Photo by Caroline Brady

It’s a question Dublin City Council is grappling with, an issue the Restaurant Association of Ireland (RAI) is lobbying hard about, and it could affect whether you get to eat in the sunshine: how much should restaurants pay to put tables and chairs on footpaths?

At the moment, the rates are too high, argues Adrian Cummins, chief executive of the RAI.

There’s a flat-rate “table and chairs” license fee of €100. Plus, an annual fee per table of €125. And an annual space charge that depends on the zone you fall into, but ranges from €200 to €500 per square metre.

The council made €451,619 last year from what Cummins calls the “sunshine tax” on outdoor seating for restarants and cafés, €325,000 of which was taken in from Dublin 2 alone. The cost of enforcing the tax is just €150,000, while the council makes a “profit” of €301,619, Cummins says.

“I haven’t seen any pro-business policies over the recession, particularly for restaurants. The council seems to think there is a never-ending tap of money,” he says.

It’s not hard to find restaurant owners who agree, and pile on with more gripes.

The tax is too high and restrictive, argues May Frisby, owner of Pasta Fresca on Chatham Street, which lies just off Grafton Street. Not only do you have to pay a lot, you have to take in the furniture at night and aren’t allowed an outdoor room or to put a roof over the terrace.

As she sees it, there’s a double charge. “We pay per square footage and we pay for the tables we put on it. If we pay the square footage, we should be able to use as many or as few tables as we like. We’re paying twice for the same thing,” she says.

There’s also the fact that it’s an annual license fee. “You have to buy a licence for 12 months of the year, when it is raining for 10 months of the year,” says Frisby. “We want a café society, but this isn’t the south of France. We get very little usage.”

Pedestrians vs Diners

As the council spins the fees, though, it’s all about trying to make sure the pavements are clear for pedestrians. They should be the priorty and pavements should only be used for retail in exceptional purposes, said council spokesman Paul Finan. Any money made is invested in Dublin’s roads, he added.

“These footpath spaces are generally located in city-centre high-footfall areas, so their earning potential is quite substantial. In these areas, the building rental values are amongst the highest in Ireland and, in effect, retailers are getting access to additional floor space at quite a modest cost,” says Finan.

He also points out that restauranteurs do not have to pay this tax; they apply when they want to use outdoor seating.

Dublin city councillors are looking at these charges as part of a working group on the city’s dining. The RAI plans to put forward proposals for a 70-percent reduction in these rates. The head of the working group, Fianna Fail Councillor Paul McAuliffe, hopes to bring proposals to the council in September, but he is yet to meet officials.

The council “is very slow on engaging”, says Cummins. In the meantime, he’s working to strengthen his hand and prove the status quo is unfair. By month’s end, he hopes to have research to show benchmark figures for this tax in Europe and across Ireland.

Add that to the data he already has: the average cost of this tax in Dublin City Council areas is €2,000, while Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown cafés pay just €300 on average, he says. “It’s not a level playing field.”

Should restaurants and cafés pay less for outdoor seating?

Yes, give them a break. We need more outdoor seating. No, pavements are for pedestrians and businesses should pay for the space.

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