Craig McWilliam: now is the time for a bold vision for West End growth

Craig McWilliam: now is the time for a bold vision for West End growth

Craig McWilliam is chief executive of Grosvenor Britain and Ireland, which manages the Grosvenor property estate in the heart of the capital, one of its most illustrious. This is his first, very welcome, piece for On London. You can follow him on Twitter here and follow Grosvenor GBI here.

The West End is the epicentre of the capital’s culture and leisure. It is the most productive part of the city and, in fact, the whole country. It generates 3% of the UK’s economic output, hosts well over 600,000 jobs and generates almost 10% of England’s business rates.

But its success is not guaranteed. We need a bold approach to keep the West End flourishing. The proposals put forward by Sadiq Khan and Westminster City Council to make Oxford Street traffic-free offer the best chance we have to take that undaunted approach. We need to seize it now.

London’s growth is putting pressures on our infrastructure, communities and quality of life across the entire city. The West End sits at the focal point of those pressures, and Oxford Street manifests many of them, with crowding, congestion and poor air quality.

We face fierce national and international competition for talent and investment, with new forms of retail and the best new public spaces. At the same time, the West End has a floorspace capacity crunch looming.

We need three times more job space in the next 20 years than was built in the last 20 just to keep up with demand. The opening of the Elizabeth Line at the end of this year will only accelerate this need. If we don’t meet it in the West End, London’s greatest economic asset will struggle to deliver to the country’s benefit.

So the Mayor’s plan to create a traffic-free Oxford Street is a must-have, not a nice-to-have. We must grasp the opportunity that has been debated, but undelivered, for over 40 years. Doing nothing is not an option.

On Oxford Street alone, the Elizabeth Line’s two new stations will disgorge 120,000 more people every day, a 40% increase on today’s numbers. And the new service will place further pressure on the surrounding side streets, shops, offices and green spaces.

So we will need to transform the whole district, for Londoners, residents, workers and visitors. Pedestrianisation must be just the catalyst. The West End needs more investment. The West End Partnership – the coalition of public-sector, private-sector, residents and amenity groups, whose board I am a member of – sees the need for an extra £1bn over the next 15 years, around half of which will need to come from the private sector.

How will the local authority attract that capital? The Mayor and our civic leaders now need to build on that analysis by presenting a compelling vision for growth in the West End. Such a vision – and a plan to deliver it – would be the tent pole around which private capital could coordinate. And if the proceeds of economic growth were ploughed back into local jobs, better places, more attractive amenities and stunning public realm for all, then the political mandate for growth might outlast the electoral cycle.

If we get this vision and its funding right, the unique character of the West End will be enhanced. For too many years its success has been undermined by a false trade-off between economic growth, the creation of new jobs and enterprises on the one hand, and a better experience for residents on the other; or between greater development or densification and enhancing the unique character of the West End. 

These things need not be in conflict. And the truth is that London has long been characterised by a combination of the energy of Oxford Street, the beauty of its garden squares, the curve of Regent Street and the crowds of its playhouses. Today, as a critical economic asset to the UK, the West End will need bold leadership and steady-stream investment to secure a future that benefits the country. As a major investor, we recognise this. With the transformation of Oxford Street on the way, we stand ready to play our part.

Read more about the West End Partnership’s work here, Grosvenor here and more about the history of Grosvenor estate here. Victor Keegan found its Lost London roots here.

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