During a lunch break in central London, I enviously remarked on patrons of an adjoining public house enjoying their drinks on the pavement below in the sunshine. Aghast, one of my fellow participants denounced the practice, adding that the publican was probably in breach of their licence.
These express two quite different views of the city. In one, buildings act as an armature enabling the city to flex as circumstances change. In the other, buildings act as a corset keeping everything under control. Both positions could be right in different circumstances.
Businesses, community groups and local authorities around the UK have shown imagination and initiative during the pandemic. Central government also supported the hospitality sector by allowing use of outdoor spaces in the Business and Planning Act 2020.
For instance, a simple initiative that began in Belsize Village in the London Borough of Camden soon extended to other locations in the area.
Belsize Village Streatery enabled local cafes and restaurants to serve food and drink at 44 tables with 88 chairs in a small, paved public space from 8.00am to 9:30pm throughout the week. It started in summer 2020 to support hospitality businesses, and continued with periodic extensions. At the time of writing it was seeking a permanent licence.
The borough describes a streatery as a car-free outdoor dining space for restaurants, cafes and other businesses to place tables and chairs on the pavement while enabling pedestrians to pass safely. Such dining arrangements are typical of southern European cities, but they have now become ubiquitous, albeit temporary, in the UK. This particular space was created by the permanent closure of one end of Belsize Terrace as a traffic calming measure in the 1990s, which had proved controversial at the time.
Until recently, licences for this kind of use were typically refused by UK local authorities. Although introduced last year as a public health measure to support business, such arrangements could now be embraced simply because they are enjoyable. On the other hand, the UK climate does not lend itself to comfortable outdoor eating year-round. Once people feel safe enough to eat inside they may do so, and street dining will become seasonal.
Tony Mulhall says: 'In February 2022 councillors voted to keep Belsize Village Streatery, with majority support from most local residents living within 200m of the scheme. Two other similar licensing proposals were rejected because of local opposition, which shows how important it is that these decisions are taken locally.'
As communities reflect on their needs, the use of existing small spaces or the creation of new ones could rise up the political agenda. Neighbourhoods are increasingly questioning the need for much of their existing road space, which may also prompt extensions of pavement space. Whole traffic lanes and parking bays have been closed to accommodate dining tables for months. Will locals now seek to make these permanent, if not throughout the year then at least seasonally?
If so, there are technical and community issues to resolve in changing the status of public highways and pavement space.
Permanent closure of a public road, referred to in legal terms as stopping up, is a lengthy process that involves consultation with the local community. It is usually carried out under section 247 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 or section 116 of the Highways Act 1980.
The right to use an existing public space temporarily for dining is conferred by a licence from the local authority. This usually applies to the pavement area adjoining a cafe or restaurant and is a much more convenient process than using space not adjoining the premises, although it requires regular renewal. It also entails consultation with the community.
There is a distinction between a pavement licence adjacent to the premises and licensing an area some distance away.
Given the risk of terrorist attacks, the need for public security while eating is heightened. Users and authorities will want reassurances about personal safety.
The original application for Belsize Village Streatery and the licence extension to the end of September 2021 was overwhelmingly supported in the local public consultations. It also had cross-party support from councillors and the borough itself, even benefitting from Community Infrastructure Levy payments. The borough continues to pursue this initiative by granting licences in other locations.
But a few people, including some long-term residents of the area, opposed the idea. They wrote to local newspapers claiming that:
the space belongs to the public rather than a few private businesses
once indoor dining was restored, there was no continued justification for the streatery
restaurants already occupying pavements with tables and chairs are forcing pedestrians on to the road
Belsize Village Estate, a community interest company (CIC) linked to Belsize Village Association, does not represent the village and its residents, and has no authority to market the area.
This points to legitimate though opposing views about how a local area should evolve and adapt. So there needs to be a way to consider the views of those who may not favour such change.
The UK planning system is important to strike the balance between public and private interests. Consultation is vital to this process. The closer and more immediate the change is to the community, the more likely individuals are to be affected and express a view.
It is also important to recognise the variety of interest groups in a local area, each with its own response to an initiative. In this case, the local business community formed the Belsize Village Business Association. This group evolved into Belsize Village Estate CIC, which took the initiative in establishing the streatery.
A CIC operates to benefit the community it serves. Such companies are not strictly non-profit, so they can and do provide a return for investors. However, their purpose is primarily to benefit the community.
Proposals such as the Belsize Village Streatery will also be subject to local development plan policies. Groups looking to take similar initiatives will need the support of ward councillors – just as Camden supported the streatery – as they are ultimately responsible for implementing such plans.
There may also be a neighbourhood forum with its own plan to consider. As the streatery sits in the Belsize conservation area, the forum may be a consultee in the planning process on developments that might change the area's character.
Other interest groups may have legitimate views as well. Belsize Park Association has existed for more than 40 years, and has advocated on community issues from traffic management to affordable housing.
As the streatery shows, communities face many issues when adapting to changes in consumer behaviour, market conditions and public expectations.
Approving the use of public space by private commercial purposes is understandably contentious. Related government policies on residential uses in commercial areas or the intensification of commercial activities in mixed-use areas come with potentially damaging side effects. How can a balance be struck between competing interests? Who should take the final decision?
Mitigating potential conflicts between different uses ahead of development is one of the recognised benefits of the UK planning system. The issues can be considered in the context of the particular place, and a decision taken in the round.
As central government relaxes constraints, the rights of local residents to peaceable enjoyment of their public spaces and their homes still need protecting. Permitted development rights (PDRs) are one of the ways to enable the urban economy to adjust to COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 conditions. But balanced against this is the benefit of enabling commercial enterprises to trade in areas designated for that purpose.
RICS has consistently advised on the risk of undermining healthy high streets and local centres with nationally imposed measures that could unintentionally accelerate decline. High street conditions around the UK are not uniform and a universal approach is not appropriate.
New commercial incentives arising from the relaxation of existing policies may result in the opposite of what they intend. For instance, the introduction of permitted development rights to change lower-value commercial into higher-value residential uses could in some areas hasten commercial decline.
A recent survey by Property Week found that a significant number of London boroughs intend to introduce article 4 directions lifting the government's retail to residential PDR measure locally. This is despite the secretary of state's advice that such limits should only be placed in exceptional circumstances.
In the RICS commercial survey in summer 2021, most members suggested local oversight of relaxations in planning restrictions would ensure there are no unintended consequences. All of this seems to indicate that the final decisions on such proposals should be taken by the local authority.