Borough Voice – It’s time for Oxford Street to lose its addiction to Candy
The pandemic changed the West End to a far greater extent than any other part of the UK. The forced acceleration to digital over the past two years has left long-lasting changes both to our working and shopping patterns. We now need to learn the lessons from lockdown and build a durable and broad-based recovery that benefits residents, workers, and visitors alike.
Whatever the impact of new working and shopping habits, the importance of central London to the UK economy is undiminished. The Central Activities Zone (CAZ) includes over 100,000 businesses accounting for almost 8% of national gross value added (GVA) including 60% of all UK box office revenues and nearly two thirds of tourist spend. Not only that, the West End is also home to many. More than 45,000 people live within 15-minutes walk of Trafalgar Square.
As a local authority we’ve been working with CLF as well as our friends at Camden and UCL to look at scenarios for the long-term future of the CAZ. No matter what happens one thing they all have in common is the need for local authorities to safeguard the revenue streams necessary to plan strategically while funding an operational plan to mitigate the impacts.
Whatever the destination, we need to bring residents with us on the journey.
As the largest authority in the CAZ, we know we need to play a leadership role and we are investing in economic development. As the proliferation of Candy Stores has shown, the West End is too precious to be left to look after itself. It needs curating.
For our part, the new administration in Westminster is taking the fight to the gaudy merchants of tooth-rotting tat and the dirty money they represent. We’ve other plans which we hope to be revealing very soon.
Make no mistake, Oxford Street is the golden thread that runs through the West End, with such flagship stores as Selfridges, John Lewis, and Marks & Spencer still big draws. But we can’t ignore the loss of Debenhams and House of Fraser, once seemingly enduring temples of retail but now closed, victims of changing habits.
For Oxford Street to thrive, it must adapt and focus on experiences as much as merchandise, and on reinforcing brand values rather than discounts and promotions.
And that’s a big challenge. The demands of the West End recovery are too great for the central London boroughs to manage alone. We need Government to properly fund the city’s mass transit system so that people can travel to and from the West End quickly, cheaply, and reliably. And we need urgent reform of the antiquated business rates systems.
But on top of all that is the biggest challenge of all: the climate emergency.
Everyone – landowners, tenants, businesses, residents, and all levels of Government – need to work together to fight this impending disaster. Eighty per cent of CO2 emissions in Westminster are from buildings so we need to tackle this as a priority if we’re to reach our aim of a net zero city by 2040. We intend to change planning policies to favour retrofitting over demolish and rebuild. In the meantime, we have set up a retrofitting taskforce as a forum to advise the Council what we can do to help insulate the thousands of older and historic buildings in central London.
We don’t underestimate the scale of the challenge in re-building a thriving and sustainable West End. Westminster Council recognises the importance of its leadership role and is ready to act, together with our stakeholders and partners, to ensure central London remains economically powerful, environmentally sustainable and a great place to live.
Cllr Geoff Barraclough is Cabinet Member for Planning and Economic Development at Westminster City Council – 28.09.22