COVID-19: mobile caterers and street trading

The Local Government Association (LGA) has been approached by the National Caterers Association (NCASS) asking for councils to take a flexible approach regarding the operation of mobile caterers, many of whom fall outside the scope of various business support schemes established by the Government.

While a small proportion of NCASS’s members operate from fixed pitches for which they hold street trading licence, the vast majority usually operate at seasonal festivals and events which have now been cancelled.

To preserve their businesses and livelihoods, many of these caterers are now looking to operate within or near to the areas where they are resident, to serve both the public and those involved in the emergency response. NCASS is on the NHS procurement list for catering provision during COVID-19 in England and some of its members have been asked to provide a food service for hospitals and resilience teams, with requests being made on a regular basis.

Clearly, councils will want to avoid any unregistered food businesses setting up operations, as well as being assured that any pre-registered food businesses newly operating in their area has the appropriate food and safety measures and registrations in place. NCASS have advised that they have an online platform called Connect which can help provide this information to councils.

Councils will also want to be assured that food businesses are following social distancing measures, and are not operating in a way that encourages people to congregate. Many councils have advised that operating delivery and takeaway services through pre-orders only, defined as operating as a ‘roundsman’ under street trading legislation and outside the scope of the requirements, would be a sensible route for these food businesses to take to help ensure this.

We are aware that in some areas there have been tensions between food businesses that normally operate in the local area, and mobile caterers seeking to do so as a result of the COVID-19 emergency, which is something that councils will clearly need to balance. We have advised NCASS that the most important thing that their members can do is to engage with the relevant council about how they are seeking to operate and where from. Pragmatic steps that councils could take if it is possible to do so include:

  • Consideration of when and where street trading licences are required and what flexibilities there may be around this, including:
    • what may constitute operating from private land [1], particularly where the business is there at the request of the owner, and
    • whether existing licence holders could temporarily switch their locations.
  • The option of short-term licences or approvals.
  • Expedited consideration of applications for licences where these are required.

On the issue of fees for relevant licences, the LGA’s broader licensing guidance sets out some of the approaches councils are taking. While it is unlikley to be possible to offer refunds or waive fees entirely, there may be scope for councils to consider extending the length of existing licences where a business with a street trading licence has been unable to trade for a period during the COVID-19 emergency: however, this will be for each individual council to determine based on local circumstances.

[1] Whilst acknowledging the principles set out in case law (West Berkshire DC v Paine [2009] EWHC 422 (Admin))