Edinburgh residents' 'nightmare' because of outside eating and drinking areas in Old Town

Outdoor seating areas in Cockburn Street are causing a "nightmare" for residents and harming the city's appeal to visitors, the Old Town community council has claimed.

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Pubs and cafes in the street have been allowed to have temporary decking in the roadway during the pandemic because of the dramatic reduction in numbers allowed inside due to Covid regulations.

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Now six applications to make the structures permanent will be considered by councillors on Wednesday and are recommended for refusal – although at least one of the applicants says he only wants permission extended until the end of September.

Cockburn Street. Picture: Google Images

The Old Town community council, Edinburgh World Heritage and the Cockburn Association have all come out strongly against the outdoor seating areas.

John Mitchell, a member of the community council, said: "They're being used at night as late-night drinking places, so residents being kept up till 3 or 4am.

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"We're not anti-business but it has caused a nightmare. If you look at any other European city World Heritage Site, we cannot come up with another one that allows the disfigurement of the public realm in that way

"Ask any tourist and they'll say 'These are awful'. It's bad for residents, it's bad for the look of the city and ultimately it's bad for businesses too."

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He said the community council had not objected to the structures when they first went up, given businesses were facing such problems.

But he said: "We were assured by the council and the businesses that this was a temporary measure to get them through this difficult time.

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"The position we're taking now is this can't be a way of doubling the size of your premises on a permanent basis, which is what it seems to be."

He said the council had encouraged the businesses to apply in October for the decking to be extended until Christmas.

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"That's come and gone, the decking has got more and more elaborate and now they're applying for permanency. We're totally against it.

"Visitors come to this city not to look at decking; they come here because of the built landscape and Cockburn Street is one of the Grade A streets."

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Mr Mitchell said the outdoor structures had caused huge problems with deliveries. "Vans are trying to squeeze past these edifices and nearly get their wing mirrors knocked off.

"In the High Street, a child ran out from behind one of them during the delivery time and nearly got run over by a truck.

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"And rats and mice live underneath them so they're a health hazard into the bargain.”

The Cockburn Association has said none of the alfresco drinking and dining installations can be said to maintain and enhance the character of the city.

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And a spokesman for Edinburgh World Heritage said: “We are concerned the proposals for permanent outdoor seating in Edinburgh’s historic Old Town would negatively affect the authenticity of the World Heritage Site’s layout, historic open spaces, and built form.”

But Daniel McNally, who runs the Scotsman Lounge, said he had no desire to make his outdoor seating area permanent and only wanted to keep it until September 30, but had been told by the council making a permanent application was the only way to do so.

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He said the outdoor seating area had saved his business earlier in the pandemic and with the Omicron restrictions it was proving valuable again, even though the cold weather meant the numbers sitting outside were much lower.

"I've never wanted it to be permanent. I don't want to take away from what Cockburn Street is.

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"We're not trying to do anything permanent, even though it says we are. I had to put in a proper planning application because that's the way it works apparently. But it just confuses neighbours, thinking you are wanting it to be permanent.”

Mr McNally said he paid security staff to stay on for a couple of hours after the pub closed in order to prevent any problems with people using the decking inappropriately.

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While recommending refusal of planning permission, the report by council officials for Wednesday’s development management sub-committee notes the Scottish Government chief planner has urged councils to continue a “relaxed” approach to planning enforcement until September 2022.

And it makes clear that even if the six Cockburn Street applications – and another three similar ones for the High Street – are rejected, there will be no immediate enforcement action to close down the outdoor seating because the planning committee is due to decide the extent of relaxation next month.

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Claire Miller, Green councillor for City Centre ward, said: "It's clear that although a swift temporary space for outdoor dining was a good thing after the first lockdown, we now need to take a fresh look at how to support businesses and enable people to live alongside any outdoor eating and drinking. I'd like to support creation of outdoor spaces for socialising across the city centre, and ensure that it's designed and delivered to high standards that uphold resident amenity."

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