Oxford Street has always embraced the best and worst of retail and probably always will, but right now things are looking pretty bleak. The disagreement between Marks & Spencer chief executive Stuart Machin and the Government’s Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, is just the latest example of a sector that is not really sure what the future holds for its physical presence.
John Lewis, still classified as a destination store for Oxford Street, is still reviewing store numbers and is still headed for a 60/40 split in favour of on line. Only Selfridges stops the Marble Arch end of the street from falling prey to second-rate tourist shops.
Success stories around checkoutless stores, brand flagships and dark stores do not add up to a revitalised high street and Oxford Street has more to worry about than most, given its size and the size of the rent bill. Machin supports M&S’s bid to redevelop its Marble Arch store and build a 10 storey mixed retail and office complex by saying that radical change is needed if Oxford Street is not to become a “dinosaur district destined for extinction”.
Quite why any of this is Gove’s business is not clear but he has overruled Westminster City Council and the Greater London Authority, which have approved the proposal, and put the project on hold. Any public inquiry will take at least nine months to decide the way ahead.
Get rid of the car!
None of which addresses the real issue; what will Oxford Street become if it cannot thrive on traditional retail traffic alone. Turning one mile of it into a pedestrian zone might work, but this will kick off huge arguments about traffic access. London has very few areas where shoppers can safely wander, browse and graze in London without having to deal with the presence of the car.
Leicester Square is pedestrianised but the whole area is an embarrassment, designed simply to milk tourists who deserve better in a city that can still claim be to in the top three in the world. Oxford Street could be something better but the cost, the political will and the time needed to make a transformation makes that almost impossible.
The cities of the UK ransomed themselves to the car in the 1950s onwards and it is now time to make a change. While we celebrate cross rail and the recent opening of the Elizabeth rail line, what are we doing to remove the car from the equation and leave London’s streets free to pursue a future for people on foot?
If this sounds naïve given that Oxford Street is still one of the world’s top retail destinations, what we are seeing is a slow attrition caused by the continued rise of on line and now a collapse in consumer confidence as a result of inflation, Covid (still), and Brexit. Any time is a good time to be talking about the future of physical retail and talking as some do about a golden future for stores is kidding themselves. Get Oxford Street right and you have a template for other towns and cities.