Why Oxford Street Is Doomed

London

Before Covid, the UK had 30% more shops than it needed.

London’s Oxford Street is, I suppose, still one of the world’s most famous shopping streets. It was once filled with luxurious department stores housed in grand buildings visited by all, but economic downturns, the end of emporia like Bourne & Hollingsworth and Marshall & Snellgrove, out-of-town malls and the street’s poor upkeep soon saw the fall of the great edifices, and their replacement with cheapjack stores on short leases.

Discount perfume shops and barking auctioneers filled the remaining gaps between the former retail palaces, special interest stores that kept the street a destination vanished, and Primark moved in. There was no longer anything that made the street unique or even vaguely interesting. 15 outlets along its length cater only to foreign exchange or junk souvenirs.

Oxford Street had always been seen as the poor cousin to Regent Street but there was always Selfridge’s, until it transformed itself into a high-priced tourist shop, leaving just John Lewis for traditional all-round shoppers.

The problem could have been solved by Westminster Council, who after decades of prevaricating steadfastly refused to take the obvious step of pedestrianising it – leaving it as one of the few shopping thoroughfares in Europe still with traffic. In a typical half-measure they’ve just spent a million and a half sticking more little concrete pots along its length, which are useful for dumping fast-food rubbish in.

The latest arrivals are seven American shops selling sugar junk. James Daunt, the managing director of bookstore chain Waterstones, pointed out the obvious; ‘Stores need to be really good, otherwise why bother going in?’

However, Jace Tyrrell, CEO shill for the New West End Company, thinks that the new Selfridge’s is a model for the whole of the street, so there’ll be lots more shonky tat for tourists. He says; ‘We need to do that on the whole street end to end.’

Lindy Woodhead, who was the first female board member at Harvey Nichols, makes more sense, pointing out that people mainly visit Selfridges to see the building. Harry Selfridge put in restaurants and bathrooms. ‘He had golf pros giving golf lessons; famous footballers making personal appearances, the BBC on the roof broadcasting, a book department that had cookery books when there were demonstrations, in-store fashion shows, cultural exhibitions, scientific exhibitions. They launched television there – John Logie Baird launched television for the first time in 1926.’

She goes further, reminding us that there is no café culture on the thoroughfare. Where is the museum about the Tyburn gallows at Marble Arch, where is the history that would attract tourists? The best anyone can come up with is having a dedicated Spotify playlist for Oxford Street. Oh, hold me back.

For the length of my lifetime the argument about pedestrianising the street has raged and remained unresolved due to the intractability of Westminster Council.

As in-store sales plunged in the pandemic Oxford Street had a hiatus from its property taxes, the nation’s highest. That’s soon to end. Mr Tyrrell unaccountably thinks everything will be fine. The street tore down its grand buildings and remains open to transport. In its head-in-the-sand denial of Covid’s effects, Oxford Street seems doomed to continue as London’s most abject failure.

29 comments on “Why Oxford Street Is Doomed”

  1. Liz Thompson says:

    On my (rare) visits to London, I always found the markets to be more interesting than Oxford or Regent Street. Some of the markets had hand made craft stalls, unusual food supplies, entertaining stall holders, and hilariously unlikely gadgetry. And a bonus of exploring localised areas of London. The downside was they were always far more crowded and you needed sharp elbows and a certain amount of aggression and determination to get round!

  2. Paul C says:

    That’s all very sad. On a visit two years ago I found Oxford dirty and depressing instead of an attraction. A real shame.

    Here in Newcastle the main thoroughfare was pedestrianised many years ago and it certainly helped : cleaner air, more space and lots of huge bins for rubbish to keep the street tidy (ish). Whether it survives this pandemic in good shape remains to be seen.

    l really like your phrase ‘shonky tat’ Brilliant !

  3. Roger says:

    To be fair to Selfridge’s the food department – especially the cheeses – is still very good.
    I don’t know why it isn’t pedestrianised – a few years ago I walked its whole length from Centrepoint to Marble Arch alongside a very expensive-looking sports car. If a middle-aged man with a walking stick can go for about a mile as fast as an expensive car, it isn’t a suitable road for cars.
    In the old days, when buses had open platforms and you could hop on or off them, the buses were handy shelters when it rained, but there’s no point taking one now.

  4. MaryR says:

    I lived in London in the 80s and loved its variety. Even then, though, Oxford St seemed bland, although the behaviour of some of the retail staff counted as good entertainment. Of course capital cities change quickly, but a lot of the cosy niches have disappeared, and I find galleries and pubs are the reason to visit. But what else?
    Cue a new and interesting guide to London. (Meaningful ahem.)

