The Deputy Chair reported that this had become an unnecessarily contentious issue in his view. He sought the assistance of all members of the Committee in terms of flagging where there were obstacles being put in the way of businesses (often very small businesses) looking to obtain pavement licences by any part of the Corporation. He went on to state that he felt that some of the recent responses of the City Corporation had been totally disproportionate and he urged the Committee to do all that it could in the coming weeks to encourage outdoor business activity to assist businesses in their economic recoveries.
The Deputy Chair added that he was also of the view that the timings attached to pavement licences were too restrictive with recommended closure at 9.30pm.
A Member spoke to concur with the comments made by the Deputy Chair and reported that she had informed Officers that she intended to raise this matter at Committee. She added that she had also emailed the Assistant Commissioner and the Commander to flag the overly cautious approach of the City Police with regard to the risk of terrorism in relation to the granting of these licences and thanked them for their response. The Member went on to state that some premises who, for many years, had had tables and chairs outside without incident were not a terrorism risk. The Member thanked Officers and the Police for revisiting this issue and reported that she understood that a matrix system was now in place. She hoped that, going forward, the partial licences granted to date would also be revisited along with those that were initially refused. With regard to timings, the Member highlighted that pavement licences were temporary licences that the government had instigated to allow businesses to have tables and chairs outside solely for the use of their customers and to allow them to open and operate under current restrictions. The Member stated that she understood that the pavement licences were turned around very quickly (within seven days) and recognised that this put pressure on Officers who were therefore more likely to err on the side of caution in terms of refusals and limiting hours. The Member therefore asked that this Committee provide Officers with the confidence that Members would like to see the opening and the use of these tables and chairs extended for as long as possible dependent on the location of the site. Under pavement licences, tables and chairs had to be removed by 9.00pm whereas previously some of these premises had operated tables and chairs licences successfully until 10.30pm and it was therefore difficult to understand the justification for this. The Member asked whether this Committee could ask that this be revisited with Officers urged to be more generous and support pavement licences until 10.30pm where previous tables and chairs licences had operated successfully with Officers given the ability to reduce these hours should any issues arise.
The Deputy Chairman reported that he had now instigated a system whereby a refusal could not be issued without first consulting the relevant Members.
Another Member spoke to underline that the Police were rightfully trying to guard the safety of people in the City and added that, whilst she was broadly in favour of them, she also had some concerns around pavement licences. She went on to state that the use of pavements for tables and chairs could cause pedestrians to have to walk in the road in some locations. She therefore suggested that designated areas should be cordoned off and adhered to.
Another Member noted that there were currently different street users competing for street space and that this Committee therefore had a duty to determine what ought to be prioritised. To her mind, the survival of these businesses and the ability of people to return to their workplace and have a positive space around them to do so was a priority alongside accessibility for those in wheelchairs and mobility scooters. She added that it was important for the Committee not to speak of these matters in siloes.
A Member stated that he felt that the problems arising now were as a result of the original report on pavement licences agreed by this Committee which he had spoken out against at the time suggesting that it seemed that it was only half-heartedly supporting licences on-street at that stage. However, he could see that it was generally accepted that this needed to be a priority for the City now. He understood the comments made around other uses of the street however, he reported that there was not currently a huge amount of traffic in the City and stated that therefore totally endorsed the approach being taken by the Deputy Chairman.
Another Member mentioned the licensing perspective of this issue and underlined that it was important to strike the right balance when issuing these licences. He reminded the Committee of the terrorist incident at a German Christmas market a matter of years ago and stressed that it was important to take into account what the Counter-Terrorism agencies were suggesting as the Corporation would not want such liability on their shoulders otherwise. He added that the Corporation also wanted to be optimistic and to aid businesses in surviving and thriving as restrictions were eased but the correct balance needed to be struck. He stated that he was aware that officers had worked very hard to develop a risk matrix which now allowed for a more quantitative approach to determining whether or not a venue could be issued with a pavement licence and he was of the view that this approach should be followed with venues considered on their individual merits as opposed to an umbrella approach.
The Deputy Chair reported that the risk matrix mentioned had not existed a fortnight ago when he had been presented with a report from the City of London Police which he had felt was wholly disproportionate to the application in question which had been made by a small café in Smithfield. He had therefore declined to accept the recommendation and had underlined that these matters were for Members to decide. He underlined that he always paid attention to risks flagged by the various agencies but, where these risks were low, he saw no justification for refusal. He emphasised that these businesses needed to be able to open without further delay and urged Members to notify him of any similar issues they may encounter.
Officers stated that everything they did around the City was about balance, competing needs and priorities. With regard to Police advice on these matters, it was reiterated that a risk matrix was now in place and that this approach was now being piloted with any new applications received. Any past applications that had previously been refused or curtailed were also now being revisited. Once Officers were satisfied that his system was working well, it would be formally presented to Members but, based on early indications, this seemed to provide the necessary balance, taking into account any security concerns.
A Member commented to stress that good risk management was not the same as risk avoidance.
Another Member underlined that a number of premises that had applied for pavement licences could not currently apply for tables and chairs licences that they would normally apply for and be granted year on year. She added that their previous tables and chairs licences may have been granted until 10pm and beyond and that there was therefore no justification for these hours now being reduced under pavement licences. The Member highlighted that a decision on the licence applications received had to be made in seven days and that this quick turnaround seemed to be the problem in terms of Ward Members having sufficient time to be informed of any intended refusal, intervene and report any issues to the Chair and Deputy Chairman. She therefore questioned whether Ward Members could be informed if Officers intended to recommend a reduction in hours or a refusal before a final decision was taken.
In terms of hours of operation, another Member stated that she felt that it would be good to take into account the needs of any nearby residents.
Another Member commented that he was of the view that the survival of businesses was the key priority here. He added that businesses in the City were also having to compete with those outside of the congestion zone and made the point that licences extending beyond 10pm would allow customers to be collected by friends or family by car without them having to pay a congestion charge to enter the City and do so.
Another Member suggested that many City residents were also keen to see businesses reopen and thrive.
The Deputy Chair thanked the Committee for a very useful debate and highlighted to Officers that there was clearly a strong impetus politically to support those businesses in the City making these applications and that Members were keen to learn of any potential refusals in advance.