Pavement table tax plans axed

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A TABLE tax which would see cafes and restaurants charged for outside seating areas has been scrapped.

A report seeking to charge more than £600 in one-off fees, and a £200 annual charge for tables and chairs outside businesses was rejected by a county council scrutiny committee on Monday.

Councillors on Northumberland County Council’s economic prosperity and strategic services overview and scrutiny committee asked the Executive to defer and re-write a report on the policy.

Chairman of the committee, Coun Gordon Castle said: “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. We should be trying to encourage and nurture business, not stifle it.”

The proposed policy would require businesses to pay a one-off registration fee of £300 followed by an annual charge of £200. There would also be a requirement to pay a retrospective planning change of use application fee of £335.

Members of the committee were concerned about the effect on small businesses in market towns where trading conditions were fragile.

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

Moreover, there was no obvious need for annual renewals and many of the detailed requirements of the policy seemed excessively bureaucratic.

Members generally agreed that some form of control was necessary but were unconvinced that this was the way to tackle it.

A much lighter touch would be preferred, where any charges were related to the actual cost of administering applications, which should be quite modest.

Additionally, it seemed 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.

A letter from Alnwick Chamber of Trade was read out which pointed out that the charges would hit small cafes 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 summer months for weak winter trade. The effect in all likelihood would be to discourage outside tables and depress visitor numbers even further.

The Executive has deferred the policy until February 6, 2012 because of the scrutiny committee’s decision.