Leading Article: If only our capital were paved with cafes

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The Independent Online
AS SPRING arrives in London, the sparsity of pavement cafes becomes more obvious and more pitiful. The climate is no excuse. Paris has similar weather, but cafe life flourishes, protected when necessary by awnings and glass. Where London permits pavement cafes at all, it too often crowds them to the edges of narrow pavements, and suffocates them with fumes. There are some honourable exceptions, such as Covent Garden, but many opportunities remain unexploited.

As David Lister pointed out in this newspaper yesterday, countless sites in London, particularly the courtyards of museums and galleries, are ideally suited for cafe life, but are used instead as car parks. This not only desecrates fine buildings but denies Londoners and tourists an amenity that would greatly increase their quality of life.

For good conversation, relaxed business dealings, wooing the opposite sex or simply observing the human race, pavement cafes provide one of the most congenial environments imaginable. True, in France they seem to encourage intellectuals to sit around spinning ridiculous theories, but that is a tolerable price to pay for such a civilised and civilising amenity. London could only benefit by becoming more European in this respect.

The much-vaunted British pub is no substitute, not only because of its absurd opening hours and limited fare, but also because no one can have an intelligent conversation standing up or huddled around tiny tables, shouting above the din. Intellect and emotions unfold better with the help of comfortable chairs, low noise, and a wide range of refreshments.

London has the opportunities; it simply needs to exploit them. Since cafes would make more money than staff car parks, institutional owners of suitable sites should consult their bank balances, and tell their staff to use public transport, thereby also helping to reduce traffic.

At the same time, councils should exert pressure, while seeking out more streets that could be adapted for cafe life. Tourism is worth about pounds 25bn to Britain, and creates 1.5 million jobs, so investment in this area, whether private or public, ought to pay off. With local elections coming up, councils will, for a short time, be unusually sensitive to public opinion. Londoners should make their voice heard - for their sake as well as the tourists'.