Electric buses, more public loos and boutique stores were some of the suggestions made for improving the shopping experience in Oxford Street, at a meeting of a Westminster City Council scrutiny committee this week.
The Council is trying to revamp Oxford Street as it recovers from the financial blows of the pandemic and the decline of high street shopping, and plans to invest £150 million in the world-renowned shopping district to boost the local economy.
However, visitors to Oxford street are often put off by high levels of pollution and congestion, according to a report by council officers.
It adds: “Oxford Street’s current condition does not match its importance and status.
“Key challenges need to be addressed for the district to continue to thrive and remain an attractive choice for residents, visitors, businesses, as well as to attract further investment.
“It is vital for Oxford Street to adapt and build upon its unique mix of retail,
office, culture and leisure offer.”
Council planning chief Councillor Matthew Green, said large stores could be turned into smaller ones for independent businesses, creating Westminster’s own version of Manchester’s famous Affleck’s Palace — a mall of independent traders famed for vintage clothing and alternative accessories.
He also said Oxford Street has been too retail-heavy, with a lack of food and beverage and entertainment businesses.
Conservative councillor Lyndsey Hall said Oxford Street needs to become more accessible to boost visitor numbers and suggested setting up a free electric bus.
She added: “I’m probably the world’s biggest shopper but I’m not going to struggle with massive, heavy bags… but I would like to see a fully-electric, sponsored, hop-on/hop-off San Francisco-style bus trawling up and down Oxford Street.
“You could sponsor it by each store like a Selfridges bus and a Hamleys bus.”
Conservative councillor Eoghain Murphy said there is high demand for more public toilets along Oxford Street which will increase as al-fresco dining is extended.
Cllr Green said the council will look into the issue but there are also toilets in department stores available to the public.
He added: “I’m an older man with a prostate the size of a coconut so you’re raising something that is a very real and personal problem for me in terms of public conveniences.
“We want to improve the experience of shoppers on Oxford Street.
“While it may seem that seats and greening is insufficient for the money that we’ve spent that has been one of the key issues.
“Shoppers are telling us that Oxford Street is too noisy, it’s too dirty, there’s no where for them to sit down.”
Labour councillor Paul Dimoldenberg said he does not think the council has the expertise to deliver the £150 million project in light of the Marble Arch Mound fiasco, which saw spiralling costs of triple the original estimates.
He said: “I do believe that the council does not have the project management skills to do a job like this effectively.
“As I’ve said previously when we’ve discussed the mound, I think that sadly has been borne out by events.
“We do need somebody with the skills to take a major world project from start to finish.
“Effective project management and leadership are really important.”
Cllr Green said: “A great deal of what we’re actually doing… is well within the council’s responsibility.
“We do highways every day, we do place shaping… I don’t necessarily accept that some of the work we’re doing here is so beyond our comfort zone that we are not able to do that.”
The Tory-led council planned to introduce ‘piazzas’ — Italian-style pedestrianised squares — next to Oxford Circus station, but the plans were paused following the spiralling cost of the mound.
Cllr Dimoldenberg asked if the council has completely dropped the plans for the piazzas.
Cllr Green said it is too early to say that the plans for the piazzas have been totally scrapped.
He continued: “There are problems with Oxford Circus, in particular the entry and exit to the station and that does need to be addressed.
“We want to go back to residents to listen to them and co-design something.”
Westminster Council: Business and Children’s Policy and Scrutiny Committee – Monday 29th November, 2021 6.30 pm. The discussion on Oxford Street can be heard from about 1 hour 11 minutes into the meeting.