn the furniture ban and find a long-term solution to al fresco dining.

"The numbers all reflect that the world has NOT returned to normal," said John Devitt, owner of Koya restaurant on Frith Street. "We didn't just wake up on 19 July and business had bounced back. We need the council to reverse their decision and allow for some flexibility here."

John James, managing director of Soho Estates, one of the areas largest landlords, said ending the alfresco scheme would have a similar impact to another lockdown.

He added: "History tells us that hospitality can be a leading force in driving economic recovery. Soho needs alfresco to survive, and we simply wouldn't be here without it.

"We all saw what Soho was like in lockdown; the knock-on effect of closing alfresco will be pretty much the same, make no mistake. There is a lack of accountability for this decision on Westminster City Council's part, and we're asking: who said no to the gazebo?"

Westminster City Council told The Caterer earlier this month that it had asked businesses to remove outdoor furniture as it was a potential safety issue in the event of a fire.

A council spokesperson said today (26 August): "We always said interventions such as road closures and barriers were temporary and would end on 30 September. The end of temporary measures does not mean that all alfresco dining cannot continue; businesses can still apply for pavement licenses where there is space on the footway.

"Additionally, we are consulting residents in six areas across the city, including Covent Garden, on whether some of the temporary measures should be transitioned into new long-term schemes. If residents approve these new schemes, they will be able to begin on 1 October. Furthermore, we are working with Soho residents and businesses to co-design a Vision for Soho that will go out to consultation towards the end of this year."

London Fire Brigade added it was working with the council to ensure alfresco furniture didn't impact its response.

Image: / Shutterstock

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