Having dumped what appeared to be the deliverable plan for transforming Oxford Street London has needed for decades, Westminster City Council has set out its alternative approach to developing what it calls “a district wide solution for the area spanning Tottenham Court Road to Marble Arch and surrounding areas”. On 9 July its cabinet will consider a report outlining how it believes “the Oxford Street District” can be enhanced to “meet the ambitions of the City Council, our residents, partners and stakeholders”. Pedestrianisation is out. A “place based strategy and delivery plan” is in.
Whatever exactly that might turn out to mean, serious change for the better is a matter of increasing economic and political urgency. Ben Rogers has rightly argued that it is “vital” for the West End and for the UK that a way forward is found that saves the capital’s legendary retail avenue from smogged and clogged decline. Some sort of progressive solution is also crucial to the credibility of Sadiq Khan, who promised pedestrianisation and looked set to secure what would have been a major mayoral achievement, perhaps the best and biggest of his four year term.
The Labour Mayor has criticised Conservative-run Westminster for abandoning “our joint proposals” and underlined that “I will not walk away from Oxford Street”. His power is limited, of course, because Oxford Street is Westminster’s, not his. But he does have at his disposal Transport for London, whose co-operation and financial input Westminster will want, especially with the opening of the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) scheduled for 9 December. Khan has also said he is intent on supporting businesses in “making the most of the huge opportunity the Elizabeth Line brings”. He might not have control of Oxford Street itself, but he does have clout with big interested parties. It looks like he intends to make the most of it. According to one seasoned London politics observer, “it’s war”.
What might Westminster’s “place based” proposals turn out to be? A “comprehensive audit and engagement with residents and other stakeholders” is promised over the next two months, in order to “establish issues, priorities, vision and projects” for the district. A “strategy to inform the development of preferred solutions” is to be assembled in September and October and put out for public consultation in November. The strategy is timetabled for adoption by the cabinet in January.
Meanwhile, pedestrian safety measures relating to the opening of Elizabeth Line stations at Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road are to be implemented from the autumn. TfL forecasts that passenger numbers using these two stations will increase by 17% and 37% respectively and by 9% across all four Oxford Street tube stations right from the start, with much bigger increases by 2021.
Westminster has initially earmarked £327,000 of its own money to pay for all this work plus £400,000 of its local implementation plan (LIP) fund. LIP funding is dished out to boroughs by TfL for spending on projects that “support the Mayor’s Transport Strategy”, a fact that serves as a reminder of how interdependent different layers and institutions of London governance often are.
Westminster’s Tories, surely mindful that Labour closed the gap on them at May’s borough elections and won a West End ward seat for the first time in its history, has deferred to the concerns of well-organised, unhappy local residents whose political support it dare not lose – a process that began in earnest at the back end of last year, after opponents of the now rejected plans mobilised around the second public consultation on them. But local quality of life in the Oxford Street area is also affected by actions and input from TfL. Westminster won’t want to hack off the Mayor’s transport chiefs any more than they can avoid.
The cabinet paper expresses confidence that a local engagement process can help produce solutions “that will address the principle aspirations of our local stakeholders and our partners” without inflaming local opposition. Will such solutions go far enough to satisfy either the Mayor or the wider needs of London and the nation?
Photograph from Visit London.