By Ron Whelan
London’s West End has always been a satisfactory amalgam of a significant residential population, and a variety of different business interests. Arguably it has been this amalgam that has been the basis of the area’s unique charm. Recently however, this balance has been disturbed, through the encouragement of mass shopping and mass tourism into the West End. There always have been tourists and shoppers visiting the area of course, but never on the enormous scale that we now see.
To satisfy the demands of these mass shoppers and tourists, the retailers and the night time economy operators appear to be conducting a pincer movement upon the traditional character of Fitzrovia, Soho, Marylebone, and Mayfair. By day, it seems that it is desired that these areas should be given over to maximising ‘footfall’ for the retailers, and the extraordinary terms “street ambience” and “street architecture” are now used as supposed marketing devices to encourage this footfall. At night, the bars, clubs and restaurants want later and later licenses, with no restriction at all on parking, and no responsibility for any anti-social behaviour created by their patrons.
Whilst in the short term, retailers and licensed premises owners may benefit financially from this policy, in the longer term it will prove to be self defeating. This is because it necessarily has the effect of damaging the residential interest, and makes it increasingly difficult for people to live in each of the four West End areas. But it is these different residential populations which fundamentally have created the four different area ‘brand personas’. These in turn have attracted the differing business sectors to each of the areas – e.g. creative industries to Soho, companies seeking status and prestige to Mayfair. This intimate connection between an area’s brand persona and its residential population implies that any dilution of this connection must inevitably result in a significant weakening in the area’s brand status.
One might ask “so what?” If the numbers of shoppers, tourists and clubbers continues to grow, and their expenditures continue to rise, “what’s the problem? The weakness of such a response is that it ignores three economic and social trends which inevitably must impact upon London’s West End. These are first, the growth in on-line shopping; secondly, the growth in out of town shopping (e.g. Westfield); and thirdly, the increasing demand for local suppliers amongst the population. With these environmental trends set to grow inexorably, the future for a West End containing only pale shadows of its traditional four distinctive areas, looks gloomy if not actually bleak.
Of course, this doomsday scenario needn’t happen. What is required is for Westminster Council to recognise the strategic importance of the residential population to the economic future of the West End, and actively protect its interest. In doing so, the Council would be acting on the behalf of the community against the self-interest of parts of the business sector. In addition, it should bring on board key local residents groups, and local large land owners, to participate in developing its policies for the future of the different areas.
Ron Whelan is Chairman of the Mayfair Residents Group.