Snatch squads strike in council's war on al fresco eating

Will Bennett reports on the latest affront to public order in the heart of London's emerging cafe society esentially wonderful standfirst locked to grid strap Book locked top grid Strap Book locked to grid strap Book locked top grid
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The Independent Online
The raucous, joyously disorganised street life of Soho is full of rivalries: frustrated motorists versus suicidal despatch riders, pornographers against the authorities, and pedestrians vying with cafe customers for possession of the pavements.

It is the latter contest which has prompted the intervention of the men from Westminster City Council, strong on the small print of the law, rather short on humour and accompanied by some uncomfortable looking police officers.

At 10am recently two large vans pulled up at the junction of Frith Street and Old Compton Street in London's most famously risque area just as customers sitting outside the Bar Italia were ordering yet another cappuccino. Their morning reverie was rudely interrupted as they were ordered to their feet and the men from the council bundled a table and 11 chairs into the back of a van. Bewildered cafe staff hastily dragged other furniture in off the street.

Bradley Tuck was the only member of staff present whose native language was English, so the officials decided that he was the acting manager and served him with a planning enforcement notice.

Mr Tuck, from Clapham, south London, said: "It was like something from a comedy and I expected Jeremy Beadle to come jumping out of the back of the van."

As he stared at the notice with his unexpected promotion on it, the team from the council also descended on three other premises that they alleged did not have planning permission for outside tables, including the Cafe Boheme.

Nick Jones, the proprietor, had had a letter from the council warning him that this might happen and had telephoned officials trying to point out that they had given him a licence to have tables and chairs on the street. This permit was hanging on the wall in the cafe.

He said: "I showed them the licence and I think they felt a bit stupid. If you are going to adopt a heavy-handed attitude like that I think you should do a bit of research first." The council has since written and apologised to him for the mistake.

The clampdown by Westminster, despite its farcical aspects, stems from the growing concern among London councils about the trend towards eating and drinking alfresco. It may be a hallowed tradition in Paris and Rome, but in Britain officials are worried that the pavements may be blocked.

Although there have been few complaints from residents, councils believe that eating outside in London needs to be properly organised. They say that on the Continent there are wider pavements and tables are kept neat and tidy by surrounds of plants or fencing.

Robert Moreland, chairman of Westminster's environment committee, said that the council was not against the trend in principle. He explained: "What we say is that they have to come and ask us us for planning permission and this particularly applies where there is limited space between the restaurant and the highway.

"We have granted permission to 54 cafes and restaurants to have tables and chairs outside. We only turn them down where the pavement is narrow and it would be a safety hazard to allow them because people have to walk off the pavement."

The council has devised a precise policy on the matter, decreeing that 1.8 metres of unobstructed pavement must be kept clear, just enough to allow a pushchair and somebody passing the other way. More raids are likely although prosecutions are not being considered.

However court action against restaurants and cafes in Hampstead, north London, is being threatened by Camden council.

But back at the Bar Italia, which has still not got its furniture back, Mr Tuck said: "It is ridiculous. Nobody has ever tripped over a table or a chair in Soho and eating out is part of the atmosphere here. If they are worried about the streets being clogged up they should pedestrianise the area."