Controversial licence fees for outdoor seating that were heralded as ‘the last straw’ for small businesses have been reviewed.
In August last year, West Sussex County Council announced plans to charge traders £520 per year for outdoor seating, regardless of how many seats were outside.
Independent traders were incensed and the heads of Adur and Worthing councils joined local MPs Tim Loughton and Sir Peter Bottomley in penning a letter accusing then leader Louise Goldsmith of ‘penalising small businesses’.
Now the county council has backtracked and opened a consultation on a tiered structure, with businesses charged £20 per cover, per year, on top of a £150 application fee.
East Worthing and Shoreham MP Tim Loughton said a meeting between the county council, local councillors and businesses showed the importance of protecting Worthing’s growing cafe culture.
“I am very pleased that the leader of the county council and cabinet member for highways listened to our representations and saw the need to avoid doing anything that would harm the vital hospitality industry in our coastal towns,” he said.
“In particular we pressed the case for a sliding scale of charges which much more fairly represents the size of the businesses rather than a heavy up front flat fee.
“I spoke again to the county councillors at a meeting with West Sussex MPs last month and they confirmed that they have scrapped their original plans and will now be consulting on a much more equitable and practical scheme which I know will be much more welcome to local traders.
“Common sense has prevailed and I am very grateful to the new leader of West Sussex County Council in particular for his help.”
County council leader Paul Marshall replaced long-serving Louise Goldsmith in the role in October last year.
In the council’s consultation statement, it said the changes represented a charge of 5p per day, per seat for businesses.
Businesses with a larger number of covers would also be encouraged to consider how many covers they are likely to regularly fill, the council said, or risk paying a premium on empty chairs that then obstruct the highway and create obstacles for the visually impaired.
The chairman of Worthing’s Hospitality Federation, Andy Sparsis, said the compromise was testament to traders and authorities working together.
Licence fees would allow small businesses to mark their territory, he said, reserving an area for their seating.
A spokesman for West Sussex County Council said: “There has been a long-standing legal requirement for businesses to have a licence when putting tables and chairs on the pavement, which many businesses have paid to allow them to increase their seating area and business income.
“A licence is usually required as a condition of the public liability insurance of any business to protect the businesses, the council and the public in the event of an accident. Charging a fee allows the county council to monitor and control the placing of tables and chairs so as to not pose an unreasonable hazard to people, including the visually impaired, using the pavement. All our neighbouring local authorities also charge for a licence.
“The fee was increased for the first time in many years from £412 with an annual renewal fee of £200, to an annual fee of £520 per annum in April 2019 to cover the proactive management of our public highway and by early January, more than 60 applications had been received.
“However, we had also received feedback from traders, county councillors and local councils, with the majority suggesting that a sliding scale approach would be preferable to the flat fee, as it would mean smaller establishments paying less compared to businesses wanting to place larger numbers of tables and chairs on the highway. The new proposed fee means that traders would pay just over five pence per day to place a chair on the highway.
“The consultation runs until February 24, 2020, and we welcome comments from everyone.”
How do our fees compare?
The current outdoor seating licence fees stand at £520 per year, regardless of the number of seats. That increase was a 260 per cent hike from the previous figure of £200 a year, with a £412 initial fee.
Under the new plans, traders would pay £20 per year, per seat, with a £150 one-off application fee. But how does that compare with the rest of Sussex?
East Sussex traders are charged £260 a year, while Brighton and Hove is tiered – £176 for small businesses and £360 for larger ones, plus extra charges for the amount of highway space.