The managing director of landlord Soho Estates, which owns many of the properties around the area, is leading a protest against Westminster Council’s decision not to extend the al fresco scheme that has run in W1 since summer last year.
John James, who oversees much of the day-to-day running of the company and its enormous property portfolio, has bought 5,000 umbrellas printed with the words “Soho Means Business” to hand out to the public in order to draw attention to the issue.
Yesterday, Westminster City Council said the outdoor dining initiative throughout Covent Garden — in particular, on Henrietta Street, King Street, Maiden Lane and parts of Southampton Street — would remain, as would a similar scheme in St John’s Wood. However, in Soho, the pedestrianisation of streets will conclude come October 1. It has been unpopular with some local residents, though restaurateurs and hoteliers throughout the area are keen that it continues.
Speaking to the Standard, James said: “Al fresco Soho was absolutely necessary to keep this business community alive and without it, there would have been so many who failed. The fact that the first version of it was brought in as an emergency measure is something we understand and Westminster Council were brilliant at removing so many barriers to making it happen at that point.
“[The scheme] added a wonderful legacy to Soho which people have been enjoying and it’s been a great success. Stopping it baffles me. I mean, people have managed before and it’s been going for 18 months — why, all of a sudden, is it a safety issue now?”
James said that he thought the council’s decision was “premature”, explaining that he could see no reason why, after it had run so long, “it couldn’t be left in place while a consultation gets underway.”
The property magnate added he and the area’s businesses accepted “that you can’t block all of Old Compton Street, but you can have outside tables behind a barrier the width of a parked car, which would leave plenty of access for traffic.”
Responding to the council’s suggestion that the move was prompted by unhappy residents, James said: “I know there have a few complaints about noise but it’s certainly not from the majority of residents .”
Local restaurateur Victor Garvey, of Michelin-starred Sola on Dean Street, added: “We don’t know why Soho is being singled out, I don’t understand why we’re being cut off at the knees. Most businesses here are going through two years of debt. We’re in a better place now than when we’d just come out of lockdown — but not by much. We have years of recovery ahead of us.”
However, Westminster council rejected the idea that it was unfairly singling out Soho, saying the area had its own “unique challenges” which aren’t present in the likes of St John’s Wood.
A representative for the council stressed that the scheme was always meant to be a temporary measure and, in a statement, the council said: “Supporting hospitality businesses hard hit by Covid was one of the reasons why Westminster was the first local authority in the country to introduce measures to support al fresco dining in July last year. Since then, we have created 16,000 additional covers across the city – the highest number in London – helping to save countless businesses and jobs in Soho and across the West End.
“Let’s be clear, the lifeline that is al fresco dining can continue beyond 30 September, and we will work closely with businesses to help them find ways to access outdoor space. However, we always intended interventions such as road closures and barriers to be temporary and we have been clear that these will be withdrawn at the end of next month as we enter the autumn period.
“While the schemes were extended three times, now is the point at which we need to consult residents on whether or not they should continue, and the colder and rainier months are the best time to do that. We are already engaging 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. In Soho, we are working with residents and businesses to co-design a Vision for Soho that will go out to consultation towards the end of this year. This includes asking the local community if they would like some al fresco dining to return to Soho in the spring.”
Speaking to the Standard, the councillor added that, should circumstances change and indoor dining once again be impossible, the council would be likely to reconsider its position, noting Westminster’s previous swift responses to the pandemic. The councillor added: “The Government’s autumn and winter response plan doesn’t currently foresee the need for additional social distancing measures, however, we will monitor the situation closely and, if required, will react speedily, as we did last year, in close concert with residents and businesses."