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Risks of al fresco dining

Pavement catering facilities are a standard feature in most European cities, especially those that attract a large number of tourists. Malta is no exception as outdoor catering establishments are mushrooming in most parts of the island. But al fresco dining comes with significant risks, some which are not being assessed well enough by regulatory bodies like Transport Malta and the Planning Authority.

The mayor of Gżira aired his concerns about the risks to road users including those who decide to dine at tables adjacent to busy roads. The Association of Catering Establishments objected to his justified concerns and said that in a democratic country people are free to stay indoors and outdoors irrespective of what others may think of the area.

Late last year, the Ombudsman raised the confusion and the laissez-faire attitude that planning regulators are adopting when catering operators decide to set up pavement cafes and restaurants on the public footway. He commented in his case notes that illegal extensions by food and beverages outlets on The Strand in Sliema were sanctioned by “legally-acceptable administrative and executive procedures” encouraging other operators to do the same.

Legal and illegal encroachments on pavements and public parking areas are multiplying almost in every town and village. It is clear there is no political will to assign sanctioning and enforcement responsibilities to one regulator, thus exposing the public to unnecessary risks and inconveniences.

Most European cities have clear guidelines that determine how and when they will grant permits to catering operators to set up dining facilities on pavements and other areas accessible to the public. Most refuse to give licences to establishments that are planned to be sited near dangerously busy adjacent roads or that cause distraction to motorists. A location with a particularly intensive pedestrian volume is also considered as a no-go area for outdoor catering establishments.

The issue of pavement catering establishments involves various entities including the Planning Authority, Transport Malta, the Malta Tourism Authority, the Government Property Department and local councils. Some councils have expressed concern about the lack of ownership of the duty of care to the public by these various regulators. Most so-called regulators prefer to turn a blind eye.

How robust, for instance, is the risk assessment that should be mandatory before a pavement catering permit is issued by the Planning Authority? In winter, some of these establishments provide outdoor heating using gas heaters. What health and safety measures are imposed on operators in case a fire accident takes place in such establishments? How are diners and other users of these establishments protected from freak accidents that could be caused by reckless drivers on roads adjacent to these outdoor facilities? What insurance covers are operators obliged to have to cover the operational risks?

Noise and light pollution are another inconvenience that neighbours living next to these establishments have to endure. Many of these pavement facilities have fixed structures that are often not only aesthetically ugly but cause an obstruction to wheelchair users, people using pushchairs and the elderly and visually impaired who have to use the public footway.

It is time to act to put some orderin the licensing of pavement catering establishments.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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