    “Hilariously unlikely gadgetry” – yes, I fondly remember many ‘who on earth thought that one up?’ moments.

    There used to be a pair of peacocks in the main street here where I live now, but they got run over.

  5. David Ronaldson says:

    I liked Oxford Street until I was about 12 years old, when I’d become less immune to the tat. Thereafter, I only visited the HMV shop and Virgin Megastore. Now it’s only the aforementioned Selfrifdges Food Hall that lures me in, though I may have missed a gem or two elsewhere. Pedestrianisation, pubs and cafes would improve things.

  6. Brooke says:

    “pedestrianising the street…” Be careful what you wish for. The “planners/engineers” who will be in charge of turning the street into a pedestrian-friendly area: 1) have never taken a leisurely walk in their lives; 2) hate people who walk, as only poor people walk; 3) sneer at any community/user involvement in planning; 4) love concrete, especially in the form of large planters that are meant for trees and flowers but are ultimately trash collection points; 5) have no notion of trees, flowers and other forms of biological nature that thrive in urban areas; and 6) will do everything as cheaply as possible so the pedestrian way will fall apart and can be quickly re-opened for vehicular traffic. Planners and civic authorities worship the car. My observations from over 40 years involvement in neighborhood civic activities.

  7. Peter T says:

    I remember when they ‘pedestrianised’ Grote Marktstraat in The Hague. I thought it would be a good idea, until I came up against the cycle path they put down the middle. The fact is that a slow moving car is far less dangerous than a fast moving bicycle.

  8. Brian Evans says:

    There is a 1954 film called “The Crowded Day” (USA “Shop Spoiled”) set in the fictional Oxford Street department store of Bunting and Hobbs. It is very good with a big and excellent cast and well worth a watch. It is a portmanteau film (I suppose nowadays a soap-opera) about 24 hours in the life of the shop. It is now interesting as a piece of history as they were allowed to film for free during a few Sundays in Bourne and Hollingsworth on the condition they got free advertising with the frontage of the shop being shown a few times during the film, and that the fictional shop had B and H as initials.

    It is available on Amazon in dual DVD Blu Ray format. It is a riot with just about every available character star around at the time in it. It was directed by John Guillermin who went on to do “The Towering Inferno” and “Death on the Nile”

  9. Ian Mason says:

    The only times I have even been in Oxford Street in the last 25 years have been in passing through it when going from one place to another. The only times I have been shopping there are because I happened to be passing through and it was convenient. That’s particularly damning given that that period includes a few years when I used to work 5 days a week in Bolsover Street just north of Oxford Street and for ten years used to go to the same pub 50 yards off Oxford Street in Rathbone Place every Wednesday evening.

    The sole exception to the foregoing is that I used to occasionally go to John Lewis when they still had a haberdashery department that was worth of the name, it hasn’t been so for years.

  10. SteveB says:

    @Brian Evans – The crowded day sounds interesting I’ll look it up

  11. Helen+Martin says:

    Given the small size of the council areas I don’t understand why people who are interested in the area as a place to work and live can’t get on the council and affect things. Joe Keithley, a rock musician, was elected to our city council and I think he’s doing well. I apologize for the Weston family’s effect on Selfriges and the North American takeover of Oxford Street. Remember that for many of us a visit to London is looked on as a chance to see and hear things that are totally new to us.

  12. Martin+Tolley says:

    Years ago talking to a friend in a town planning department, I was complaining about the quality of public seating in a newly pedded area. He explained that I fundamentally misunderstood the concepts involved. He pointed out that people who are sitting are not spending. People who are strolling are not window-shopping. Pedestrianised streets are designed to funnel folk from one spending venue to the next, narrower and more confined streets give rise to more herd behaviour, closer inspection of shop window displays, more spontaneous spending.

  13. Liz+Thompson says:

    Martin+Tolley, I fear that sounds only too accurate. With the pressure on to ‘return to normal’, that is, just like before, this attitude will only get worse. It’s one of the reasons I rarely venture into Leeds city centre, it’s easier to browse online and talk via Zoom/phone/WhatsApp than it is to navigate through the streets, precincts, shopping arcades looking for something specific, or find a nice cafe for a coffee with friends.
    To say nothing about sitting down for a rest with full shopping bags on the way to the bus stop.

