May I add my congratulations to the two new Members have made their maiden speeches, the hon. Members for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher) and for Sedgefield (Paul Howell)? I recall that when I made mine, I harked back to the wars of the roses, so I feel somewhat outdone by the hon. Lady’s references to the ice age.
From my conversations with local businesses over the last few weeks, it is clear that the coronavirus has affected different businesses in different ways. Many have been able to continue their services across digital channels, and to expand or diversify their offering to new and existing customers. Food and drink stores have been able to continue trading, and some have even seen sales increases, as people have had more time for shopping and cooking. Other forms of retail, such as books, music and clothing, have been able to maintain some level of sales via online shopping and delivery. I have been really impressed by the ingenuity of our business community and the way they have responded to this crisis. I have a great deal of confidence that, in this nation of shopkeepers, we will continue to respond to the challenges of the post-lockdown world.
There is one sector, however, that has been badly hit by the lockdown and continues to face enormous challenges in its ability to revive—our hospitality sector. Encompassing cafés, restaurants, pubs, events, tourism and accommodation, it exists to bring people together, to encourage contact and to promote social gathering. They are facing an existential threat from a new world that needs people to keep their distance from each other.
I cautiously welcome the Government’s moves to lift restrictions on people visiting pubs, cafés and restaurants, although, like many of my constituents, I remain anxious about how this can be achieved while maintaining social distancing guidelines. This virus remains far from beaten, and I am dismayed at the mixed messages from the Government about how people should conduct themselves in the face of what is still a major threat both to our health and to the economy. We would face the future with more confidence if we had an effective system for tracking, tracing and isolating future diagnosed infections, and the lack of such a system constitutes a major risk to the effective functioning of our whole economy.
In that context, the Liberal Democrats welcome the provisions in today’s Bill. In particular, the provisions to ease the process for cafés and restaurants to apply for permission to provide pavement seating are very much to be welcomed. It will give many businesses the flexibility they need to open back up, while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
I particularly welcome the fact that councils are to continue to play a major part in the granting of such licences. In many parts of the country and in many town centres, our hospitality businesses play a major role in the local economy. To encourage that economy, councils can play a major part in reconfiguring our town centres to enable more pavement seating—closing roads to motor traffic and introducing pedestrianised areas, for example—which can support businesses in meeting the conditions of their licences.
Can the Government confirm that they intend to include mobile catering units in their plans? Many of these micro-businesses are missing out on their regular trade at festivals this year, and would benefit from the boost to business that being able to set up in a town centre could give them. We also support the powers given to councils to vary the terms of licences.
While we are all keen to see our hospitality sector given this essential support, it does not come without costs. I really want to echo the point made by Meg Hillier, because we have seen many of the same problems in Richmond and Kingston, and it is really appalling and a huge burden on local residents. Local residents may experience additional nuisance, for example, from strong lighting and noise later in the evening, and also an increase in antisocial behaviour after closing time. Additional pavement furniture may cause accessibility issues for those in wheelchairs or those who are partially sighted. It is to be welcomed that councils will have the power to judge each application on its own merits and to apply its own acceptability criteria. It is also welcome that these changes are temporary. Short-term changes to support local business owners during this difficult time are more likely to be welcomed by our local communities than permanent changes that threaten to cause a long-term nuisance.
In the same vein, we support the changes to allow businesses with an on-site licence to convert to an off-site licence, but we have some concerns about the overall provision for off-site licences. Like many areas of the country, Richmond and Kingston have needed police interventions to disperse large crowds who have gathered on our open spaces to drink and play loud music. This has led to considerable antisocial behaviour, including drunkenness, public urination and drug taking. Local residents and police report that they have not seen antisocial behaviour on this scale before, and it is causing considerable distress to residents affected.