Pedestrianising Oxford Street is still firmly on the City Hall agenda, despite continuing opposition from Westminster Council, Sadiq Khan confirmed at yesterday’s Mayor’s Question Time session.
Plans for a traffic-free Oxford Street were a prominent part of Khan’s manifesto ahead of his election in 2016, but despite an initial positive response from then Tory-controlled Westminster, the council, which is responsible for the shopping street, torpedoed the scheme in 2018.
A change of political control in 2022, with Labour winning the council for the first time, has not brought a change of heart, Khan said. Agreeing with Liberal Democrat Assembly member (AM) Caroline Pidgeon that “Oxford Street isn’t what it used to be”, the Mayor nevertheless welcomed the council’s more limited makeover now getting underway, including environmental improvements and action to close down a rash of “US-style” candy stores.
Pidgeon argued that that scheme itself, which includes 12 new pedestrian crossing points and improvements to 45 existing crossings along the 1.8 kilometre street, “surely underlines the need to go the whole way and pedestrianise it,” again winning Khan’s agreement.
Removing traffic from Carnaby Street in 1973 had seen footfall increase by 30 per cent, she said, while Khan cited the recent “transformation” brought about by pedestrianising part of the Strand at Aldwych. “High streets need to change to become more attractive to visitors, and we know that pedestrianisation can boost footfall and sales,” said Pidgeon, urging the Mayor to consider setting up a fund to support pedestrianisation plans for high streets across the capital as well as continuing to make the Oxford Street case.
Setting out his existing support for the city’s high streets, including his £4 million High Streets For All Challenge and £50 million of Good Growth funding, Khan also criticised new government proposals to extend permitted development rights, which allow shops and offices to be converted to housing without needed planning permission.
The proposals, which would allowconversion of properties up to 3,000 square metres – medium department store size – as well as conversion of hotels and boarding houses, would “damage high streets and the central activities zone (covering the West End and the City), and undermine borough-level decision-making,” he said.
Khan was lukewarm, however, towards a proposal from Pidgeon’s AM colleague Hina Bokhari that Sunday trading laws restricting opening hours for larger shops should be scrapped completely to support high streets, suggesting the government could initially run pilot schemes in the West End.
And the Mayor was also not convinced by calls from Green party AM Sian Berry to get tough with councils refusing to implement “healthy streets” schemes for active travel, or removing schemes introduced with mayoral funding, including the Kensington High Street cycle lane and low traffic neighbourhood schemes in Tower Hamlets.
“Londoners need you to stand up for them where policies are affecting their lives,” Berry said. Khan should be using powers set out in the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which established the mayoralty, to block council decisions at odds with City Hall transport policies, she said. “I don’t think the powers were put into the Act thinking they would never be used,” she added.
However, Khan replied that those powers are difficult to use successfully. “Councils should be in charge of their roads,” he added, “I believe in devolution, and I’m cautious about giving the impression that City Hall will force councils to change their minds.” There were other possible options, including withholding TfL funding for borough schemes where there was non-compliance, he said.
Watch Mayor’s Question Time in full here. X/Twitter: Charles Wright and On London. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to publisher and editor Dave Hill’s personal Substack. Thanks.