Soho’s much-lauded outdoor drinking and dining scheme, which has been facilitated by local authority Westminster Council since the summer of 2020 — following reopening of restaurants after the first, spring coronavirus lockdown in 18 months ago — will come to an in September.
City AM reports that Westminster City Council has informed businesses that traffic will be re-introduced to Soho’s streets at the end of September, which will mean an end to the in-street tables and chairs which have redefined central London’s entertainment district at evenings and weekends for over a year. It has been widely praised by all but Soho residents and its association, Eater understands from sources.
A petition organised by Westminster’s Labour Party “circulated amongst residents on social media called for a re-think of the schemes due to ‘extreme noise’ and the ‘repeated violation of social distancing rules,’” City AM reports.
While street closures will come to an end, restaurants and pubs which have had licenses extended to cover pavement areas under the past year’s relaxed applications process will be able to continue to operate outside.
Temporary road closures and roadblocks had been introduced on key restaurant streets like Frith Street (Koya, Hoppers, Bar Italia), Greek Street (Noble Rot, 10 Greek Street), Dean Street (Barrafina), and Old Compton Street (Cafe Boheme) in July 2020.
The effect of the scheme has had direct and more intangible effects. While it has given the ability of restaurants to expand their cover numbers and pubs the ability to serve a greater number of customers, it has also helped communicate that Soho is “open.”
John Devitt, owner of Frith Street Japanese restaurant Koya, told Eater London that while few Koya customers wanted to eat outside on the road, it brought many more people to the area and really helped rebuild consumer confidence following lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. “It didn’t directly affect us,” Devitt said. “But it absolutely helped with showing people that Soho was open again [after lockdown].” He said he hoped the council would find a way to keep it in place in some form for the long-term, given it was to the benefit of so many business owners in Soho.
John James, managing director of Soho Estates, a property investment company, and a member of the Soho Business Alliance (on which Devitt also sits) said the end of outdoor dining permissions would mean an “effective lockdown” for the businesses in the area. “History tells us that hospitality can be a leading force in driving economic recovery. Soho needs al fresco to survive, and we simply wouldn’t be here without it,” James told City AM.
Part of the issue for those businesses in central London is that levels of tourism and office workers, which sustained them pre-pandemic have not fully recovered. The outdoor permissions enabled businesses to make up some lost ground or to compensate for lost revenue elsewhere.
Nevertheless, a Westminster City Council spokesperson defended the move, calling its initiative a “huge success” to-date and that it would work on similar schemes for the long-term, in areas where outdoor dining schemes had resident support.
“We always said interventions such as road closures and barriers were temporary and would end on 30 September. The end of temporary measures does not mean that all al fresco dining cannot continue; businesses can still apply for pavement licenses where there is space on the footway.
“Additionally, we are consulting residents in six areas across the city, including Covent Garden, on whether some of the temporary measures should be transitioned into new long-term schemes. If residents approve these new schemes, they will be able to begin on 1 October. Furthermore, we are working with Soho residents and businesses to co-design a Vision for Soho that will go out to consultation towards the end of this year.”