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Varadkar calls on councils to support plans for increased café seating ahead of 'outdoor summer'

Restaurants and cafes are calling for some leeway when it comes to applying for planning permission.

Businesses cannot be told at the last minute about what reopening will look like, says the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
Businesses cannot be told at the last minute about what reopening will look like, says the Restaurants Association of Ireland.
Image: RollingNews.ie

LOCAL AUTHORITIES ARE being encouraged by Tánaiste and business minister Leo Varadkar to “do what they can” for local restaurants and cafes by supporting outdoor seating where possible in towns and cities this summer.

While it’s hoped lockdown measures will be further eased as the vaccination programme is ramped up from the second quarter of the year, the chair of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) epidemiological modelling advisory group, Philip Nolan has said it’s clear “we’re looking at an outdoor summer” in 2021.

It’s expected outdoor dining will return before pubs, cafés and restaurants can open more fully. 

And as businesses owners prepare for official announcements restaurants and cafes are calling on local councils to show some leeway when it comes to applying for planning permission for outdoor seating, awnings, and heaters which they say will be vital if they are to continue to remain open.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Varadkar said:

“At the moment we’re in Level 5, so that means the virus is at a high level in the community and people shouldn’t be gathering inside or outside except for essential reasons. People can still meet one other household outside for exercise, but that’s it.

“Hopefully, if we all continue to do what we’re doing and we bring the level of the virus down, we will be able to ease restrictions enough during the summer period to allow some small gatherings occur.

“This will obviously depend on the advice of our public health doctors and scientists, who will look at a number of factors when making the decision, including whether the case numbers are falling, the number of patients in hospital and ICU and the progress of the vaccine campaign.

If and when hospitality reopens this year, the Tánaiste said businesses must be supported.

“If those conditions are met and if we are in a position to ease restrictions, I would definitely be encouraging all local authorities to do what they can for their local businesses.

“We know outdoor retail and outdoor seating is safer to indoor, however I understand too that councils need to take into account the need for space for pedestrians, wheelchair users and buggies when making these decisions. So I would hope that a balance can be struck on what works best for each local area.”

In a statement to this website, Dublin City Council said “the use of the public realm by hospitality businesses to facilitate safe operation as well as animating public spaces will be a key strategy as the city reopens”.

“This must be done in a collaborative, structured and planned way to ensure fairness and the safety of all citizens. Dublin City Council has demonstrated flexibility and willingness to help business continue to operate throughout the pandemic and this will continue into the future,” said the council

Last year, Dublin City Council accommodated restaurants, cafes and pubs seeking to serve food outside (when permitted under health measures) as long as a number of conditions were met. 

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Businesses were be permitted to serve on the likes of public footpaths, designated car parking spaces or other areas of the public domain under the control of the council.

At the time, the council said that “in an effort to support businesses”, the measures would be implemented immediately – ensuring that businesses could complete and submit an application form to Dublin City Council’s Street Furniture Licensing Section, rather than go through the long, usual, bureaucratic system. This could also be done retrospectively.

A country-wide approach

However, with restaurants and cafes being put on notice that they are likely to have their customers sitting outside come hail, rain or shine this summer, there are concerns about the different approaches that some county and city councils might take.

Staff at one Bray café last week took to Instagram as a last resort to ask followers to sign an online petition set up to help them secure outdoor seating for the premises.

Owners at Glovers Café in Bray said they were in the process of applying for a third time for planning permission to add outdoor seating and a Victorian-style awning to the café -  adding that they had had “endless trouble” in trying to get a couple of seats outside their business.

Under Level 5 restrictions the cafe is operating takeaway only but the staff said they will need the additional seating to increase dining capacity in the summer months in order for the business to survive.

When asked about the case, Wicklow County Council would not comment on the details, stating:

“This is a current planning application … which is out for further information – the applicants have six months to submit the further information. As such it is a public file available to view online.”

The council did not respond to a question about its planned approach for the summer months and whether they would be instituting a similar regime to last year’s from Dublin City Council.

Promoting outdoor street furniture in Cork

Other councils, such as Cork County Council, state they want to be proactive in supporting business and retailers, insisting that a key objective for this summer is to maximise the use of outdoor space to facilitate social distancing and public health guidelines. 

“The council is collaborating with the hospitality sector in promoting the use of outdoor street furniture,” Cork County Council said. 

The council has also streamlined its processes for administering street furniture license applications and has waived the administration fees.

“It is also working with stakeholders in developing on-street parklets, pay parking incentives and pop-up shops, as well as various initiatives which have the capacity to support our Arts and Creative Sector,” said the council.

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It also aims to make Cork towns and villages more attractive places for residents and visitors through initiatives which include pedestrianisation measures as well as streetscape painting schemes.

CEO of the Restaurants Association, Adrian Cummins yesterday wrote to the Minister for Housing and Local Authorities Darragh O’Brien seeking a meeting to discuss how local councils across the State can support restaurants and hospitality businesses this summer when the tourism sector reopens.

He said collaboration is key to a successful outdoors dining economy.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie he said the local authorities should have a quota in providing extra space in their region to increase the capacity. 

If there is a car parking space next to a premises, restaurants and cafes should be allowed to requisition that space for seating, he said.

Some councils are “excellent” at  thinking outside the box, such as in Westport, he said, however, others have not embraced this approach at all.

He said grant aid is also needed for businesses so they can actually afford to install wind breakers, canopies and heaters. Cummins said this should be given directly by Fáilte Ireland. 

Cummins said he was disappointed to hear about such cases as Glovers in Bray, stating that businesses can’t “hang around” for local authorities to come up with and find additional outdoor spaces.

“The summer will be over by the time that is done,” he said. 

Businesses also cannot be told at the last minute about what reopening will look like, said Cummins, adding that the association are giving notice to the government that an outdoor economy plan must be announced in early April if businesses are to prepare. 

Fáilte Ireland announced last month that it is launching two new funding schemes in collaboration with local authority partners to improve the quality of outdoor dining spaces in “key tourism destinations”. However, there have been calls for the scheme to be expanded to other areas too.

Fine Gael TD Fergus O’Dowd asked Tourism Minister Catherine Martin about the exclusion of 18 counties from the outdoor dining grant. 

The minister said that contrary to some reports, she has been informed by Failte Ireland that the proposed Outdoor Dining Scheme is still in development and has not been finalised. 

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