Labour councillors in Westminster have called for a programme of “emergency action” to get London’s West End “back on its feet” and help the capital’s and the UK’s economy recover more strongly from the coronavirus crisis.
A nine-page document from the council’s 19-strong opposition group – entitled What Is The Future for Westminster? – urges Conservative-run Westminster City Council to expand its current promotional push to bring more visitors to West End attractions into a “major advertising campaign” with a nationwide reach using press and TV “to get the message across that the West End is open for business”.
Labour, which says it has had discussions with the Westminster Property Association, also asks the council to promote Covid-safe “West End fun events” for the remaining days of warmer weather – including weekend street markets on Oxford Street, open-air performances in Central London’s most famous parks and a fun fair along The Mall – and to help shops, restaurants and bars in Westminster’s residential areas build on signs of relative success in attracting local custom as the lockdown has eased.
Westminster has been running a social media campaign called #sightseecrowdfree, encouraging people to take advantage of “quieter streets and beautiful surroundings” in a West End that has seen a dramatic collapse in footfall, with foreign and domestic visitors and office workers staying away, shops, bars and restaurants re-opening only gradually, and galleries and theatres operating at a fraction of their usual capacity, if at all. The council lifted restrictions on its usually buzzing hospitality sector from 4 July, enabling restaurants and bars to serve customers outdoors on streets temporarily closed to motor traffic.
The Labour Group report urges the Council to “call on landowners and landlords to reduce or freeze rents” in areas where businesses have been hit hardest and calls on national government to “reduce business rates for at least one year”. It has separately asked the Conservatives to scrap a reported 20% increase in pitch fees for West End market traders, which is being bitterly opposed by small businesses in Berwick Street, though the council has said the rents are low for the capital and will pay for environmental improvements, while traders can apply for discretionary grants.
The Labour report also addresses the possibility that the West End economy will never see a full return to its pre-Covid form, with more working from home becoming entrenched and large department stores announcing redundancy plans. It asks if assumptions underpinning the council’s local plan need to be reassessed in the lights of “very changed circumstances”, including the West End becoming more residential and premises becoming available for innovative new small enterprises.
Sadiq Khan recently wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seeking targeted support for the West End to see it through a “perfect storm” of adverse Covid impacts, backed by the New West End Company business improvement district (BID), and UK hospitality and visitor attractions bodies. Another West End BID, the Heart of London Business Alliance, has asked the government for “London-specific messaging” to boost recovery.
The West End and the City of London are estimated to generate 10% or more of all UK economic output between them, demonstrating the crucial importance of the centre of the capital to the prosperity of the country as a whole.
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