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What Oxford Street needs now

Drapers ask retailers what should be done to future-proof Europe’s busiest shopping street following the scrapping of plans to pedestrianise it and delays to Crossrail.

One of the world’s most famous shopping destinations, London’s Oxford Street, attracts 100 million visitors each year, 30% of whom are international. Yet it is agreed by the stakeholders and consumers alike, that it needs an upgrade to enable it to continue to attract the best retailers and improve the shopping experience. 

In November 2017, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced plans to pedestrianise the half-mile section Oxford Street between Oxford Circus and Orchard Street to reduce air pollution, boost footfall and meet the needs of changing shopping behaviour. The removal of vehicular traffic was to have started in December 2018 to coincide with the scheduled opening of the new east-west Elizabeth Line (formerly known as Crossrail) rail service, which includes Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road stations.

The plans were supported by 64% of the public in online consultation that received more than 22,000 responses. 

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Long wait: the Bond Street Elizabeth Line station will be delayed by nine months

Despite widespread popularity with shoppers and stakeholders, Westminster City Council scrapped the plans in June, declaring “the majority of residents” were against the proposals, and that they were “off the table for good”. 

Instead, at a July cabinet meeting the council agreed to start work immediately on detailed plans for the area, spanning the length of the street from Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch, ahead of a public consultation in November. The “Place Based Strategy” aims to “enhance the rich heritage of this historic area with complementary changes in planning policy to enable greater diversity that will bring new vibrancy, new life and sustainable economic growth with innovative retail experiences at the core of the offer”. 

Nickie Aiken, leader of Westminster City Council, says: “Our exciting vision and the plans for the Oxford Street district will give residents and businesses the certainty they want and will improve and future proof Oxford Street for many generations to come. Our fresh scheme will respond to safety issues related to the opening of the Elizabeth Line and ensure Oxford Street retains its status as the nation’s high street in a rapidly evolving retail environment and is renowned as a must visit destination by visitors from London, the UK and overseas.”

“The West End – with Oxford Street at its heart – is of national significance, punching far above its weight in terms creating jobs and contributing to the UK economy,” says Heidi Alexander, deputy mayor, transport. “But, to continue to thrive, Oxford Street must keep up with the massive changes in how retail works and how people want to shop.”

In a further blow to the prosperity of the area, last week Transport for London admitted the Elizabeth Line would not be completed until autumn 2019 – nine months later than scheduled.

Drapers consults some of the key retail stakeholders on Britain’s best shopping street to find out what they think should be done for it to maintain its pre-eminence.

Walking the walk

Retailers and property owners in the area still believe pedestrianisation is the best way to improve the shopping environment.

“Pedestrianisation of Oxford Street would elevate the shopping experience and attract more foot traffic into the area,” says Francisco Lopes, director direct to consumer EMEA region for New Balance, which has its London flagship at 287-291 Oxford Street. “It would also provide the stage to create the ‘drama’ and theatre that Oxford Street is currently lacking.”

Jonathan De Mello, head of retail consultancy, Harper Dennis Hobbs, agrees: “Retailers are missing out on a lot of revenue they could have benefited from if the street was pedestrianised, because the region would be a more pleasant place, and therefore dwell time and likely spend would have increased. It is sad because it was scrapped because a handful of people rather than the huge majority.”

Another key concern for retailers is accessibility. The New West End Company, which represents retailers and property owners in the area, predicts the Elizabeth Line – formerly known as Crossrail – will bring in additional 1.5 million people per year, and increase turnover to £13bn in 2021 from £8.8bn in 2014.

Lopes says Crossrail will be “a major catalyst, bringing with it a significant increase in footfall, particularly, from Bond Street station”. 

Westminster City Council is currently working on “a new Oxford Street safety scheme” alongside the Place Based Strategy, that will start to be implemented next month and be completed in 2021.  

Cost constraints

The biggest issue, however, is property costs in the area. Rising rents and business rates remain a huge challenge.

“Oxford Street is a very expensive place to trade, there is a danger that it will become too expensive and reduce margin for operators,” warns the managing director of one footwear multiple.

De Mello claims the “property cost burden” is a deterrent for fashion retailers wanting to operate on Oxford Street, adding that the rise in business rates following last year’s revaluation has greatly impacted retailers operating in the area.

“To justify the sheer costs of trading, the footfall conversion must be high. Local authorities could improve the situation if they reduced business rates, which are exorbitant now, especially in the West End.”

Liz Hardy, Debenhams Oxford Street assistant manager, agrees: “A reduction in business rates and the relaxation of planning to allow other uses apart from retail would really help the area.”

Oxford Street has long been a prestigious shopping destination with the advantage of a global audience. But against the tide of rising property and operational costs, changing consumer trends and move to digital, retailers in the area are calling for changes to ease the property cost burden and aid customer experience. As the government, local authorities and industry bodies debate over the area, a decision is needed – and fast – to ensure Oxford Street remains a desirable a location in the future. 

Readers' comments (1)

  • The Mayor's proposal was exciting, thought through, and supported. The Council is listening more acutely to residents who pay (comparatively low) domestic rates but who have a vote, as opposed to businesses who pay disproportionate business rates and have no vote.

    Stagnation is the result, and a street that should be the best shopping destination in the world remains a dirty, polluted, crowded embarrassment.

    Come on Westminster! Mine the depths of your imagination and come up fast with a solution, or support the Mayor's.

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