West End growth

On 11 October 2016, Centre for London launched a collection of essays on the future of the West End, with contributions from the Mayor of London and the Leader of Westminster City Council.

Craig McWilliam, Executive Director, Grosvenor Britain & Ireland, contributed his perspective on the potential of the West End to host more jobs and fundamentally better places. Here is a copy of his essay.

11th October 2016

London’s greatest success factor is its ability to attract and retain talent, nationally and internationally. Vital to attracting and retaining that talent are great places: districts with a compelling mix of opportunities, amenities and jobs. It is profoundly challenging to create and manage such places in London. The capital’s enviable success, rising demand, and growing population are putting intense pressures on our infrastructure, our communities and our quality of life.

The challenges of placemaking in the West End

The West End – London’s powerhouse, more productive than the City of London – sits at the epicentre of these pressures. At its heart, Oxford Street manifests many of them. Half a million people walk down the street every day, but it also has high levels of traffic, poor-quality public realm and inadequate amenities. Air pollution is three times higher than the EU’s legal limit, and the street’s western section holds the dubious honour of having one of the country’s top three pedestrian accident hotspots.

There have been recent improvements to the West End’s infrastructure and more are due shortly, with the Elizabeth line being the most high-profile example. But these, in turn, will create greater access to, demand for and pressure on the West End. On Oxford Street alone, the Elizabeth line’s two new stations are expected to disgorge 120,000 more people every day: a 40 per cent increase on today’s numbers.

What’s more, the West End faces a floorspace capacity crunch. Westminster City Council forecasts around 77,000 new jobs in the borough by 2036. The additional economic activity implied by this target will require around 2m square metres of extra employment space in the next 20 years. This totals three times the amount delivered in the last 20 years. Meanwhile, vacancy rates are at a 15-year low.

The West End will have to grow to overturn these pressures on its infrastructure, communities and quality of life. In response, our civic leaders should increasingly be judged on the quality of the places their policies create. We should judge their ability to create great places that ‘sweat’ the West End for greater opportunities, better amenities and more jobs. We should assess the way in which they coordinate public and private investment and capture value growth for long-term benefit. Bold placemaking leadership from the public sector – backed by a vision for growth and a transparent depiction of the trade-offs – will be the starting point for the West End’s success.

The West End Partnership – the coalition of public-sector agencies, private-sector players, residents and amenity groups – has created a long-term vision for that growth. In doing so it has put discussion of the trade-offs on a more credible footing. It has begun to articulate the local benefits of growth – the residents’ dividend – as a counterpoint to currents in local politics that could frustrate the best outcome. And it has avoided the false trade-off between densification and enhancing the unique character of the West End. It is seeking economic growth, the creation of new jobs and a better experience for residents, with better facilities, amenities, public spaces and quality of life. It wishes to see the West End meet rising demand and improve the experience of all users.

Critically, the Partnership has identified the need for £1bn of new investment in the West End over the next 15 years. Half of that investment is unfunded. Arguably, little of it will be delivered without new private capital. Any successful campaign to secure that investment will need to operate under a broad consensus that physical and economic expansion will not erode the West End’s unique character.

A new approach could help foster that consensus and attract that investment. With a new approach, the West End Partnership’s 15-year vision could be translated into an ambitious district-by-district plan for growth, each informed by an assessment of that district’s potential to host more jobs, better places and greater opportunities for Londoners.

The West End’s districts all have a different character. Just think of Soho, Covent Garden, Tottenham Court Road or Oxford Street. Each has varying levels of untapped potential and would benefit from a tailored plan backed by predictable and stable funding – which would in turn attract new private capital. Fiscal devolution, through an early retention of business rates if necessary, could finance a transformative programme of stable investment. The Mayor argues that Londoners should benefit more from the proceeds of growth, with more control over incremental tax revenue raised in the capital. There are few other options to deliver the investment the West End needs at the pace required. And perhaps there is no better place to start on the road to fiscal devolution than in the country’s most productive commercial centre.

A focus on the Oxford Street district

With that context, we have, with others, commissioned new research to gauge the potential of the Oxford Street district, starting with its western section. The research concludes that the area has substantial untapped potential to host more jobs and fundamentally better places; and that unleashing this potential will require tackling two of the principal risks facing the West End and London.

The first of these risks is that Oxford Street’s poor public realm and pedestrian experience, its high volume of bus and vehicle traffic, and its fragile monoculture will erode the West End’s competitive advantage if left unchanged. Oxford Street’s ability to attract visitors, investment and talent to London, as well as to provide new jobs, will diminish.

The Mayor’s commitment to transform Oxford Street’s traffic is hugely welcome, as is the West End Partnership’s shared aspiration. They are necessary, if not sufficient, conditions for the West End’s success. And of course, a traffic plan and its funding have yet to be established.

The second risk is that the West Oxford Street district, and the wider West End, are characterised by an employment space shortfall that will, without intervention, undermine London’s competitiveness. As it stands, the area has the second-lowest proportion of commercial space of any district in the West End and roughly half the employment density of neighbouring Regent Street.

From these stark assessments emerge the outlines of an investment and management plan that could unleash the district’s potential and see West Oxford Street work harder for London.

First, Oxford Street and its neighbouring areas could complement and drive each other’s success. In doing so, they could radically improve the user experience and strengthen the retail offer. Successful retail destinations are in almost all cases conceived as wider districts. Our research makes comparison with Regent Street, Cheapside and Knightsbridge, and with Rue de Rivoli in Paris, Biblioteksgatan in Stockholm and Fifth Avenue in New York.

The most effective shopping centres benefit from leisure and cultural uses beyond retail therapy, often into the evening and night-time. They have high-quality public spaces and connect smoothly to their neighbouring areas. Changes in physical space could create a better, more integrated Oxford Street district for all users – a fundamentally better place, helping to drive a better retail destination.

Second, the area around West Oxford Street could host a greater volume and variety of economic activity to boost jobs growth in London. The district currently has around 70,000 workers (and 6,000 residents) and supports a wide range of jobs: the majority (41 per cent) are in professional services and one-third are in retail. It could do more.

Supported by a new district-wide planning regime promoting growth, it could host around 15,000 more jobs than it does now: a quarter of Westminster City Council’s jobs target for the entire borough in the next 20 years. Our analysis suggests job-hosting capacity could be unlocked through a combination of changing uses, more intense use of existing spaces, and physical expansion through development. This could boost the district’s economic contribution to London by one-fifth, lifting gross value added (GVA) from £5.6bn to £6.8bn by 2030.

Third, consistent and predictable public funding could unlock private capital and coordination. Businesses could shape their commercial strategies around an agreed and funded placemaking plan. Disparate private ownership on and around Oxford Street need no longer prevent coordination. Improvements to infrastructure, public realm and day-to-day management could be delivered on a continual basis with closer collaboration between the public and private sectors.

Our analysis of the West Oxford Street district suggests that the challenges for the West End are great. The West End faces fierce national and international competition from other commercial centres, new forms of retail and new public spaces. The opportunities for bold, growth-promoting leadership from all tiers of government are substantial. Ambitious place-based policy, a set of district-by-district investment plans, and the consistent funding needed to deliver both, could sweat the West End’s substantial potential for great places, and help drive London’s greatest success factor.

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