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What Next for the Capitals Busiest High Street?



{mosimage}This evening (Monday 15th Nov) hoards of people will fill Oxford Street to witness the annual switching on of the Christmas lights. Mayor Ken will be there, along with five Olympic Gold Medalists and Emma Watson, who plays ‘Hermione Granger’ in the Harry Potter films. It’s business as usual, with strong support for London’s 2012 Olympic Games bid and a commercial plug for the sponsors of the big ‘switch on.’



Oxford Street may have several flagship stores, Selfridges department store and flashy Christmas lights on its side but recent statistics show that consumers are going elsewhere to shop. It’s hard to believe, walk down Oxford Street in the middle of the day, any day of the week and it’s a mass of buses, couriers, taxis and bodies. The areas around Oxford Circus and Bond Street tube stations can get so bad that back street routes are devised just to get from one side to the other.



Even so, recent reports say that shoppers now{mosimage} prefer the likes of out-of-town shopping centres, such as Bluewater in Essex and Brent Cross in North London. The New West End Company (NWEC), the business consortium that manages Oxford Street, has confirmed that in the past year visitor numbers to the street show a drop. Like-for-like sales in central London stores were down 0.8% last month on the same month last year, while national sales grew by 4%.The trend is also reflected in recent market research surveys, the percentage who named Oxford Street as their favourite place to shop fell from 19% to 16%.



It seems the problems of Oxford Street are all too plain to see. From the ‘closing down’ sale shops that never seem to close down, to the handouts galore offering everything from English classes to phone cards, to the congested and polluted road. It’s no wonder people are finding the out-of-town shopping centre a more attractive prospect.



Property developer, Ian Henderson, now heads the NWEC, which is backed by Oxford Street landowners, Westminster council and big retailers, such as Selfridges and Marks & Spencer. Henderson and his team have been busy drawing up proposals to regenerate Oxford Street into a glamorous and upmarket retail destination. Plans have taken three years to put together and they will be put to a ballot of shop owners next year.



NWEC’s proposals include:


          To close Oxford Street to all traffic, except buses.


          Oxford Street buses will be free and run up and down the street but not beyond it.


          Taxis will be diverted to Wigmore Street which runs parallel to Oxford Street.


          Pavements to be widened returning the street to the pedestrian.


          To evict cheap ‘closing down’ outlets and replace them with the right tenant mix of upmarket retailers.


          To commission architects to design a striking landmark – along the lines of the London Eye or the futuristic Selfridges building in Birmingham.


          To create exciting retail architecture – such as new double-height glass shop fronts.


          To create upmarket food courts, just off Oxford Street on South Molton Street and St Christopher’s Place.


          To make navigation easier for tourists Tottenham Court Road station would be renamed ‘Oxford Street East’ and Bond Street station as ‘Oxford Street West.’


          To market the street globally, the NWEC wants Formula One boss – Bernie Ecclestone to stage a London Grand Prix, similar to the Monaco Grand Prix.



{mosimage}Henderson realizes that his plans are ambitious – but strongly believes that they are possible. In an interview with the Sunday Times he said: “We have to think big and acknowledge the scale of the task ahead of us. Oxford Street must change or it will become an also-ran. We need to think longer term. When we announced we were going to remodel the Bull Ring in Birmingham, people laughed. They said it was such a 1960s eyesore that it couldn’t be done. Well, we got landlords, retailers and the local council to come up with £530m, and look at it today.”



Henderson certainly has plenty of drive and vision. He sees Oxford Street as the biggest and most valuable retailing street in Britain and is determined to transform it into a global retail destination. It’s an ambitious and yet necessary project that will greatly effect Oxford Street’s future, whether the voters agree – we’ll just have to wait and see about that.



By JoJo Iles









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