Heritage chiefs have called for a clampdown on outdoor eating and drinking areas in Edinburgh, despite business owners hailing them as ‘invaluable’ during the pandemic.
Continental-style structures and covered platforms were erected in the city to help businesses survive the impact of Covid.
However the Cockburn Association has expressed fears they will become permanent fixtures on iconic streets such as the Royal Mile, Cockburn Street and George Street.
At the time, local authorities were urged by the Scottish Government to help encourage people to eat and drink outdoors.
Councillors in Edinburgh agreed to allow temporary structures to remain in place without planning permission until the end of October.
But the Cockburn Association has claimed none of the outdoor spaces have enhanced the city centre and insisted outdoor eating and drinking spaces are not for “public use”.
The group demanded any future extensions must “create or contribute towards a sense of place” in historic streets before they are given the green light to stay.
But hospitality bosses said customers should be given the choice of whether to sit indoors or outdoors, with many people still nervous about socialising inside.
The heritage group has lodged objections to plans by permanent city centre businesses who want to keep their outdoor structures in place.
A dossier for the City of Edinburgh council stated: “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 cafe culture can bring to areas.
“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.
“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, is one of the businesses seeking to keep its outdoor space.
Ms Ahmed 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.”
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