by Nicholas Boys Smith
Thursday, 7
May 2020

To the cafe tables, comrades — bring on the al fresco revolution

Cafe tables and market stalls in Bordeaux. Credit: Create Streets

Normal is broken. When it comes to shops or restaurants, those calling on the Government to ‘end the lockdown’ are missing the point. The problem won’t be the government lockdown. It will be fear. Will anyone who is old or sick or not had the dreaded virus want to wander down high streets and into corner shops? Will they ever go to restaurants again?

If they do, will they accept being cramped elbow to elbow in the way that is now common to squeeze in covers and manage the rent. Even shops and restaurants which can re-open may rapidly go to hell in a handcart.

But here’s the good news. Across Northern Europe over the last 20 years, cities with climates every bit as inclement as ours have been finding a simple way to help become more pleasant, more prosperous and yes, more economically successful places.

Widen pavements. Calm traffic. And rediscover streets not just as canyons to drive through but as beautiful places to be for business and pleasure. Stockholm, Copenhagen and Vilnius are all doing it: planting street trees; prioritising cyclists and pedestrians over cars (which you really don’t need in town centres), and making it easy for shops and cafes to spill out into the public highway.

We can do this too. Summer is coming. The days are lengthening. There appears to be growing evidence that Covid-19 is far less infectious outside than indoors. So let’s make it far, far easier for shops, restaurants and cafés to trade on the pavements outside their premises.

That is possible now but it’s bureaucratic. 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.

Applications typically cost £200-£300 for a few tables and can cost more. Processing can apparently take anything up to three months and is rarely, I am told, less than one month. They are valid for one year. Then you have to do it again.

So let’s change the rules. In public squares above a certain size or pedestrianised high streets above a certain width, there should 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 planters to widen pavements and control speeds. Then they can provide the same blanket right to shops and restaurants to trade on their own doorsteps without unnecessary form-filling. Allowing restaurants and shops out into the street can get them back onto their feet.


  • May 11, 2020
    Great idea, but I'd go further. Rather than trying to 'reclaim high streets for retail', incentivise converting them to socialising and 'infotainment' centres. Pedestrianise all but essential access roads, put up covered areas to give all-year-round use, and promote street cafes, entertainment,... Read more

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