London may have had its worst summer weather in a decade but it has nonetheless been one of the best when it comes to al fresco dining in our capital. The sights and sounds of our city streets packed with people catching up with much missed family and friends this summer has been genuinely heart-warming, after such long periods of enforced closures and isolation.
Which is why Westminster City Council’s decision to re-introduce traffic to Soho’s streets at the end of September, is such a disappointing one.
The extension, and proposed permanent retention, of streamlined pavement licensing was something we heartily welcomed when it was announced back in July. Since then, it has proved a lifeline for hospitality venues all over London and the country. Allowing operators to extend their venues into the street and have an outdoor offering, was a powerful move to help the sector make the most of the staycation boom and drive economic recovery.
Huge hurdles remain for our pubs, bars, restaurants, hotels and leisure facilities as we head into the autumn and winter. Across the country, a significant number remain closed and will perhaps not open their doors again. For those that have made it this far there are widespread staffing issues – our members are reporting a 10 per cent vacancy rate, implying a shortage of 210,000 roles, compounding problems with supply chains. Some 94 per cent of hospitality businesses are experiencing problems, with about two thirds of those saying some goods simply don’t arrive and this has the knock-on impact of reducing menus, meaning less choice for consumers and lower sales for businesses already on the edge.
The pandemic has highlighted the resilience and creativity that thrives in the hospitality sector, from enhanced safety measures in high-street cafés, to igloos in pub gardens and digital menus and online payments in venues everywhere. All this will be for naught, however, if the sector fails to get the further support it needs.
In order to rebuild, we need local authorities and national Government to create a supportive landscape for hospitality. This includes measures such as facilitating pavement licences at a local level. At a national level it includes reform of the business rates system, under which hospitality currently overpays by £2.4bn each year, and a permanently lower rate of VAT for the sector. Such moves will allow the industry and its people to play a full role in the economic recovery of London and the country.
Prior to the pandemic, hospitality represented 10 per cent of UK employment, 6 per cent of businesses and 5 per cent of GDP. We very much want to return to this position as a powerful driver of the UK economy and to play a key part in the nation’s recovery but can only do so with the right support.