Westminster City Council has lodged a bid with central government to retain more of the business rates it raises and use the cash to improve the West End.
That’s according to Westminster deputy leader Councillor Robert Davis as he opened an NLA On Location conference yesterday at St James’s Market - West End: what is the future for London’s heartland?
Davis said that the West End was ‘truly the rock star of the nation’s economic culture and retail scene’, its 40 theatres and four world-class universities and £3.3bn of tourism spend helping it to generate £51.25bn – or 3% - of the country’s economic output, eclipsing that of the City of London. The West End is an ‘endlessly changing place’, said Davis, but with a growing case to invest more in public spaces and transport infrastructure and pressures from more people coming to the area via Crossrail, it needs to attend to turning around places like Oxford Street, whose plans towards pedestrianisation are moving along. ‘I can truly say that we are pulling in the same direction’, he said. But to do so and fund other schemes to remain ‘globally competitive’, Davis proposes to retain 6.5% of the area’s business rates to reinvest in the area, compared to the 4% it is today, with an aim to attract more co-finance from the private sector and increase national revenues. ‘The West End is not just for Londoners’ said Davis. ‘It creates and supports thousands of jobs for people across the nation.’
For James Cooksey, vice chairman of Westminster Property Association and director of central London at the Crown Estate, a long-term approach and willingness to be brave is necessary, the Crown Estate having created some 8m sq ft in the last 10 years. ‘There is a palpable feeling that whilst we’ve achieved a lot there is a real need to push on again’ he said. ‘We cannot rest on our laurels when other major cities are after our business’. The curation of places is also important, said GPE executive director Neil Thompson, alongside continued investment. ‘Pavements don’t pay rents, but the people who walk on pavements do’ he said. Leadership from the public sector is another key factor in creating a successful place like the West End, said placemaking director at Grosvenor Will Bax. ‘We should be clear we want to judge our civic leaders on their ability to create great places’, he said.
The conference also heard from Cynthia Grant, director at Limehouse Transport Design, who showed how the West End’s essential character needed to be sensitively handled, as is hoped with the imminent work on Bond Street, where carriageways will be reduced in width, walkways widened, and buildings ‘celebrated’. Another bone of contention was Oxford Street, which has generated a lot of interest over the ‘P’ word, said TfL’s Alex Williams; pedestrianisation. Although it is a road that attracts some ‘bonkers’ ideas, it has not changed a lot in the last 25 years, said Williams, and ‘clearly needs a new approach and new thinking’. There is work to be done on buses and routing, said Williams, but modeling has been carried out on Oxford Street’s part-time closure, perhaps with pedestrianised elements during shopping hours. Finally, Crossrail 2 strategy manager Joanna Averley said the line, now at an early stage of business case planning with preferred route announced shortly will take the heat off termini stations and help support the West End and London’s continued productivity. But it is not something that should happen, said Averley. ‘It’s something that has to happen’.
David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly