Councillor Geoff Barraclough made this barn-stormimg speech at the Council meeting on 24th June. Watch below or read the text of the speech underneath the video.
“Several million square feet of retail and office floorspace, 40 theatres, 30 world class museums, hundreds of galleries and a creative, technical and scientific hub beyond compare. £9b of retail sales. 3% of our nation’s income generated on our doorstep.
Today, the theatres are dark, the galleries closed, shops open but empty of customers and the offices shuttered.
We need to move quickly to get our businesses trading as fast as government guidance will allow. The future livelihoods of our residents depend on retail, hospitality and culture opening swiftly, safely and with enough footfall to finance the recovery.
In the short-term, Cllr Capland’s strategies for movement and hospitality could help. But these plans have been ill-thought through, with consultations of as little as 48 hours.
A pedestrianised Soho with deregulated drinking. What could possibly go wrong?
It’s not enough to say, “Visit the West End, we have the Government’s latest advice written in large friendly letters on our paving stones and FM Conway’s green plastic barriers are world beating.”
We need good reasons for people to visit central London again.
Let’s focus a bit less on drinking and a bit more on getting the cultural sector up and running, outdoors.
Close Regent Street and put on a selection of street theatres and circus performers. Don’t cancel West End Live. Put in on every week. Pack our public squares and pocket parks with jazz bands and buskers.
Lets’ revitalise the street markets. Don’t increase the pitch prices at Berwick Street, cut them in half to attract traders and customers from all over London. Take over Hyde Park for a weekly flea market.
Maybe the Covid shutdown is just a blip and business will soon be back to normal. But it’s unwise to make any assumptions and we should be planning for the “new normal” to be with us for some considerable time.
And one thing is clear about the new normal.
The UK has witnessed three years of digital transformation in just three months . And this will have a disproportionate impact on Westminster – reliant , as we are, retail and office space.
Retail was under pressure from online competitors well before Covid. Now it’s game over for the High Street as we know it. The public simply doesn’t want to shop in the same way its done the last 100 years.
But it’s the unprecedented transformation in office life that has caught many off guard. Successfully working remotely, businesses are now wondering why they ever had such large and expensive office in the first place.
The CEO of a graphic design studio tells me he’s closed the office for good. He’s found his people work more effectively from home. I’ve heard the same from one of London’s top architects.
Fewer staff in offices means less demand for office space. 40% less say some commentators.
We could find ourselves entering 2021 with tumbleweed blowing down Oxford Street like a Wild West ghost town and our offices emptying faster than Westminster’s financial reserves.
The collapse in two major pillars of economic activity will require a new vision for our town centre.
Of course, some in Government want to leave the solution to the free market and Deregulate controls on planning to let developers build what they want where they want to.
This is the failed voodoo economics of the past.
The Government wants more centralisation. We need more localism.
But the coming calamity cannot be averted by planning frameworks alone. We need concerted efforts by Westminster working with local communities to redefine the West End for the new normal. If it’s not a place to shop and work, what is it for? We need to start thinking now.
Planning policies that seek to preserve retail space were looking shaky in 2019, now they look positively antique. The same for offices. It’s no longer enough to be open to new uses of retail space. We need to be proactively re-shaping areas for cultural, leisure or other uses.
Let’s look at bringing light industry back to central London. How about recreating a tailoring hub around Saville Row, antiques in Mayfair, or even a new Tin Pan Alley.
And finally 18 months ago, we voted £150m to restore Oxford Street to its rightful preminnet position. We’ve seen little or no action. Coming out of lockdown, it’s a polluted hell hole of belching buses once more. This is our last chance to get Oxford Street right. Let’s not blow it.
Westminster Council needs to get organised.
Today, economic development is an afterthought. A mishmash of initiatives with no strategy. I’ve called this out at Scrutiny for two years. No objectives. No KPIs.
In the old normal, not ideal but not a catastrophe. In the new normal, complacent.
We now need a strategic economic development function just like any other council.
We can’t expect all that vacant space to fill up on its own. Our strategy will need resources, energy and creativity to rethink the West End so that it remains a powerhouse, generating good jobs for our residents and the economic dynamism London and the whole of our nation relies upon.
We are all custodians of this precious asset. Let’s not lose it.’