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?