Left out in the cold: operators grapple with alfresco regulations

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

What are the planning regulations for outdoor dining spaces?

Related tags Coronavirus Alfresco dining Licensing Planning permission

Operators that have invested in alfresco dining spaces are being caught out by changes to rules on what constitutes an outside space as well as inconsistent enforcement by local authorities.

Structures - including pods, greenhouses and closed-in terraces - that were acceptable in the run up to Christmas when operators in some parts of England scrambled to seat people comfortably outside because of the single household rule appear to be unacceptable. 

Upcoming London venue Chameleon based a large part of its business plan around being able to trade outside within greenhouses but has now been told that the structures may not be able to seat guests until indoor dining resumes on 17 May. 

Italian casual dining chain Coppa Club housed customers in outdoor igloos well ahead of COVID-19 and used them to seat guests from multiple households in the run up to Christmas but can now only use the structures at some of its venues from 12 April due to differing designs. 

BigHospitality​ understands that the Government is now using the Smoke-free Regulations it created for smoking shelters ahead of the smoking ban to define an outdoor space. 

These stipulate that the shelter must not be wholly enclosed, or substantially enclosed, which in practice means shelter must not have sides -  including doors, windows or other fittings - that can be opened or shut, that enclose more than 50% of the shelter.

Under these rules, some venues will struggle to weather proof their outside spaces and they would also appear to preclude balcony-style dining areas. 

It’s understood that councils – that have been mandated to be as supportive as possible to struggling hospitality businesses - are able to bend the rules in certain situations.

Yet this raises the prospect of inconsistent enforcement in different local authority areas as well as a lack of clarity. 

The Government is yet to produce any new materials about what reopening for outdoor dining from 12 April should look like. 

On top of this, local authorities are reportedly being overwhelmed with applications and are struggling to square licensing and planning regulations - which often require people to be closed in within small spaces - with COVID-19 regulations. 

Brighton restaurant The Chilli Pickle has been told to reduce the height of the bamboo barriers that protect people from the wind and the rain within its outdoor seating area. 

“Having to make changes is not ideal but we’ve actually had a good experience with Brighton & Hove City Council,” says co-owner Dawn Sperring. “They’ve doing as good a job as they can.

“What is frustrating is the lack of clarity from Government. We’ve done a lot of research online and it’s very hard to find out where these rules and regulations are. A single document that defines what an outdoor space is would be useful. 

“Another frustration is that the Government is moving the goalposts. What was okay in the run up to Christmas is now not okay. We’re doing everything we can to make all our spaces safe because this is our livelihood.” 

In Berkshire, The Vineyard has had permission from its local council to nearly fully enclose its OutSide – A New Vintage dining marquee thanks to its use of a special material originally designed to protect cattle. 

“It does not retain heat and allows for ventilation, but it blocks wind chill, which is the killer when you’re eating outside.” says general manager Andrew McKenzie. 

“In the run up to Christmas, we told people to think of it as if it were après ski and be prepared to eat in their coats and scarves, but even on the coldest nights most people were in short sleeves.”

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