Dave Hill: Westminster’s new Oxford Street plan had better be good

by Dave Hill

For half a century London’s planners and politicians have been trying and largely failing to solve the problems of Oxford Street, the most famous retail avenue in the world. In 1971, a study commissioned by Westminster Council identified a tension between rising pedestrian use and growing traffic flow that was addressed but did not go away. The initiative was spurred by Colin Buchanan’s 1963 description of Oxford Street as “a travesty of conditions as they ought to be in a great capital city”, a verdict that has stood the test of time miserably well.

No wonder the recent decision of today’s Westminster Council to pull the plug on a pedestrianisation plan it had spent two years drawing up in partnership with Transport for London (TfL), Sadiq Khan’s transport deputy, major retailers and local community organisations has caused such anger and despair.

Khan and TfL say they’ve invested £8m and been involved in many dozens of meetings to develop the scheme, only for Westminster’s Conservative leadership to make known shortly before May’s borough elections that they would be bailing out. Labour’s campaign challenge, especially in the West End, is widely believed to have influenced the move, which was unilaterally declared, adding to the annoyance the Mayor.

Having created this mess it is now down to Westminster’s Tories to clear it up. If a tweet by Tony Devenish, the London Assembly Member for the area and a Westminster councillor for Knightsbridge & Belgravia, is any guide, we shouldn’t get our hopes up. According to him, Khan “admitted” at Thursday’s Mayor’s Question Time that £8m of TfL money has been wasted on “his dodgy plans for Oxford Street” – a quite breathtaking denial of Westminster’s own close involvement in devising those plans and the casual way it used its power as the street’s highway authority to pull the plug on them out of what looked very much like an electoral blue funk.

The comments by Khan that Devenish misrepresented came in answer to questions by Liberal Democrat AM Caroline Pidgeon, a strong supporter of taking road traffic out of the Oxford Street area. Khan was candid about his anger with Westminster, saying that contact with its relatively new leader Nickie Aitken had been restricted to written correspondence due to a feeling at City Hall and TfL that there is “lack of goodwill” on Westminster’s part and that “it’s clear you can’t put too much weight on what politicians and officers from that council say”.

His conclusion? “The ball’s in their court now.” He is right. Having jettisoned the plans it had been central to devising since mid-2016, Westminster has published a schedule for producing its own “place based” alternative to that pedestrianisation programme. But while Khan has seen to it that the council must proceed without £400,000 of TfL money it initially earmarked for the work, that doesn’t mean his influence on Westminster is curtailed. Whatever Aitken and her colleagues decide they want to do, delivering it will be impossible without the Mayor, TfL and others coming on board.

Pidgeon also pressed the Mayor about other levers he might pull to get Westminster to co-operate. Had he looked at the scope of his powers under the GLA Act to take control of Oxford Street from Westminster or to use a mayoral direction to make the council meet the requirements of his transport strategy? Pidgeon pointed out the latter document’s clear commitment to transforming Oxford Street and its environs to the benefit of walkers and cyclists too. If Westminster’s strategy doesn’t match up to that ambition, could he force the issue? Khan replied that, pending the council’s next moves, “we’re considering all options.”

Taking Oxford Street under mayoral control would not be quick or straightforward, but Westminster’s Tories should remain mindful of the Mayor’s desire to fulfil his manifesto pledge to work with others, including them, to “pedestrianise Oxford Street”. Doing so would be a hallmark first term achievement – perhaps, given his difficulties in other policy areas, the biggest and best that he could claim. If successful, it would also be a blessing for London and its economy, not to mention that of Brexit Britain.

Mayor Khan does not lack muscle where Oxford Street is concerned. Should he end up using it to push Westminster around, Aitken’s administration will only have itself to blame. It says its strategy will be produced by the autumn. It had better be good.

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