The dream of cafes and restaurants enjoying six consecutive weekends of outside dining on a key city centre street is hanging by a thread.
Birmingham’s Southside quarter – home to the Birmingham Hippodrome, Gay Village and Chinatown – had hoped that government encouragement would enable them to expand on to Hurst Street during the height of summer.
They claimed the move would enable them to boost business after being closed for four months of lockdown, while adhering to social distancing rules.
But they say council red tape about everything from health and safety to counter terrorism measures is threatening to strangle the idea at birth.
To add to their stress, Birmingham Hippodrome last week cancelled its Christmas panto – the annual winter lifeblood for the area.
Even before the Hippodrome had announced it was going to stay quiet until at least March, the Green Room cafe bar closed for good in June after almost 25 years of trading just yards from the theatre’s front door.
In a public statement designed to rally support from Birmingham City Council, Julia said today: “If we are forced to cancel these al fresco plans, it will be a huge blow to the district.
“And sadly another example of how Birmingham is falling behind other cities across the UK in terms of working creatively to support the leisure sector during this challenging time.
“Other cities are literally streets ahead, and are working in partnership with their BIDs to deliver these solutions for their businesses.”
To bring in extra business, the area used to have a Southside summer festival as you can see in the above video.
But that has not happened this year and Pride was also cancelled to limit revenue-generating opportunities even more.
Even the Chinese New Year of the Rat celebrations on January 26 were hit by pouring rain just weeks before lockdown.
Demands now being placed upon each business include “relevant health and safety assessments including risk assessments, counter terrorism assessments and management plans.”
In a statement to BirminghamLive, Birmingham City Council said it “remains committed to supporting businesses thrive in both the city centre and suburbs and will continue to work alongside them to assist in any way possible.”
What were the plans?
Formulated in June, the central idea called for the pedestrianisation of Hurst Street for six consecutive weekends.
The aim was to take advantage of the government’s pledge to cut red tape and to help the local hospitality economy to bounce back from the coronavirus lockdown from March 20 to July 4.
Having a simpler licensing process for outdoor seating for bars, cafes and restaurants would enable bars and restaurants that would otherwise have been too restricted by the need for social distancing indoors to create outdoor seating for their customers.
But, more than a month after lockdown ended, Southside BID says “additional requirements” from Birmingham City Council are threatening to scupper the ‘StrEATery’ plans.
It fears the expected August 14 start date will now be missed.
When lockdown ended on July 4, only one in four Southside businesses felt ready to open
Those that did were widely praised for ensuring safety and good behaviour.
On June 9, BirminghamLive revealed that the Christmas panto with Jason Donovan faced the axe – and the shutdown was confirmed on Thursday, August 6.
What the boss thinks
Southside BID manager, Julia Robinson, said only having a team of two to manage council expectations was just one of the problems she faced.
“We have been working for more than eight weeks to try to secure the opportunity to close Hurst Street here in Southside to provide more outside space for our hospitality venues,” said Julia.
“They have been hit incredibly hard in recent months, but these plans are now in jeopardy as we have been faced with an increasing number of requirements from Birmingham City Council.
“The government expressly stated back in June that the new licensing laws were designed to help businesses get back on their feet and get people back in their jobs safely.
“Their own announcement encouraged Councils to reduce red-tape as part of comprehensive plan to revive high streets, support the hospitality industry and help get people back to work
“Sadly, the reality for us here in Southside has been weeks of inaction.
“We’ve seen the crucial summer trading period disappear before us, in addition to an increasing number of restrictions and requirements, which have now become untenable for our small BID team of two to implement, let alone the additional measures that our businesses will have to put in place, at a time when they are already struggling.
“We are calling on Birmingham City Council to do everything they can to support Southside and our businesses at this crucial time, before it’s too late.”
Julia met “senior members of Birmingham City Council” on Friday in a last-ditch bid “to try to overcome some of the barriers in place” but today said progress was still “slow.”
What Birmingham City Council said
In a statement, Birmingham City Council told BirminghamLive: “With regards to road closures, there has never been a time limit imposed for when businesses can apply to request a road closure to allow for businesses to ‘spill out’ on the highway.
“However, this is a lengthy process which requires the applicants to undertake the relevant health and safety assessments including risk assessments, counter terrorism assessments and management plans to ensure the public are not placed at risk of harm.
“If a business had requested a road closure in July, it would likely be that mid-August would be the most realistic date for the relevant assessments to be completed and approved due to the processes that must be undertaken in the interests of public safety.
“Proposals received for road closures were being considered alongside the altered pavement licence legislation on a co-ordinated basis.
“Some of the proposed schemes have been withdrawn by the applicants due to the proposals requiring significant day to day management, which applicants apparently could not provide.”