Westminster councillor backs ‘al fresco’ Soho, but London Assembly warned of wider risks to West End recovery

Westminster councillor backs ‘al fresco’ Soho, but London Assembly warned of wider risks to West End recovery

Outdoor dining in Soho hasn’t been scrapped for good, Westminster Council’s cabinet member for business, licensing and planning Matthew Green (pictured) has told the London Assembly.

The council was in the eye of a storm when it announced last week that the temporary road closures which had enabled “al fresco” eating and drinking in Soho, saving “countless businesses”, will be removed at the end of September.

“The geography of Soho has always been challenging, and the scheme was never intended to be permanent,” Green said at an Assembly economy committee session on London’s night-time economy. “We can’t keep extending temporary schemes ad infinitum.”

“We do want to see al fresco in Soho continuing,” Green added. “It has been a crucial lifeline for businesses, without the normal level of consultation you would want, because we needed to support those businesses there and then. But 3,000 people live there as well, and you do need to balance that out.”

The council would now be taking time to “bring residents and businesses together” to “co-design” a longer-term wider improvement scheme for the area, he said, “hopefully putting in something that is not temporary, to deliver al fresco in Soho for years to come.”

Green also went into bat for Westminster’s much-derided Marble Arch Mound, the artificial hill intended to attract visitors whose costs almost doubled to £6 million.

“I will happily defend its objective,” he said. “There is no such thing as a post-Covid playbook. We are all doing what we can to increase footfall. It is essential that all levels of government do what we can to draw people back into central London.”

While Westminster was planning £150 million-worth of investment in Oxford Street, according to Green, there was less good news for the capital’s night-time economy as a whole, Assembly Members heard.

Continuing staff shortages and uncertainties about future restrictions, including the introduction of  “vaccination passport” requirements for nightclubbers, meant night-time businesses are still in a “hugely challenging” environment, Michael Kill from trade body the Night Time Industries Association warned.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi confirmed at the weekend that the vaccine passport system for entry to night clubs would be introduced at the end of this month.

The impact of the pandemic, along with experienced employees leaving after the Brexit vote, has left employers dealing with falls in staffing numbers of 20 per cent compared with pre-Covid levels, Kill said.

He added that the staffing crisis, particularly of security personal, meant less inexperienced people taking up the available jobs, leaving businesses unprepared for taking advantage of increased custom when students return to London’s universities or the forthcoming Halloween and Christmas periods.

Kill warned too of the continuing impact of the suspension of the London Underground’s Night Tube service. “London has great infrastructure, but we haven’t activated it at the time the businesses are going live,” he said. “Every day, every weekend that goes on for is putting people off.”

Night time businesses are now expecting full recovery to be delayed for up to five years, Kill said, with concern that night clubs could be “scapegoated” despite being “at the forefront of successful mitigation”, while vaccination requirements for staff could further hinder recruitment.

Aslo at the meeting, City Hall “Night Czar” Amy Lamé spoke of wider recruitment issues. She said Sadiq Khan has continued to lobby for devolved immigration powers for London, with “changes to visa rules to allow businesses to fill vacancies where they have acute shortages”.

The Mayor’s “Let’s Do London” campaign, designed to boost domestic “staycation” tourism, has so far had most impact in the south east of England, she added, but it is expected to have impacts further afield, with surveys showing two-thirds of residents living outside London intending to visit before the capital by the end of the year.

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