By LDRS Reporter Owen Sheppard
Soho’s biggest commercial landlord has called for the area to be pedestrianised so that its restaurants could reopen with alfresco dining.
John James, the owner of Soho Estates, said making Dean Street, Frith Street, Old Compton Street and others car-free would allow restaurants to line roads with tables and chairs.
The idea was recently adopted in Paris, where authorities are keen to revive businesses that closed for the lockdown and let residents have a taste of their café culture.
Mr James, 67, launched the campaign, and his petition calling for a season-long “Summer Street Festival” of outdoor eating and drinking has received 3,200 signatures.
“Soho is an absolute ghost town, and the majority of Soho’s rich tapestry of restaurants and bars is to do with its owner-occupied businesses,” said Mr James, who lives in Chobham, Surrey.
“They can’t survive this catastrophe we’re in. They don’t all qualify for business loans and they will struggle to reopen if this carries on.
“We also have a June quarter-period coming up, when a lot of businesses will need to find money for rent. There will be a cliff edge.
“So the idea is, can we get around the problem of social distancing in small restaurants by closing the streets to cars and letting people eat outside?”
But Mr James explained that it “gets difficult” where individual businesses would have to negotiate local government licensing laws. Usually, any premises that wants to put chairs and tables outside and serve food and alcohol would need a licence from its local council – a process that can take months.
So he is calling on Westminster Council to speed up the system, and for restaurants’ licensing applications to be dealt with faster.
Mr James pointed to Liverpool, where the mayor has committed £450,000 to help redesign the city’s outdoor spaces for outdoor dining.
“It should be a temporary measure,” Mr James added.
Westminster City Council spokesperson said: “We will be talking to residents, businesses and others in the area over the next week to understand what they want and what might work. We will factor in these views as we come to a decision on our plans for a safe and successful reopening of Soho.”
But unlike in Liverpool, Londoners are far more dependent on using buses and the Tube to visit the West End in sufficient numbers.
And there are questions over how this idea would work, amid growing concerns about a second wave of virus transmissions, and while the guidance remains that we should only use public transport when it’s essential.
Mr James said: “My belief is that, with this pandemic, the actual percentage of people from the age group who are badly affected, and that would go to Soho, is nearly zero.”
“If you realise the economy of this country is worse than after the crash in 2008… there will be more people dying of poverty from COVID.”
He added: “It’s an illness of people with underlying health conditions. Subsequent steps have got to be taken to help the wellbeing of the majority, and that rests with the economy.”
Meanwhile, the Soho Society has also published its response to Mr James’s plans.
It said that outside dining should only be permitted between 5pm and 11pm. The Society also had concerns about ensuring pedestrians have enough space to pass tables of diners, and it said cyclists would need to dismount while passing outside-eating areas.