Time is running out to save the West End, the “beating, human heart of the capital”, according to a new report from Centre for London.
The think tank today sets out a wide-ranging action plan to boost recovery, aimed at government, City Hall, the boroughs, businesses and landowners, warning that “the outcome depends on whether we act in time”.
Data compiled for the report underlines the scale of the pandemic crisis in Central London, which is recovering more slowly than anywhere else in the country even as suburban centres are beginning to return to normal.
Footfall in the centre languished at just over a quarter of pre-crisis levels last month, with retail transactions down by 60%, Tube ridership still down by 70%, and overseas tourism virtually non-existent.
It all adds up to a major assault on the West End’s unique economy, the report says, with jobs in hospitality, retail, culture and the arts now some of the most vulnerable in the capital. Small businesses, accounting for three-quarters of all businesses registered in Westminster and Camden, are particularly at risk, and theatreland, a major contributor to the city economy, has already lost an estimated 2,700 jobs.
“Neither London nor the UK can afford for the West End to remain underused, and for its unique economy to falter,” the report concludes. It recommends immediate help for arts and hospitality business in particular by continuing support for outdoor dining through street closures, temporary winter shelters and managed deliveries along with weekly “London fringe” outdoor performances and “culture vouchers” along the lines of the government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme to bring audiences back to theatres.
Transport for London should step up work to increase public transport capacity safely, in collaboration with government and public health bodies, and the capital’s tourism promotion agency London & Partners should prepare campaigns to attract overseas tourists back to the city as international travel returns, the report says.
And action should begin now to put vacant office and retail space to use, including making “residency” space available for artists and performers, supporting temporary “meanwhile” studio, hospitality and retail uses at reduced prices, and offering “enterprise-zone”-style incentives to attract new business, with lower business rates and capital allowances on office fit-out and adaptation.
“As we look beyond the crisis, we need to make sure that the West End can sustain the rich mix of places, events and venues that give it human scale and character, as well as opening up space for new ideas and new enterprises,” said Centre for London deputy director Richard Brown, launching the report. “The West End has shown itself to be incredibly resilient over time, but it needs help in coming months to avoid losing the buzz that will bring the crowds back as we recover from the COVID-19 crisis.”
Welcoming the report, Jace Tyrell chief executive of the New West End Company, which represents businesses across the centre, warned that urgent action was needed as footfall remains below sustainable levels. “Action such as this will ensure that the West End is able to recover and continue to thrive as an economic powerhouse contributing billions in tax revenues annually and as a vibrant, world renowned destination,” he said.
The Centre’s recommendations follow a similar call from Sadiq Khan last month for targeted support for the West End, help for freelance and self-employed workers in the cultural and creative sectors, and extended test and trace systems.
Read Centre for London’s West End recovery plan in full here.
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