Oxford Street pedestrianisation debacle shows that Nimbys have more power than the Mayor

by Dave Hill

Westminster Council’s decision to dump plans for the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street following two years of painstaking consensus-building designed to finally rescue the capital’s premier shopping street from polluted, congested decline has exposed with depressing clarity how the power of parochial and local political interests can make that of the capital’s elected leader, backed by one of the largest personal mandates in the world, look very small.

Until the recent borough elections drew near, a goal that has eluded Sadiq Khan’s two predecessors as London Mayor appeared to at last be within reach. This has never been just a matter of banning motor vehicles and putting a few plant pots down. Far from it. The potential knock-on traffic effects are daunting, and such a massive alteration to the spinal avenue of the West End requires the reconciliation of an array of competing interests, the weighing of a range of sometimes conflicting priorities and an alignment of political wills resilient enough to overcome remaining objections.

In the end, it is the latter that has failed. The pre-election departure of Robert Davis as Westminster’s deputy leader following hostile media focus on his copious acceptance of property trade hospitality had the unfortunate effect of depriving the pedestrianisation project of one of its more influential advocates. Wider tensions over the speed and effects of the development of the West End became a big campaign theme. Westminster made known before election day that they were going to halt the scheme, though that didn’t prevent Labour winning a seat in the barely marginal West End ward for the first time and coming close to winning more.

The party locally, seeking to tap in to a more general opposition among residents to the prospect of changes they think will damage local character and lessen quality of life, had declared itself opposed to the Labour Mayor’s plans. The four seats they took from the Tories on 3 May, were nothing like enough for a majority, but they gained enough ground in enough wards to make the ruling powers fret about the future. “In the recent council elections, local people essentially rejected pedestrianisation through the ballot box,” says Westminster’s still relatively new leader Nickie Aitken. Neighbourhood pressure groups have been implacable, conservative and Conservative, opponents of pedestrianisation for decades. Once again, this time with encouragement from Labour, they have got their way.

Aitken nonetheless insists that “doing nothing is not an option”, but what worthwhile alternative might she now propose? The scheme she has scuppered, pieced together by Transport for London, business groups, the now former deputy mayor for transport Val Shawcross and Westminster itself, had much to recommend it, combining the huge potential benefits of humanising the street with a more general rationalisation of bus services to and through the area. The vision was of a slow-paced, accommodating linear space, liberated from motor vehicles and rightly free of cycle tracks too.

With the Crossrail Elizabeth Line due to open at the end of this year, many more people are soon to be disgorged onto Oxford Street’s often impossibly overcrowded pavements. This huge impending shift in the ecology of the West End, an area that accounts for three per cent of the United Kingdom’s economic output, had heavily underlined the need for the fundamental change to Oxford Street that is so obviously required. Now, it’s back to the drawing board.

What can the Mayor do? Writing in the Guardian, experienced transport journalist  and erstwhile Labour mayoral hopeful Christian Wolmar berates Khan for not demonstrating enough commitment to pushing ahead with the scheme. He makes an unfavourable comparison with Boris Johnson’s imposition of “cycle  superhighways”. Leaving aside the heretic question of whether Johnson’s bicycle  infrastructure has actually achieved its aims, Wolmar’s critique does not mention that Oxford Street is not part of TfL’s road network and therefore not Khan’s to control – it’s Westminster’s road, so any changes to its design are Westminster’s alone to sanction.

Westminster Tories have made it clear that no scheme will be acceptable to them unless it is acceptable to those Westminster residents to whose wishes they defer. Labour’s stance during the election looked identical. Meanwhile, the Labour Mayor of this city, theoretically elected to take big, strategic decisions about London’s future, can do little but ask Westminster’s Tories if they would mind letting him play some periforal part in their next round of neighbourhood deliberations. Local opinion about big planning decisions matters, but what the capital is stuck with now regarding Oxford Street looks very much like a case of government by nervous Conservatives and Nimbys. Can that really be what is best for London?

4 Comments

  1. I have to disagree with the analysis of the results from the recent elections, apart from West End ward Labour’s gains were in wards where pedestrianisation of Oxford Street would have little effect.

    The other three wards in the surrounding area – Bryanston & Dorset Square, Hyde Park and Marylebone High Street – were virtually unchanged from four years ago with the Conservatives retaining all three seats in each ward with comfortable majorities.

    Rather than local people rejecting “pedestrianisation through the ballot box” this is clearly an excuse for the Westminster Tories to block a proposal by a Labour Mayor for political purposes.

    • Completely agree. Excellent analysis by DH, but the voting is an excuse for WCC that doesn’t bear scrutiny.

      The single-issue party against pedestrianisation was trounced in all three wards around Oxford Street and only picked up 291 votes in the West End. Perhaps the more pertinent reason for Labour picking up a seat there was that Tory Hilary Su was accused of homophobia while standing to represent the people of Soho.

      The other 8 local seats stayed Conservative, and comfortably so in the heart of Marylebone, where the main opposition campaign originated.

      If the local opposition was the real reason then the council has conceded to a small number of nimbys, whose objections could have been addressed while getting the job done. But I suspect, as you say, that wider politics are behind this, particularly with the 2020 Mayoral contest already getting started.

  2. The impact on residents of traffic displacement is a reasonable one. Daytime pedestrianisation (say 11am-8pm) covering the period when it is used for shopping would probably work. However the proposal was to close it to through traffic 24/7. There is currenlly more traffic in Oxford Street at night than during the day, mainly Private Hire (aka Uber) and taxis. This traffic all has to go somewhere and having a traffic jam outside your front door at 2am with the associated pollution and noise is a reasonable thing to be concerned about. If the proposal had been to ban traffic onky during the main shopping hours (as was proposed by some) it would have been both workable and quite possibly acceptable to residents.

    • The proposal was for 24/7 but explicitly in the consultation it left the door open to other options. WCC have taken this decision without responding to the consultation or looking at changes to the proposals that might have made it acceptable to the community. Agree it is a reasonable concern for residents, but that doesn’t make it ok to scrap the whole plan without looking at how the proposals could be amended.

      Also, while no-one would want a traffic jam outside their door at 2am there is no clear indication that would have happened – in fact TfL and Westminster’s analysis predicted it wouldn’t – and many of the roads around are not alternative through routes. Wigmore St would probably have taken more east-west traffic overnight but that’s not unreasonable for the type of road it is.

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