Heritage watchdog demands clampdown on outdoor eating and drinking spaces in Edinburgh

Edinburgh's long-running heritage watchdog has called time on new outdoor eating and drinking spaces created outside cafes, bars and restaurants during the pandemic – over fears they will become permanent fixtures.

Thursday, 11th November 2021, 4:55 am
Updated Thursday, 11th November 2021, 4:04 pm

The Cockburn Association is calling for a clampdown on continental-style structures and covered platforms erected in the city’s Old and New Towns to help businesses survive the impact of Covid.

They have become commonplace on the Royal Mile, George Street, Cockburn Street and Victoria Street since restrictions were eased in the spring.

At the time, local authorities were urged by the Scottish Government to help encourage people to eat and drink outdoors.

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Councillors in Edinburgh agreed to allow temporary structures to remain in place without planning permission until the end of October.

At the time, council leader Adam McVey insisted that any businesses who want to keep their new outdoor spaces would have to secure formal approval.

But the Cockburn Association claims none of the continental-style spaces have enhanced the city centre and has raised concerns about neighbouring businesses and residents suffering from “acoustic pollution”, while insisting outdoor eating and drinking spaces are not for "public use".

Laila's Bistro is among the businesss seeking planning permission for its outdoor eating and drinking spaces.

The group has demanded that any future extensions must "create or contribute towards a sense of place" in historic streets before they are given the green light to stay.

It has also told the city council it should not be left to individual businesses to “create their own visions for the public realm".

A dossier for the council states: “Fundamentally, streets are open spaces with the city.

"The proposed use as an outdoor extension of a pub or restaurant is not public use, although we can appreciate the ambience and vibrancy that a café culture can bring to areas.

Cafe culture returned to the Royal Mile this summer.

"This emphasises the need for a civic design plan that goes beyond the interests and boundaries of individual businesses.

"It is our view that none of the alfresco drinking and dining installations, which have come forward in recent months and which continue to proliferate across the city centre, can be said to maintain and enhance its character.

"All applications coming forward should clearly demonstrate how, if granted planning permission, their proposed installations would create or contribute towards a sense of place.”

The Cockburn Association has previously objected to a festive ice rink on the west end of George Street, including pop-up bars, saying the venture will represent “unfair competition” to existing businesses struggling to recover from the pandemic, and also raised concerns about a pop-up “alpine village” at the St James Quarter.

Temporary structures appeared outside hospitality businesses in Edinburgh city centre, including the Scotsman Lounge on Cockburn Street, earlier this year. Picture: Matt Donlan

However, it has now lodged objections to plans by permanent city centre businesses who want to keep in place their outdoor structures.

Its dossier adds: “We’re not surprised some traders wish to retain structures that are already in place and that others are coming forward with applications for entirely new structures.

"This increases the number of covers available and with the current uncertainty of Covid and government guidance provides a basis for continued, safe operations.

“Edinburgh’s streetscape, especially within conservation areas across the city, must be unified, design-led and developed in such a manner as to enhance the character of streets.

"It should not be left to individual businesses to create their own visions for the public realm."

Lisa Ahmed, owner of Laila’s Bistro on Cockburn Street, one of the businesses seeking to keep its outdoor space intact, said: “The extended outdoor seating areas we have been permitted to have since the Covid outbreak have been invaluable in allowing us to stay in business.

“A lot of people were, and are still, nervous about socialising inside and our outside area has allowed customers to feel more at ease.

“Cockburn Street has become so popular recently. It's on the bucket list of places in Edinburgh now. Every day, hundreds if not thousands of people pass by to take photos – you only need to look at Instagram to see its popularity.

“The businesses on the street, but have all risen to the Covid challenge by upgrading their premises and having well thought-out outdoor areas.

“Covid has changed our society sadly, in many negative ways, but outdoor living and socialising is one of the positives. We should all be encouraged to be spending more time outside, even in the Edinburgh weather.”

Stephen Montgomery, spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said: "These outdoor spaces have really helped give our cities more of a European cafe-culture feel.

“I think it’s also really important to continue to give people the choice of whether to sit indoors or outdoors, especially with the festive season coming up.

"People are still being encouraged to stay at home rather than go to the office. This kind of thing can really help the retail and hospitality sectors.”

Caroline Loudon, a specialist in licensing law in Scotland, said: “The council has told businesses that if they that want to retain their structures, they have to apply for planning permission for them.

"The trade has bent over backwards to try to work within all the government guidance and accommodate people who want to be outside by creating safe and comfortable spaces for people to go to.

“I think they’re all very attractive. Businesses want to make them as attractive as possible to entice people to sit down and eat or drink. Edinburgh has to be vibrant and move with the times.”

Roddy Smith, chief executive of city centre business group Essential Edinburgh, said: “We’ve worked closely with the hospitality businesses in our area to promote the use of outdoor spaces.

"The last 18 months have shown the real value and undoubted success of utilising pavement and street space to provide increased seating, especially during the warmer months. They’ve had a significant impact on many businesses’ ability to trade profitability.

"We’ll continue to firmly support the use of high-quality, outdoor seating areas, utilising both pavement and street space, as long as they meet with council guidelines. This summer showed clearly that residents and visitors really enjoy using outdoor hospitality areas and where possible they should be promoted.”

The city council, which has not responded to the Cockburn Association’s demands for a clampdown, announced in September that businesses would have to apply for planning permission for temporary structures they want to keep after the end of October.

Cllr McVey said today: “Our local pubs, cafes and restaurants have endured an extremely tough time over the course of the pandemic – which is still very much with us – and so it’s crucial that we continue to do all we can to support them in their efforts towards recovery.

"The same is true for the hospitality sector and for businesses right across our economy.

“The extension to outdoor capacity has been an undoubted success, acting as the lifeblood to many local businesses in recent months.

"We also need to make sure that any decisions around the continuation of these spaces are considered alongside all relevant factors.”