Footfall is still down, so some radical new thinking is needed to save one of the UK’s most iconic streets, writes Martyn Evans
We have been questioning the role of traditional bricks and mortar in relation to the rise in internet shopping for some time, but it has not felt like an existential debate. Now, I am not so sure.
Last week, a British Retail Consortium footfall survey confirmed that visitor numbers to the UK’s high streets, shopping centres and retail parks are staying stubbornly 12.5% down on pre-pandemic levels. So is it time that we started to think bigger?
Of course, Oxford Street is about so much more than the shopping. With Mayfair and Soho to the south and Marylebone and NoHo to the north, it is also an upscale residential and commercial office powerhouse. But, if we acknowledge that those sectors in our industry are the ones facing the biggest challenges, then Oxford Street and its immediate surroundings feel like they are in the eye of the storm.
Property companies with significant asset portfolios in all these sectors are looking for answers to the challenges posed by our fast-changing and unpredictable economy and how to take advantage of the opportunities that such change inevitably brings.
The problem with retail and commercial centres from Oxford Street down to local high streets in our smaller regional towns, though, is that ownership is fractured and, in tough economic times, every one of the owners represented in these places will have a different notion of how to respond. So, what is to be done about it? And whose job is it to work it out?
It has long been the instinct of investors in our high streets and commercial centres to collectivise and promote the places where they operate. Around Oxford Street there are any number of trade associations and organisations existing to do this, not least the New West End Company whose website states that its mission is “to create value for all our members”.
In good times and in downturns, its mission is to provide a forum for debate and to fund support programmes – it is essentially a marketing and promotional operation designed to improve the business of its members.
When large occupiers such as House of Fraser and Debenhams disappear almost overnight from buildings designed to be department stores, I think we have larger questions to answer than just how to improve life for the current occupiers
Its board is split 50:50 between property owners and their retail occupiers whose key focus is, inevitably, how to increase retail trade. Asking those folks to debate whether Oxford Street has a long-term future as a predominantly retail destination feels to me like asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.
Is it Westminster City Council’s job to work out the answer? One of the key roles of a planning authority is to imagine the future and to create policy that will encourage, enable and regulate its delivery. Of course, that is a very different proposition when comparing a high street in a small town with the powerful interests at play somewhere like Oxford Street.
There have been many visions for Oxford Street and its surrounding roads. Should it be traffic-free? Where should the buses go? How could better and more beautiful landscaping improve its operation?
But, when large occupiers such as House of Fraser and Debenhams disappear almost overnight from buildings designed to be department stores, I think we have larger questions to answer than just how to improve life for the current occupiers.
Of course, there are very clever minds inside Westminster City Council asking these questions, but do they have the political support in every definition of that word to ask the very big existential questions?
Oxford Street is one of London’s key economic areas. It is hugely important in our capital’s economic ecology
And what of the GLA? What is its job? Oxford Street is one of London’s key economic areas. It is hugely important in our capital’s economic ecology.
Is there a conversation happening somewhere in the new City Hall that recognises how big a problem this could be and brings together economics, business, design, financial and political expertise to find an answer?
And then there is national government. I would argue that the future of Oxford Street is a subject that should be high up the economic agenda, exercising the best minds in central government departments.
Paul Scully, the MP who represents Sutton and Cheam, is currently the minister for London in his role as parliamentary under-secretary of state in the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, where he is also responsible for small business, consumers and labour markets. He sounds busy.
Given the Conservative government’s relationship with London’s Labour mayor (up for re-election next May) and with a newly Labour-controlled Westminster City Council, hope for a truly collaborative approach to solving big problems such as the future of Oxford Street feels at best like wishful thinking.
The same verve and ambition of solutions that were applied, for instance, by the Treasury to the impact that lockdown had on our economy should be applied here
Of course, the solution involves all of the above. Consequently, never has there been a greater need for those who convene. Organisations like the NLA, the Centre for London and Patricia Brown’s London 3.0 initiative have been doing great work through the pandemic creating online and, more recently, in-real-life forums where these big questions can be asked, and answers debated. But, of course, without proper and serious funding from everyone involved, their impact can only be limited.
It feels to me like the same verve and ambition of solutions that were applied, for instance, by the Treasury to the impact that lockdown had on our economy should be applied here.
There have been any number of commissions set up to look at a future for the West End of London. I hesitate to suggest another unless it moves beyond current politics, but how about a significant joint government/GLA/Westminster City Council grant to fund a project to find an answer to the Great Oxford Street Question?
Bids are welcome from any of those convening organisations, with the only proviso being that it cannot be won by any single-interest group: we need proper collective thinking.
Martyn Evans is creative director of U&I