Bristol landlords already struggling due to skyrocketing energy costs and cheap supermarket booze fear that a third change could see pubs shut down for good. Around forty venues with outdoor seating on car parks and pavements will have to give this up when a temporary law expires in October.
The Traffic Orders Procedure (Coronavirus Amendment) Regulations 2020 has made it easier for local authorities to authorise extended road closures so that pubs could accommodate customers without breaking social distancing rules. But this short-term law ends next month, leaving some venues without any outdoor seating.
Some worry that, after two years of reduced trade and uncapped business power bills rising by unlimited amounts, lower seating capacity will see outgoings eclipse their income and force them to call time on their venue. Ben Cheshire, landlord at The Coronation in Southville, expects his takings to fall by up to four fifths.
“Right now we have seats outside the pub, on the pavement and in two parking bays,” said Ben. “They’re taking all that outside space away from October and I expect I’m going to lose at least 50 percent of my trade.”
Ben believes that the actual decline in business may be much larger than this, as habits have changed since the Covid pandemic and an unusually hot summer. “Drinking culture has changed,” he explained. “No one wants to sit inside any more, so trade could actually be as much as 80 percent lower.”
Ben has contacted Bristol City Council, which has allowed him to have outdoor seating for the past two years, but has been told that there is nothing the local authority can do. “They’ve just said the legislation expires at the end of October so they won’t give out any more TTROs,” he explained.
“They just say we’re sorry, we can’t help – we hope you made the most of it. So I’m going to lose at least 50 percent of my trade and probably 60 percent of my staff. This sets me further back than before the pandemic, because my regulars have all either died and moved on.”
He added: “This is pandemic levels of bleak, for me. I’ve worked at this pub for eleven years, managed it for six and owned it for four. The worst case scenario is, that could all be coming to an end. Because it’s unlikely I’ll be making a profit from it any more.”
While some roads like King Street and Princess Victoria Street have been pedestrianised, increasing the scope for open-air seating, others have not. And while pubs with wide pavements can apply for pavement seating licences, those on narrower footpaths cannot.
Brendan Murphy is co-founder of BARBI, an organisation promoting bars, restaurants and independent music venues in the city. Since 2017 BARBI has stood up for businesses by lobbying the local authority and advising the industry on services and products available to them.
He says that up to forty Bristol entertainment businesses will be affected by a return to pre-pandemic legislation. “There are lots of places with little huts or chairs and tables in parking spaces,” he said. “A lot of those will have to go.
“You can have a tables and chairs licence, but only where the pavement is at least 1.8m wide. So that would work for Gallimaufry for instance, but not The Coronation.”
The impact on many local inns will be quick and devastating, BARBI predicts. “Takings will be down massively,” said Brendan. “But this could be the final nail in the coffin for many, so we want to see some common sense help for the hospitality industry.”
Those who are not forced to close will still have to reduce costs where they can – and the cost of living crisis and Brexit mean that both cheaper produce and cheaper energy tariffs are unlikely. “The only savings they will be able to make are in staff,” said Brendan. “We may see staff without enough hours, or pubs which are only open Thursday to Saturday.”
BARBI have been in touch with Bristol City Council about the issue, but claims the local authority has washed its hands of the situation. “We’re discussing whether BCC can do something themselves or whether, as they’re telling us, it’s down to the government,” he said.
“But [national industry lobbyists] UKHospitality is saying BCC could do something, that it is within their power. We are working to see if there is a solution because this is going to have a disastrous effect on lots of businesses.”
BARBI has begun a petition for local action on the issue, urging the council to "use all their powers to extend the use of the roadside for hospitality businesses and retain those structures that are currently in place".
Brendan added: “All venues are currently allowed to have offsales, so you can buy a beer, walk out and drink it on the road. That lasts until 2023. So we’re asking, does it not make more sense if people were in a demarcated area of the road, rather than just standing in the road with traffic passing?”
A spokesman for Bristol City Council said: "Supporting venues through the pandemic with temporary outdoor seating space was a key part of our strategy to ensure Bristol’s hospitality sector had the opportunity to survive the challenges of Covid-19.
"Under temporary legislation introduced by the government in July 2020, the council was able to change areas of the carriageway, such as a parking bay, into a footway to make it eligible for a pavement licence.
These temporary licences will expire in October and the temporary legislation ceased in April 2021, so no new Traffic Orders can now be produced without new powers being granted by Westminster."
He added: "We would welcome the opportunity to join businesses in further lobbying the government for new powers that give councils greater flexibility on this to offer more support as the national cost of living crisis worsens."
Bristol Live contacted UKHospitality for clarification of their claims that local authorities, but no response had been received at the time of publication.