A national high street or a national embarrassment? That’s the question many are asking about Oxford Street these days, amid the car crash in retailing and growing concern around it being “the most polluted street in the world” – to quote London mayor Sadiq Khan.
Khan’s claim has largely been supported by research from King’s College and relates to particles of Nitrogen Dioxide too small to see with the naked eye. The traffic and congestion packing out the street each day is a bit harder to miss and it’s this that has been the main target for campaigners trying to have the road pedestrianised.
Predictably, the excuse given was that local residents opposed it. But what about business leaders? Surely the many retailers and employers based in the area would welcome the area for a cleaner, more accessible Oxford Street that would have the benefit of also being a bit safer too in a landscape of vehicle-based terror attacks.
The New West End Company (NWEC), one of the largest business improvement districts in the world, which represents most of the area’s leading businesses said in a statement that it was “deeply concerned” about the fall-out between the mayor and Westminster Council.
While their statement rather strangely made no firm endorsement of the pedestrianisation plans (presumably to avoid a bust up with the council), NWEC’s chief executive Jace Tyrell called for “radical changes” adding that “something fundamental needs to be done to Oxford Street… to ensure that local residents lives are not worsened by the massive influx of new visitors”.
Although Crossrail – now called the Elizabeth Line – is set to be delayed by a year, around 250 million journeys will be made annually using the new stations along Oxford Street, according to 2014 modelling from Arup. Whether Brexit will have an impact on those figures will remain to be seen.
However, leaving aside all the research and unimaginable, obviously large numbers, there is a fundamental problem that Oxford Street just isn’t a particularly enjoyable place to shop. The east end around Tottenham Court Road has always been a shambolic mix of dodgy take-aways, fake leather jackets and phone shops; comparing poorly with the district to the north of the tube towards Goodge Street that has massively improved over recent years.
For anyone who doesn’t particularly like Primark and H&M (just how many are there now?); or the crush of squeezing along the pavement at peak hours, there’s not much there for people now quite happy to sit on the bus and use Amazon or head east or west to Westfield.
One of the best perspectives was shared by the BBC’s Jeremy Vine via a Facebook video showing the full carnage of a cycle ride along the road.
Oxford Street needs a reset. We’ve had many landmark retailers hollowed out just as much of the musical legacy around Soho has been battered by council licensing, business rates and indeed the Crossrail redevelopment. We’ve got a chance to protect the soul of one of London’s most crucial landmarks. Let’s not let a bunch of NIMBYs ruin it.