Commercial Hospitality Space at 36-38 Victoria Street

Posted on: December 16, 2021

Our comments objecting to an application to erect a commercial hospitality space on the Common Good land in the Old Town.

Address: 36 – 38 Victoria Street, Edinburgh, EH1 2JW

Proposal:  Erection of decking area on roadway in front of applicant premises for use as an external dining area

Reference No: 21/05431/FUL

Closing date for comments: Fri 31 Dec 2021

Determination date: Tue 14 Dec 2021 [sic]

Result: Pending

Cockburn Response

The Cockburn has considered this application and would wish to OBJECT to it on the grounds that it would involve the quasi-privatisation of public urban space; would affect the wider amenity of neighbouring residents and businesses; is poorly designed in the context of the specific location and negatively impacts on the character and appearance of the Conservation Area.

We have no objection to the current tabling licensing system in place, whereby a small number of tables are placed discretely beside the operator’s premises.  Licensing conditions require tables and chairs to be removed each evening, restoring the area back to unfettered public use.  This flexible and temporary system works well.

Our concern lies with the erection of a PERMANENT structure, which would effectively privatise a portion of the Common Good land in Edinburgh’s High Street.

It is also important to recognise the likely cumulative impacts of this application if other neighbouring businesses seek to do the same in front of each of their properties too.

A senior Council officer recently reported their concerns about these structures to the Council’s Regulatory Committee (2 Dec 2021). This officer suggested that some of these permanent trading areas could potentially start “limiting the ability to stage” certain civic and cultural activities and events in the city.

The officer went further, noting that once granted a permanent license to operate these new trading areas, “the license holder would have protections” that “exposes the council to the risk of legal challenge” if the local authority requested the business owner to remove the structure and cease trading there.

We set out our own concerns about this type of commercial development in greater detail below.

Overall context – The Cockburn has outlined its general concerns about the unregulated proliferation of outdoor seating developments on numerous occasions while also noting the context of COVID and COVID recovery for hospitality businesses.

We continue to sympathise with businesses that have struggled during the periods of prolonged lockdown, unexpected social distancing and other necessary public health measures. We are not surprised that some traders now hope to permanently retain structures that were put in place temporarily and that other traders are coming forward with applications for entirely new structures.

These newly built ad hoc decks, gazebos and sheds significantly expand each premise’s trading area and, with the current uncertainty over the rapid spread of COVID variants, provide a timely extension to existing indoor operations, in addition to any previously licensed outdoor seating.

We accept TEMPORARY spatial and regulatory extensions to existing licensing footprints that keep businesses trading and the public safe. However we are opposed to PERMANENT planning permissions being granted for ad hoc BUILT structures that:

  • Permanently alter access rights to and other existing uses of public lands,
  • Potentially impact pedestrian movement through the streetscape,
  • Radically alter the character of conservation areas,
  • Negatively affect residential amenity,
  • Potentially inhibit access for necessary service and emergency vehicles.

Need for unified, design-led approach – Being a novel introduction to the city’s streetscape, Edinburgh Street Design Guidance is largely silent on these outdoor seating areas, although many broader principles apply including the need to reduce street clutter and the importance of uncongested, clear from obstruction pedestrian zones.

The Cockburn believes that interventions into Edinburgh’s streetscape, especially within Conservation Areas across the city, must be unified (i.e., consistent across a wider area), 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.

A revised and updated policy framework is required that takes on board all the City of Edinburgh’s Council’s pledges and commitments.

Street Clutter – At a recent meeting of the City of Edinburgh Council, Councillors reaffirmed their support for Transport for All’s Equal Pavements Pledge. This acknowledges that being able to move around the urban environment freely is a right that should be allowed to all those who live in, work in and visit Edinburgh, including those with complex needs. Outdoor seating areas such as that proposed here complicates the facilitation of free and unfettered access across the city.

We note the abolition of A-boards across the city as an example of the Council’s commitment to unimpeded pedestrian access.

Privatisation/Appropriation of public space – The Cockburn has frequently voices concerns about the ongoing privatisation of public spaces across the city. We have spoken out against the trend of the City of Edinburgh Council increasingly using the city’s existing public spaces, parks and green spaces to raise funds, by making their land available to private companies who charge for ticketed events and restrict access to parks and green spaces for extended periods.

We are not against all use of public and quasi-public spaces, particularly parks and greenspaces, for events and associated activities. But such events and pop-ups for al fresco dining and drinking, including those on and in association with streets, must be assessed and open for review and comment within a relevant and up-to-date policy and regulatory framework. Edinburgh lack such a policy framework currently.

Wider Amenity Impacts – We note that at recent meeting of the City of Edinburgh Council councillors agreed that the Council would write to the Scottish Government to ask for powers to deal with problems associated amplified busking and street entertainment across the city and to facilitate the engagement of residents who are concerned about related noise disturbances.

This suggests that the policy and practice framework relating to the consideration of noise from on-street eating and drinking installations is likely to be subject to change and be the subject of restriction in the near term, certainly that the Council is minded to take a more restrictive view of actions, activities and potential sources of street noise such as on-street eating and drinking facilities.

We have no objections to the current table licensing arrangements that require their removal at the end of each trading period, partly in order to reduce potential negative impacts on nearby residents. Permanent structures that provide 24 hour cover and seating facilities, however unintentionally, are already causing repeated anti-social problems for central Edinburgh residents as these structures become gathering places for after-hours drinking and eating, once business owners have long-since locked up and headed home. This will only increase in the spring and summer months.

Assessment of outdoor seating against current LDP policies – Notwithstanding the comments above, it is our view the city’s current planning policy framework does not support on-street al fresco dining and drinking as uncoordinated individual planning applications.

In our view, the proposals are not consistent with Policy ENV 6 – Conservation Areas (Development), Policy ENV18 Open Space Protection, Policy Del 2 City Centre – Development, Policy Des 1 Design Quality, Policy Des 5 Development Design – Amenity,  and Policy Des 8 Public Realm and Landscape Design.