What is Oxford Street for? | Opinion

We’ve wondered for some time about the role of traditional bricks and mortar in relation to the rise of internet shopping, but it hasn’t seemed like an existential debate. Now I’m not so sure.

Last week, a British Retail Consortium footfall survey confirmed that the number of visitors to high streets, shopping centers and shopping parks across the UK remained stubbornly 12.5% ​​below pre-COVID-19 levels. pandemic. So is it time we started thinking bigger?

Of course, Oxford Street is about more than shopping. With Mayfair and Soho to the south and Marylebone and NoHo to the north, it is also an upscale residential and commercial powerhouse. But, if we recognize that these areas of our industry are those facing the greatest challenges, then Oxford Street and its immediate surroundings feel as if they are in the eye of the storm.

Real estate companies with large portfolios of assets across all of these sectors are looking for answers to the challenges posed by our rapidly changing and unpredictable economy and how to capitalize on the opportunities such change inevitably brings.

However, the problem with retail and shopping centres, from Oxford Street to the local main streets of our smaller regional towns, is that ownership is fractured and in tough economic times each of the owners represented in these venues will have a different notion of how to respond. So what to do with it? And whose job it is to get out of it?

It has long been the instinct of investors in our high streets and malls to collectivize and promote the places where they operate. Around Oxford Street there are a number of professional associations and organizations to do this, including the New West End Company whose website states that its mission is to ‘create value for all our members’.

In times of prosperity as in times of crisis, its mission is to provide a forum for debate and to fund support programs. It is essentially a marketing and promotional operation aimed at improving the business of its members.

When great occupiers like House of Fraser and Debenhams disappear almost overnight from buildings designed to be department stores, I think we have bigger questions to answer than just how to improve the lives of current occupants.

Its board is split 50/50 between landlords and their retail occupiers whose primary focus is, inevitably, how to grow retail. Asking these folks to debate whether Oxford Street has a long-term future as a predominantly shopping destination feels like asking the turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Is it Westminster City Council’s job to find the answer? One of the key roles of a planning authority is to envision the future and create policy that will encourage, enable and regulate its implementation. Of course, it’s a very different proposition when comparing a high street in a small town with the powerful interests at stake 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 functioning?

But, when great occupiers such as House of Fraser and Debenhams disappear almost overnight from buildings designed to be department stores, I think we have broader questions to answer than just how to improve the lives of current occupants.

Sure, there are very smart minds within Westminster City Council who are asking these questions, but do they have the political backing in every definition of that word to ask the really big existential questions?

Oxford Street is one of London’s main business districts. It is extremely important in the economic ecology of our capital

And what about the GLA? What is his job ? Oxford Street is one of London’s main business districts. This is extremely important in the economic ecology of our capital.

Is there a conversation somewhere in New City Hall that recognizes how big of a problem this could be and brings together experts in economics, business, design, finance and politics to find an answer?

And then there is the national government. I would say that the future of Oxford Street is a topic that should be high on the economic agenda, exercising the best minds in central government departments.

Paul Scully, the MP representing Sutton and Cheam, is currently Minister for London in his role as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Commercial Energy and Industrial Strategy, where he is also responsible for small business, consumers and labor markets. . He looks busy.

Given the Tory government’s relationship with the Labor Mayor of London (who will be re-elected next May) and with a new Labour-controlled Westminster City Council, hope for a truly collaborative approach to tackling big issues like that the future of Oxford Street looks like wishful thinking at best.

The same verve and ambition of the solutions that have been applied, for example, by the Treasury to the impact the lockdown has had on our economy should be applied here

Of course, the solution involves all of the above. Therefore, never has there been so much need for those who come together. Organizations like the NLA, the Center for London and Patricia Brown’s London 3.0 initiative have done great work throughout the pandemic creating forums online and, more recently, in real life where these big questions can be asked and the answers debated. But, of course, without adequate and serious funding from everyone involved, their impact can only be limited.

It seems to me that the same verve and ambition of the solutions that have been applied, for example, by the Treasury to the impact the lockdown has had on our economy should be applied here.

There have been a number of commissions set up to examine the future of London’s West End. I hesitate to suggest another unless it goes beyond current policy, but how about a major joint Government/GLA/Westminster City Council grant to fund a project to find an answer to the great question from Oxford Street?

Bids are welcome from all these organizing organizations, on the sole condition that they cannot be won by any single interest group: we need appropriate collective reflection.

Jennifer C. Burleigh