Sponsor segment – Changing streetscapes in towns and cities

Wednesday 7 April 2021

The Prime Minister has confirmed the next stage of relaxing COVID-19 restrictions in England happens on 12 April. Many of us will be happy to get a haircut, visit a non-essential shop or drink in a pub garden.

Given the very limited opportunities there were to trade in 2020, and a permanent increase in home working, councils are keen to encourage people back into town centres.

Unfortunately, only 40% of licensed venues have their own permanent outside space to allow them to take advantage of the changes in rules. Those businesses without outside space will be unable to trade until mid-May, when indoor service is due to resume.

One solution being embraced across the country is to allow the space in front of venues to be used for dining and drinking. Many towns and cities are implementing temporary road closures, widening pavements or adopting other measures to cope with predicted pent-up demand.

Manchester City Council has waived fees and simplified licensing requirements for outdoor seating. Westminster is using a combination of timed road closures and pavement widening in 60 streets to facilitate outdoor dining.

Some authorities are further ahead in their proposals for managing city centres post-pandemic. Bristol announced plans in May 2020 to pedestrianise a large area of the city centre, coupled with pavement widening and improving cycle routes.

By taking advantage of reductions in traffic and people brought about by COVID-19, Bristol City Council aims to develop a city centre better able to deal with the 21st century challenges of social inequality, social mobility, climate change and the environment.

In London, Transport for London have developed their Streetspace for London plan to address concerns, ranging from emergency vehicles being stuck in traffic, to the impact on deliveries and the increase in air pollution. To mitigate this an extra 1,500 cycle parking spaces have been installed. Since May 2020 more than 60km of new and improved cycle lanes have been introduced and 22,500m2 of road space reallocated to pedestrians.

While this is all good news for diners and drinkers, pedestrians and bike riders, and of course residents, it presents additional risks.

Councils need to consider that expanding seating outside premises is likely to restrict the normal movement of pedestrians, particularly those with restricted mobility or disabilities.

It is important that the impact of such changes on visually or mobility impaired people be considered when licenses are approved. There should be a recognisable ‘path’ through what might become a very congested area.

Consider also how these areas are managed from a general safety perspective, particularly where roads are still in use by vehicles.

Some UK cities have suffered vehicle-as-a-weapon attacks. The risks of large numbers of people in a confined area is not new but the drive to encourage footfall back to city and town centres should not come at the expense of considering security issues. Councils should engage with the police to determine proportionate protective measures when considering new streetscapes.

Councils also need to think about how emergency services will manage when changes are made to road layouts or road closures. Also, what are the additional risks when access is required to an area with larger numbers of people than usual?

Access will also be required for deliveries and council functions such as street sweeping and rubbish collection. More bins may need to be provided and emptied more frequently, due to an increase of people on the streets.  

Another concern is fire safety. The Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005 applies to all non-domestic premises – including any building, tent or moveable structure. Where new structures have been erected to facilitate outdoor dining, the fire risk assessment should be reviewed. This should take into account changes due to social distancing and other COVID-19 related modifications.

The Government has published a guidance document COVID-19 Secure: Safer Public Places – Urban Centres and Green Spaces which is updated regularly and deals with some of these issues.

For all the risks that changing town and city centres might involve, it will bring opportunities for councils to develop vibrant, more inclusive spaces. It will also bring continental café culture to our urban streets. Cheers!

Joanne Seaward (joanne.seaward@rmpartners.co.uk) is Projects Director at Risk Management Partners.

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