AL FRESCO licenses will remain free of charge for restaurants, cafes and bars in Chester city centre for the next 12 months.

The closures of Northgate Street, Eastgate Street, Bridge Street and Watergate Street to traffic until 8pm to provide a vehicle-free space for businesses has also been extended until the end of March next year.

Social distancing has reduced the capacity of many restaurants, cafe and bars, with additional tables and chairs outdoors providing them with much-needed room to cater for customers.

As businesses reopened in July, Cheshire West and Chester Council temporarily removed the charges for an al fresco licence and also simplified application process, resulting in 51 live licenses.

The Business and Planning Bill introduced new conditions for licences – taking effect from October 1 – including a new maximum charge of £100 for al fresco dining, and a measure stating that a smoke-free area must be provided.

However, the council has decided to waive the fees and continue to offer the licence free of charge until September 30, 2021, with a review to take place next summer.

A permanent condition of the licence will be to provide a smoke free area within the al fresco dining area.

Councillor Karen Shore, deputy leader and cabinet member for environment, highways and strategic transport, said: "The council introduced a simplified online application process for Alfresco dining in June to support businesses in the recovery from COVID-19.

"We removed all charges for Alfresco dining licences, and we agreed to review again following the new Business and Planning Bill for licences issued from 1 October 2020.

"The decision has been taken to waive the Government’s £100 charge and continue to offer free Alfresco licences until next autumn, whilst businesses still need to use as much space as possible to allow for social distancing."

The council’s guidance previously requested that barriers around al fresco dining areas were implemented where possible.

In accordance with the Business and Planning Bill, al fresco dining areas must have regard to the needs of disabled people.

Barriers are necessary for those who are blind or partially sighted so it is therefore a condition of the licence to provide suitable barriers around al fresco dining areas.

The changes will help to protect public health without imposing additional burden on businesses at a time when they need as much support as possible.

Businesses can already make their own non-smoking policies for outside space without the need for regulations.

For those offering al fresco during the winter the use of canopies, gazebos or awnings can be used – they should be either black or white in colour.

Small signs on the canopies are permitted and any structures must be temporary and taken in overnight.

Infrared heaters can be used as long as they have been safety tested and there is a risk assessment, however for safety reasons gas heaters are not allowed. Blankets are allowed subject to appropriate COVID-19 risk assessments.