Rules row could see Exmouth pubs remain closed

Is this another “Exmouth Regeneration” legacy problem? – Owl

Anita Merritt www.devonlive.com

An independent award-winning Exmouth pub and restaurant is one of many businesses in the town centre that should be looking forward to finally reopening next week does not know whether it will be financially viable after being told it has to remove its outdoor furniture, including a marquee, every night.

Spoken, which is situated in the pedestrianised area of The Strand, says it has found itself in the midst of ‘unnecessary bureaucracy’ with East Devon District Council (EDDC) and Devon County Council (DCC) due to lease restrictions which are said to be affecting businesses across East Devon.

George Nightingale, owner of Spoken, says he began applying to use the outside space on a temporary basis for post-lockdown trading seven months ago.

He claims it was only three weeks ago he was told by DCC the matter was going to ‘consultation’.

Now just days away from further lockdown restrictions being lifted permitting hospitality venues to serve people outdoors as from April 12, George says no further progress has been made.

As it currently stands, the venue which is permitted to trade between 6am to 1am, would have to remove its tables and marquee in between those hours and erect it again.

Both EDDC and DCC says the rules have to be observed. However, EDDC has confirmed it is considering whether alternative agreements can be made to help traders.

George said: “We have been told we are not allowed to keep anything outside overnight.

“It makes our outside unusable as it would take a couple of hours to take down the marquee and erect it again.

“As it stands throughout the region, marquees are classified as furniture, and all furniture must be removed from the already licensed space each night.

“This is not possible, practical or sensible, or has any common sense applied to it.

“What we can’t mitigate against is the weather so we will have to open on a day-by-day basis depending on the forecast. I can’t afford to employ a team of people depending on what the weather may be.”

Spoken in The Strand without any street furniture outside

Spoken in The Strand without any street furniture outside (Image: Google)

The problem lies in a clause in the lease which dates back to when the area outside the Spoken was previously a road ten years ago.

George explained: “There has not been a road here for 10 years but as it has not been declassified as a road, the council have stated it is ‘technically’ still a road.

“Previously I have put on a lot of street entertainment, but now the council is threatening to remove my licence permanently if I put anything up at all which is ‘blocking the road – a road that doesn’t exist’. All it would take is the council to remove one line in the lease, but it won’t – despite central government instructing councils to take a pragmatic approach to the reopening of hospitality.

“The rest of the country, such as Soho in London and areas in Bristol, are closing roads and finding ways to allow businesses to trade. However, both councils are trying to stop it so we will be effectively shut in anything other than perfect weather when the rest of the country is trading. How is that fair?

“We are one of the biggest hit industries by the pandemic and the government support has been first class. We want our town to be encouraging people to come out in a safe environment they want to sit in, but we are unable to provide that because of bureaucracy, and nobody willing to make a decision.

“Customers will quite rightly go to venues which can provide shelter from the elements on their own private land instead.

“Exmouth has a great opportunity to welcome visitors not going abroad and to provide a quality environment that will make them return in the future.

“How can this region and town centre that was purpose built for this be so left behind because of the unnecessary bureaucracy at a time when businesses and the region itself need it the most, and the council’s own remit is to support businesses?”

Calls are being made by local independent councillor Paul Millar to allow businesses in the town to be able to keep up outdoor coverings to enable them to reopen.

He said: “I am really concerned that some of Exmouth’s pubs and restaurants on the Strand, and elsewhere across East Devon, are being faced with the situation of not being able to open on 12th April after they have done so much to keep their customers safe.

“In my view, outdoor coverings such as gazebos and marquees shouldn’t be classified as furniture, the Secretary of State Robert Jenrick needs to make this matter clear to EDDC and DCC which has a legal duty to follow to the letter and the spirit guidance set by central government.

“For me, the burden of removing outdoor coverings for a few hours overnight and re-erecting them again in the morning is totally unreasonable. Businesses should be looking forward to reopening and staff should be allowed to fully focus on keeping the public safe.

“I have requested that officers at EDDC urgently contact councils in other areas of the country with a view to hopefully being able to amend our own local guidance in order to allow outdoor coverings to stay outside overnight where there is clear public support for this, such as The Strand.”

However, in the mean time the rules will still apply.

A spokesman for DCC said: “We have to be fair and consistent with how we issue and manage the licenses, and the paved area of the Strand outside Spoken is classed as a public highway, therefore the general public have the right to access and use it.

“We are clear in the terms of the licence that items, such as tables and chairs must be removable. While we are able, under certain circumstances, to authorise the use of a highway for other activities, at other times it should be free for the passage of highway users.”

A spokesperson for EDDC said: “EDDC cannot comment on the position of DCC.

“With regard to the EDDC owned land, the trader entered into a Sitting Out Consent with EDDC on November 26, 2020, to allow the use of a sitting out area until September 30, 2021.

“The council’s Sitting Out Consent provides that all furniture and structures must be removed from the land overnight. The provision is clearly contained within the Sitting Out Consent signed by the trader.

“The council has confirmed that it expects the trader to comply with the provisions of the agreement that it entered into with the council.

“In view of the issues raised by this trader and others in the vicinity, the council is considering whether alternative agreements can be entered into to enable the traders to trade in the way that they wish.

“However, this could impact on the ability of the general public to use the Strand and particularly the community groups who use the area for fundraising. The council is keen to ensure that there is no detriment to the general public and the community organisations.

“The council will be in touch with the traders further as soon as possible to confirm a potential way forward.”

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