A council decision to charge businesses for outdoor tables and chairs in the town centre has been called ‘suicidal’ by one of several angry traders.
According to Simon Vickers, chairman of the Littlehampton Traders’ Partnership, photocopied letters were handed out by a West Sussex County Council officer to around 34 businesses a month ago.
It said that they would have to pay £520 for the privilege of having outdoor chairs and tables within 28 days – or be taken to court, he said.
Mr Vickers, who runs Arun Furnishers in Beach Road, Littlehampton, said that while his business was not affected, the feedback from colleagues ranged from ‘fear and anger’ to ‘disgust’.
He said: “I feel incredibly frustrated. High streets around the country are suffering, so a county council imposing a harsh charge without any consultation beggars belief.
“In one breath they want to work with organisations and get feedback, but because this is a money-making venture they don’t want to discuss it at all.”
Among the traders who got a letter was Gary Hughesdon, who runs Café 72 in the High Street.
He said it was a ‘disgusting decision’ and ‘absolutely suicidal’ for the town centre: “I can’t afford it.
“I’m just going to refuse to pay and say take me to court, because the previous owner never had to pay.”
He added: “You want a café culture where people can sit in the sun with a coffee.
“But the council doesn’t want that; all they want is to cause carnage.”
According to Mr Vickers, at least nine businesses have paid the charge, which he claimed had not been enforced until now.
The fact it was a flat rate no matter how many tables and chairs were outside he branded as ‘ridiculous’ and he questioned how the county council would enforce the fees.
West Sussex County Council has responded to the traders’ concerns.
A spokesman said: “It has been a legal requirement for businesses to have a licence for tables and chairs to be positioned on the highway for many years.
"A licence is required so the county council can assess each location for its suitability to ensure granting it would not pose an unreasonable risk to either highway users or customers, and is also important for the public liability of any business in the event of an accident.
“While the county council has not historically, actively enforced this requirement, the ever-increasing amount of tables and chairs now on the highway means intervention is now required in order to provide a fair and consistent approach across the county.
“Feedback from user groups such as the Royal National Institute of the Blind has highlighted some of the risks involved to visually impaired highway users.
“Vehicles are also permitted in some parts of Littlehampton High Street which is another reason why it is important that tables and chairs are located safely.
“Ongoing financial pressures on the council’s budget mean that we do need to charge a fee to process applications and it is for individual businesses to decide if they now wish to pay to position tables and chairs outside their premises.
“We have delivered a number of letters across the whole Arun district and we already received a significant amount of licence applications which are currently being processed.”
An Arun Distict Council spokesman clarified the council's position.
They said: “We are aware that West Sussex County Council has proceeded with this initiative but we are proposing that in the spirit of partnership, and in the interests of what is best for local traders, this decision be reconsidered.
“Town centres are facing an ever more challenging business environment and the smallest additional costs could impact on the viability of many businesses.
“Here in Littlehampton, we have an active group of traders willing to promote and improve the town and to pursue positive action to attract people into town centre.
"They work in partnership with town and district councils, often using their own free time to support local initiatives and to represent traders’ interests. We are keen to continue to work closely with and support this group and we are happy to continue discussions with the county council to find a solution that is acceptable to the traders and that benefits the town centre.”