- Deputy mayor says Westminster decision “selfish and devastating”
- New plan needed before opening of Elizabeth line in December
- Fears for future of “nation’s high street” as shoppers move online
London’s new deputy mayor for transport has called Westminster council “hugely selfish” for abandoning plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street.
Heidi Alexander, who is in her first month in the job, said it was “devastating and disappointing” that in June the council reneged on plans costing millions of pounds to develop London’s flagship shopping street.
The former MP’s comments came as her boss, London mayor Sadiq Khan, banned Westminster council from using any funds from Transport for London, the city’s transport authority, to develop another strategy without his approval — fuelling an acrimonious row over what Ms Alexander called “the nation’s high street”.
Oxford Street is Britain’s best-known shopping artery, with £5bn annual turnover, according to the New West End Company, which represents 600 local businesses.
Pollution and crowding plague Oxford Street
A popular tourist destination, it is visited by 200m people a year. It is also a main east-west route for buses and black cabs, and regularly breaches air pollution limits. The opening in December of the new £15bn Elizabeth rail line, which runs under the road, will add another 60m people to the crowds each year from 2020, and was the impetus for change.
The plan would have fully pedestrianised Oxford Street from Orchard Street, by Selfridges department store, past Bond Street to Oxford Circus, with buses diverted to the north. Cyclists would have had to dismount along the stretch. Pedestrians could have enjoyed new seating and an “800m-long piece of public art”.
However, Westminster council said it did not have local support for the scheme. Instead, it published a report last week proposing to spend £327,000 of its own funds and £400,000 of TfL money on new plans for safety and streetscaping on Oxford Street.
Mr Khan, who pledged to pedestrianise Oxford Street in his election manifesto, has described Westminster’s decision as “a betrayal” of millions of Londoners and tourists. In a letter to council leader Nickie Aiken, he wrote: “Your decision has torn up our joint plan to deliver this vision and leaves real uncertainty about what will replace it.”
But while Mr Khan has the support of a citywide constituency, Westminster council has faced opposition from residents living on roads adjacent to Oxford Street that would have been filled with diverted buses and taxis.
Residents oppose vehicle ban
Ms Aiken said: “It was clear through two public consultations and recent council elections that local people do not support the pedestrianisation proposals.”
TfL’s second consultation, published in March, which drew 22,000 responses, reflected this tension: 56 per cent of Londoners outside Westminster were in favour of pedestrianisation, but 61 per cent of Westminster residents were opposed. The most common concern cited by respondents was that the plan would increase congestion in neighbouring areas. Access for elderly and disabled people was also an issue.
TfL had earmarked £60m for the pedestrianisation and is reconsidering how it will spend that money. If it decides that Westminster’s new plan is not suitable, it could cut the amount it contributes, potentially leaving the council to pick up the difference.
In its report, which will be considered by the council’s cabinet on July 9, Westminster said it would carry out safety works before the Elizabeth line opens, and would put a “place-based strategy” for the broader reshaping of Oxford Street out to public consultation in November 2018.
When asked whether Mr Khan’s withholding of the £400,000 would delay this, Westminster councillor Richard Beddoe said: “Finding the funding is not the issue here, but bringing forward the right scheme for Oxford Street district is.”
Retailers struggle as online shopping grows
Craig McWilliam, chief executive of Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, which manages the Duke of Westminster’s property holdings, which are bounded by Oxford Street, said Westminster and the mayor “understand the time pressure” of the Elizabeth line’s opening. “It’s now Westminster’s job to show the [Greater London Authority] what a transformation means,” he added.
The row over pedestrianisation is part of a broader debate over the future of Oxford Street as growing numbers of consumers shop online and bricks-and-mortar retailers struggle to adjust to the change. Department store House of Fraser is closing its flagship branch on Oxford Street and other stalwarts, including John Lewis and Debenhams, have seen their profits plummet. Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of the New West End Company, said there is a “need to integrate online and in-store”.
On a recent afternoon, shoppers braving the crowded pavements and billowing exhaust fumes on Oxford Street appeared unconcerned that plans for pedestrianisation had fallen through.
Bonney, who works at a mobile phone retailer, said banning vehicles would not make much difference to businesses. “Unless you’re going to stop online shopping, it’s not going to make more people come down here,” he said.
Oscar, at one of Selfridges’ perfume concessions, said banning vehicles could deter his chauffeur-driven customers. “They pull up at the side of the store and they come and spend money,” he said.