Introducing order into the jungle of tables and chairs

Lack of action, platitudes and grandstanding will no longer cut it for a public frayed at its edges by the authorities’ disinterest in enforcing regulations

Malta’s climate makes it ideal for outdoor dining practically all year round. Outside dining gives character to a place and enables people to come together in public spaces.

The controversy surrounding restaurant tables and chairs placed in public squares and on pavements is not about the practice itself but about the lack of respect shown by some restaurateurs towards the public. Indeed, it is an issue of greed, lack of enforcement and overlapping competencies by public authorities.

The crux of the problem seems to be that the system is efficient enough to grant restaurants concessions for use of public spaces but falters when it comes to who should police these concessions. Nobody in government seems responsible for the mayhem that results when restaurants put out more tables than allowed, or obstruct public passages, or in some cases put out tables when they have no permit to do so.

Reporting abuse is futile because those filing a report get passed around from one entity to another, each claiming they are not responsible for enforcement. Unless this conundrum is solved the situation will simply get worse because abusers would be receiving the message that they can do as they please.

Unfortunately, the political will has been lacking for far too long. Concessions on public land should be regulated by the Lands Authority. It should set the conditions and delimit the area that can be used whenever a restaurant or bar seeks permission to set table and chairs in a public space. Additionally, the authority should also lay down what type of furniture, including umbrellas or tents, restaurants will be able to use for outside dining areas.

Having some visual uniformity helps reduce clutter and a sense of haphazardness.

Enforcement action should be the responsibility of one entity, which however should have the power of issuing fines or charging people for breach of concession terms.

To make enforcement easier, the area granted on concession should be clearly delineated by metal plaques and the restaurant should be obliged to have the official map stamped by the Lands Authority identifying the concession area, in full view. These two practical measures will ensure that inspectors called in to investigate reports of abuse or carrying out spot checks can have immediate visual reference of the area granted on concession. Failure to have the map on site should incur a hefty fine. Additionally, repeat abusers should have their concession permit withdrawn.

The authorities cannot simply look the other side and allow the rules of the jungle to take root because as much as outside dining is an experience many appreciate, it is also causing consternation in several communities.

The latest public outcry happened in St George’s Square in Rabat, Gozo. The square has literally been taken over by large umbrellas, tables and chairs, creating a nuisance for people who want to access the parish church, or simply enjoy the pjazza. It is literally a jungle.

Another area where mayhem persists is the stretch of pavement along the promenade between Gzira and Sliema where tables and chairs have unashamedly restricted the width of the public passage on the pavement.

The government and its authorities must inject a dose of discipline by ensuring enforcement is not only carried out but is also effective as a deterrent. Restaurant and bar owners must realise that the public space they are occupying is not theirs by right. It is a public concession to enable their business to flourish and thus should not be abused for whatever reason. They must also be made to pay for the privilege.

We expect the government to tackle this issue head on by setting out a concrete plan of action and its eventual implementation. In the process, local councils should also be roped in for their recommendations.

Lack of action, platitudes and grandstanding will no longer cut it for a public frayed at its edges by the authorities’ disinterest in enforcing regulations.