Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets.
Who would want to run or work in a restaurant or café in these strange times? If you are like me, you’ll have caught yourself thinking more than once, as you contemplate the future: “oh well, it could be worse, at least I don’t run a restaurant.”
It’s less the lockdown that’s the problem: it’s our probable risk-averse behaviour afterwards. Will anyone who is old, or worried about their health, or not had the dreaded ‘Big C’ go to restaurants? Or bars?
Even if they do go, will they go often? And, presumably, long-lingering rules on social distancing which will precede re-opening will reduce the numbers of permissible tables and, thus, paying customers. Even restaurants which can re-open may rapidly go to hell in a handcart.
Hopefully, there will be Business Rate holidays and smart landlords will reduce their rents. (A hundred per cent of something is better than 0 per cent of something bigger). Hopefully, science and government will be able to remove rules on restaurant social distancing as well as soon as possible.
But here’s another idea which may help to re-float our restaurants and high streets and which could have other benefits too. Let’s make it far, far easier for shops, restaurants and cafés to trade on the pavements outside their premises.
This is possible now – but it’s a bit of schlep. At present, shops or restaurants wishing to make use of the pavement need to apply to their local authority under Section 115E of the 1980 Highways Act. Each applicant must ensure that pedestrians’ rights are not affected, and councils need to consider the width of the pavement, if it is a street where street trading is specifically prohibited, sight lines and whether the pavement is on a public highway or not.
I have not tried it myself but, depending on the local authority, applications apparently cost £200-£300 for every few tables, and can cost more for more tables. Processing can take anything up to three months and is rarely, I am told, less than one month. They are valid for one year and then need to be re-applied.
That does not sound like the right process for the current circumstances to put it politely. The viral wave has broken over us and is, thankfully, receding. Summer is coming. If people are going to be tempted to eat out again, they are going to need to feel safe.
So let’s make it easier, faster and cheaper for restaurants, bars and shops to make use of the pavement. In public squares above a certain size or pedestrianised high streets above a certain width, there could even be a blanket permission to make use of the public highway up to a certain depth.
No permission required. No permit. Just put up your stall or your tables and get selling and tempting customers where they may feel safer – outside not inside and further away from other customers. On thinner or busier roads, councils should use traffic cones or the like to widen pavements and then provide the same blanket right to shops and restaurants to trade on their own doorsteps without unnecessary form-filling.
This is really just going back to the future. If you look at one of those grainy old street films of a century ago, two of the things that will strike you most are the sheer diversity of street life and people’s comparative freedom of movement.
For 70 years town-dwellers have accepted being enclosed on very narrow pavements between hard building and fast cars but it did not used to be like that. In the films of 1900 or 1920, adults and children wander in and out of shops and along streets with comparative freedom and safety. Shops and awnings tumble liberally out into the street.
The twentieth century killed that richness of street life, and sacrificed our daily freedom of movement. If, climbing collectively out of this crisis, if helping tempt those too nervous to squeeze into cramped restaurants we helped town centres rediscover their true purpose as a place for people profitably to congregate for business and pleasure then that would be a modest silver lining to these strange times.