Pavement table tax wiped off the menu

A CONTROVERSIAL table tax which would have seen businesses forking out more than £800 for outside seating has been scrapped.

Cafés and restaurants across Northumberland were being asked to pay for putting tables and chairs outside their premises for customers.

But after a public outcry, Northumberland County Council’s economic prosperity and strategic services overview and scrutiny committee rejected the plans and asked the Executive to defer and re-write a report on the policy.

Chairman of the scrutiny committee and Alnwick county councillor Gordon Castle said: “We are supposed to be nurturing businesses, not stifling them.

“I am pleased that the scrutiny committee did its job and made sure that this was reconsidered.”

It is the second time that the proposal has been mooted and dismissed.

Last year, the council planned to charge businesses in Alnwick on a trial basis but that was thrown out after mass protest.

The latest attempt was scrapped on Monday after fears that it could cause struggling businesses to fold.

The policy would mean traders paying a one-off registration fee of £300 followed by an annual charge of £200.

They would also have to pay a retrospective planning application fee of £335.

But it was felt that the charges were too high, would hit small cafés badly and that a planning application fee was unnecessary, as cafés were not actually changing the use of their present premises, merely extending the area of operation.

Moreover, it was said that the many elements of the policy were ‘excessively bureaucratic’.

A letter from Alnwick Chamber of Trade (Act) was read out. It stated that the charges would hit small cafés hard on top of punitive business rates and high rents.

Most were simply trying to offer customers an improved visitor experience and also compensate in the summer months for weak winter trade. The effect in all likelihood would be to discourage outside tables and depress visitor numbers even further.

Carlo Biagioni, chairman of Act, said: “We do great for six or seven months of the year but then it is very, very difficult.

“If you add an extra tax to that, it would be very hard and we would have to pass it on to our customers and that would not help.

“It is good that it has been rejected. Coun Castle has tried really hard for us and he understood what we all wanted. It’s good news for the whole of Northumberland.”

Tommy McKie, who owns The Lunchbox in Alnwick Market Place and puts out tables during the summer, also welcomed the news.

He said: “It’s great, especially with the way things are at the moment with the recession. I think everybody will welcome it and I just hope that is the end of it.”

In Wooler, Cathy Porteous of the Market Place Cafe added: “We have to pay high council tax, rents and staff, whose wages have had to go up.

“Businesses in Wooler are struggling as it is. It is difficult enough without them adding this on.

“But I wouldn’t have paid it anyway. I would have rather gone to prison. All the shopkeepers were against it.

“In a place like Wooler you get walkers, people with dogs, smokers, where do you put them if you can’t put tables out? Disabled people need somewhere as well. I’m pleased it’s been thrown out.”

At the scrutiny meeting, councillors agreed that some form of control was needed but with a lighter touch.

It was also suggested that cafes with only one or two tables should either be exempt from charges or pay a very much-reduced fee compared to larger establishments.

Coun Castle added: “These proposals would have hit some businesses hard and it was felt wrong to increase the financial and regulatory burden at a time when many are struggling.

“That said, the council has a responsibility to ensure that pavements are not obstructed unduly and that businesses conduct outside operations in a sensible manner and in appropriate locations. There are already powers to deal with this.

“I am pleased that the executive has again agreed to withdraw the report, which was very similar to one rejected a year ago, and have the whole matter reconsidered.”

But one Alnwick trader has already paid for a licence to put tables and chairs outside his two businesses.

Roberto Peruzzo who runs Cafe Tirreno on Bondgate Within and Prima Deli in the Market Place paid out nearly £700 per business.

He said: “I was trying to do the right thing and I have no hard feelings about it. As the council has now scrapped this charge it puts less barriers up for us and will allow us to trade.

“It is beneficial to us if we don’t have to re-apply for it again.

“But I do wonder what they have done with my money.”

Coun Isabel Hunter, executive member responsible for infrastructure and environment at Northumberland County Council, said: “We have agreed to withdraw the report from the Executive agenda to look further at the detail of the policy. We will be considering particularly the possibility of differential charging which could be tailored to particular circumstances.”

The Executive has deferred the policy report until February 6, 2012, because of ‘significant changes’ which need to be made following the scrutiny committee’s rejection.