The beverage trade has begun to seriously question the lack of a joined-up policy in Britain over the achievement of a ‘café culture' in our towns.
A story in Coffee House magazine this month has shown the degree to which British town councils all appear to want a ‘café culture' but differ widely on the most visible evidence of such a culture, that of pavement seating areas.
The crux of the argument is that councils desperately want to achieve the ‘café culture' atmosphere, but are not helping caterers create it. Instead, many parts of the beverage trade complain, councils are overcharging for the very tables and chairs which are a vital feature of the ‘continental' look.
Under the Highways Act 1980, permission is required from the local council to place ‘tables, chairs and associated furniture for the consumption of food on the pavement outside premises'. Approval for such items is known as ‘pavement permissions'. However, say many café owners, councils who want a local ‘café culture' should now realise that they have to be flexible and helpful on this.
In the most recent matter, Barry Cook of Café Licious raised the issue of council charges in Swindon.
"Swindon has now become what is known as a Business Improvement District town, which means that as a business we have to pay one per cent of our rateable value on top of our business rates. One of the reasons given for the extra cost, I believe, was to make the town centre have a more ‘European' feel by having cafes with outside seating.
"But we have to pay the local council for having that outside seating area!"
The progress towards ‘café culture' elsewhere has been, at best, erratic.
Alton Town Council is reported as planning an experimental road closure to improve the safety of a piazza environment in its market square. In May, the local paper reported the adoption of a policy for the siting of tables and chairs on pedestrian highways that introduced a licence fee of £25 per square metre, with a flat annual renewal fee of £35. The town clerk was quoted as saying that a licence fee for the entire square would cost around £20,000, and that local businesses might find the cost excessive.
In Yarmouth, seafront traders declined to pay for a licence for outside seating. Again the press reported that the council wanted to see tables and chairs outside cafes, but proposed a charge ten times higher than the one levied in Blackpool, and even higher than Covent Garden in London. As a result, not a single café has applied for a pavement licence.
The council was reported to have set a price of £50 per square metre, but with a first-season discount of 60 per cent, to take into account the expense of buying tables and chairs. It was reported in the local press that the council had threatened cafés that, if they did not take the offer up, it would license coffee trailers to compete with them.
In Edinburgh, the local paper has said that the city council's new charging system has led to up to eight-fold price increases - a licence that was less than £200 last year can now cost up to £1600. In a quite typical report, one café owner was quoted as saying: "the council's expressed aim is to adopt a more cosmopolitan approach to eating and drinking outside, but then they do this to us."
In Liverpool, the council issued a statement during June which said: "We want to encourage pavement cafés throughout the city. They add life and vibrancy during the summer months and can be a real asset to a city which is attracting more and more visitors.
- "Most café operators are being responsible and seeking the necessary authority and that will be granted if it is an appropriate place and visually acceptable. However, in some cases, where permission has not been sought, tables and chairs have been placed right across the highways causing obstruction and even forcing pedestrians to walk in the road.
"We will be visiting them and giving them an advice pack with information on what they need to do to obtain the necessary permission."
Elsewhere, some councils have been constructive. In Aberdeen, a planning application has been submitted for 'a continental-style café with open-air seating' in Falcon Square. It was proposed that the move would increase footfall in the square.
In Richmond, Yorkshire, the local press reported last month that the town 'has set off on a Continental journey after councillors approved plans to encourage a cafe culture.'
Applications had been received for tables and umbrellas to be set out on the cobbled market square and, although some councillors worried about lost parking space, others were enthusiastic.
More creatively, the town council in Blackburn is reported to have considered a plan for a ‘coffee trail' around the town, seeing a café culture as a way of re-generating the town centre as an evening venue. The Night-time Economy Strategy group is looking at the idea among ways to revive interest in an area where some businesses have begun to close early, even before commuters go home.
There may be some trade support for the café owners. Steve Penk, UK Co-ordinator for the Speciality Coffee Associaton of Europe, has said that the speciality coffee industry should have a voice in the promotion of such 'cafe culture' areas, and would wish to be associated with lobbying on behalf of the café trade, and involved in debate with councils.
It is not just British caterers who have this problem. In Seattle, the home of Starbucks and the modern 'speciality coffee' industry, moves have been made to streamline the process for approving tables and chairs outside catering premises, and to reduce the licence fee. There have been stories of cafés waiting eighteen months to get their permit, and a 100 sq.ft. pavement seating area has cost an average of $2,300.
By Ian Boughton