Sharp increases in outdoor seating licence fees could be the ‘last straw’ for some Worthing businesses, according to a group of local traders.
The Worthing Hospitality Federation has accused West Sussex County Council of delivering a ‘low blow’ by enforcing £520 licencing fees for traders with outdoor seating.
The federation’s chairman, Andy Sparsis, said the hike in charges – a 260 per cent rise per year for all businesses, regardless of size – could force businesses to rethink their position in the town.
“At a time of national crisis with the lowest footfall since 2010, the county council have said ‘lets hit the businesses’,” he said.
“Why have they decided to tax the businesses right in the middle of the summer, the worst time of the year for that? We want to know why, instead of helping us at our worst time, they are taking the legs out from under us.”
Read more about the plans here: Worthing and Adur traders facing ‘extortionate’ licence fees for outdoor seating
Mr Sparsis, who owns restaurants in the town including Food and The Fish Factory, said this year had been his most financially difficult in 20 years of trading in Worthing.
Incremental changes such as the licence increase contribute to the slow death of town centres, he said, and warned these can snowball into rapid decline if left unchecked.
He said he feared the charges could be the ‘last straw’ for some businesses and drive them out of the town centre.
The annual £520 charge for outdoor tables and chairs is a flat fee regardless of the size of each seating area, meaning small businesses with two or three tables would be forced to pay the same as businesses with larger outdoor areas.
West Sussex businesses are currently charged an initial fee of £412 for a tables and chairs licence, which then drops to £200 a year.
Town centre manager Sharon Clarke said Worthing’s identity, particularly its café culture, was critical to its survival and the measures could be damaging.
Charging all businesses the same, regardless of table numbers, was unfair, she said, and punished small, independent businesses which the county council should be nurturing.
She agreed licencing would help to manage limited space in the town centre, but said the county council’s blanket approach was flawed.
In the past Mrs Clarke has said ongoing changes to Worthing’s town centre, such as the pedestrianisation of Portland Street and linking South Street with the seafront, were designed to create a continental feel with outdoor seating to encourage visitors to stay longer in the centre.
“Businesses are struggling in the current economic climate and there is a lot of talk of a recession looming so the tables and chairs licensing at a cost of £520 a year is another cost for businesses that are already working hard to survive,” she said.
A spokesman for West Sussex County Council said ‘ongoing financial pressures’ meant a fee had to be charged to process applications and licences helped prevent an ‘unreasonable risk’ to highway users.
A letter distributed to businesses said the fee must be paid, or tables removed, within 28 days of receipt.