Edinburgh set to take ‘relaxed approach’ to outdoor eating and drink areas until October

Controversial outdoor eating and drinking areas in Edinburgh's world heritage site are set to get the green light to operate until October of this year after planners recommend the city take a "relaxed approach" to help businesses bounce back from the pandemic.

The Grassmarket is one of the most popular areas in Edinburgh city centre for outdoor eating and drinking. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
The Grassmarket is one of the most popular areas in Edinburgh city centre for outdoor eating and drinking. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Extended hospitality areas are set to return across the Old and New Towns despite heritage campaigners demanding a clampdown on the “ad hoc decks, gazebos and sheds” used by businesses to help protect the look of the historic streetscapes.

The proposals, which will be seen as a huge boost for efforts to revive the hospitality sector in the city centre, would offer a reprieve to businesses who had plans to create permanent outdoor areas turned down last year.

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Concerns were also raised that allowing continental-style pavement cafes to operate on streets and pavements would effectively privatise public space, as well as impact on neighbouring businesses and residents.

Laila's Bistro on Cockburn Street was among the businesses able to take advantage of the relaxed rules on outdoor eating and drinking areas.

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    A new report for the city council recommends that temporary structures and outdoor seating is allowed to operate throughout the spring and summer, although some will have to make way or be scaled back when the summer festivals are on, including on the Royal Mile and George Street.

    Councillors are being recommended to approve the relaxed approach after the Scottish Government encouraged councils to keep helping businesses to operate outdoors. It announced last week that Covid powers would be extended until the end of September.

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    Controvery flared in the autumn when businesses who had been allowed to keep the outdoor areas operating until October by the city council, were advised to seek planning permission if they wanted to retain any of them.

    The Cockburn Association heritage group led opposition to applictions from businesses on the Royal Mile, Victoria Street, the Grassmarket, Cockburn Street and Elm Row, saying the proposals would involve the “quasi-privatisation of public urban space.”

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    The group told the council: “None of the al fresco drinking and dining installations which have come forward in recent month and which continue to proliferate across the city centre can be said to maintain and enhance the character of the city centre."

    Council planning convener Neil Gardiner said: “We appreciate how difficult it’s been for businesses, particularly the hospitality sector, during the pandemic and we’ve offered the industry a huge amount of support since last March.

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    "This included greater flexibility in allowing businesses to provide additional temporary outdoor structures for their customers with a relaxed approach to planning enforcement during the pandemic, which is in line with Scottish Government guidance. The advice from government is that this approach should come to an end in September.”

    Lisa Ahmed, owner of Laila’s Bistro on Cockburn Street, said: “Our outside areas have been invaluable to us in keeping running a viablebusiness. They are frequented even in the worst of the Scottish weather.

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    "As someone who has to shield for much of the past two years, I know how appreciated these outdoor areas are for many, many people who still have concerns about being inside busy places.”

    Roddy Smith, chief executive of city centre business group Essential Edinburgh, said: “These areas are hugely important to bars and restaurants, allowing them to extend their outdoor space, as well as obviously cater for the residents and visitors that like to eat and drink outside.”