  14. Peter+Dixon says:

    Its hard to work out how retail and high streets in general have declined. The three main problems and/or solutions have been the car and parking, the out of town retail development, and the supermarket. As far as I can see (for 4 years I was president of our local Chamber of Trade) the biggest problem became the large out-of-town supermarket – I’d particularly point a finger at Asda – for trying to take every penny from a ‘convenience’ shop every fortnight or so; you can buy clothing, school uniforms, meat, fish without moving outside. I remember shopping with my grandmother in the 1960’s – she would shop every morning to buy food for the evening meal because they didn’t have a refrigerator, so she would visit the butcher, the greengrocer, the fishmonger, the newsagent and probably the wool shop as well as the library. Then she would return home to do housework, prepare the meal, read a book or newspaper – maybe knit for an hour while listening to the radio. Somewhere like Oxford St or Regent St would have been a luxury seen only at places like the Essoldo or the Gaumont cinema as part of a movie.
    Retail and city centres have lost their exclusivity and pizazz, nothing is exciting, nothing is new, nothing is exclusive anymore.

  15. Joel says:

    Further to Brooke’s points against pedestrianising Oxford Street, the silo-thinkers wanting this do not address the needs of through-travelling bus passengers. Until TfL threw in their lot with Westminster City Council, plenty of through buses ran along Oxford Street (at one stage in the 60s it even had linked traffic lights which maintained a speed control for all traffic, so keeping the street safe and accessible) linking east and west.

    Where will you put the through buses (those that are left) if the road is closed to vehicular traffic, and where will shops receive new stock from (no back roads for many sites)? Oxford Street is tatty because a laissez-fair attitude to its content is allowed – the point has been made that the decent-looking buildings have been (mostly) demolished, replaced by bland glass-fronted nonentities. Land prices mean only emporia with massive cash flow can afford to live there, and people like us natives now avoid Oxford Street, except to cross it by bus or buses enroute to somewhere better.

    If we don’t have quality in-town facilities, with sensible access (especially for those with reduced mobility), the place will die painfully and almost un-noticed until it has gone. Empty buildings serve no-one, and without transport (none of the tube stations in Oxford Street until recently were step-free; two still aren’t) the location become a discriminatory destination.

  16. Paul+C says:

    Joel – some good points there. In Newcastle, delivery vehicles are allowed onto the pedestrianised area before 9am and cyclists are prohibited. A new bus station was built very close by. I realise that the two sites are not wholly comparable but pedestrianisation does seem to work in many UK cities I’ve visited. Perhaps Oxford St could try it for 6 months and review the pros and cons ?

  17. Andrew+Holme says:

    Maybe the solution is to remove an ‘O’ from the blog title.

  18. Helen+Martin says:

    Martin and Joel make excellent points. Councils require tax money to operate so they naturally want businesses and facilities that generate the most. A local grocery draws only from its local area while “tourist tat” draws from the whole world except the local area. I still think that local people on local councils would help. Perhaps the London County Council needs to talk to some tourists to see what they’re really looking for in a shopping area. Surely there is overlap with locals. There would be if tourists took Rick Steves’ advice. If you are walking past tourist shops you are, by definition, not frequenting the real place.

  19. Helen+Martin says:

    Excuse my putting this review here but the Bellingcat page is now closed. If you haven’t read “We Are Bellingcat” please do as quickly as possible. If you don’t trust them you can at least adopt the methodology. Believe nothing that hasn’t been proven. Test the proof. Check the sources. The trick is to do it quickly. I love the apparent (see, I haven’t checked) fact that police departments are encouraging citizens to supply identifications of people, places, and things. I have heard requests for dashcam footage, identification of people in CCTV film and so on but wouldn’t have realised it tracked back to Bellingcat activity. But does it? Did it just come along once there was dashcam footage?

  20. linda+ayres says:

    I used to love the atmosphere if Oxford street in the 70’s, now it’s sad. Even Selfridges with the exception of the food hall seems to have lost it’s magic. I do still enjoy a browse in Grays antique centre ,located in nearby Davies street, one day I may even be able to afford something. Mr Bryant would perhaps have something to say about their claim to have the Tyburn flowing through a channel in their basement. A good story but always looks too clean to be the real thing. They certainly do have the smallest bridge in London.

  21. Peter+T says:

    If Selfridge’s could find a modern day Harold Lloyd to climb the outside of the building, perhaps that might revive Oxford Street? Unfortunately, they don’t have a clock.

  22. JanX says:

    I go to Oxford St for John Lewis and Regent St for Liberty. That’s it. Nearby streets are much more interesting and useful. I love Wigmore Street, parallel to Oxford Street but a million miles away as a London shopping/ street experience. One of the most interesting central London walks is from just behind Selfridges along Wigmore Street, Cavendish St, Mortimer St to Goodge St.

  23. Brooke says:

    @Helen. Not surprised. Bgc folk have been implicated in some nasty propaganda initiatives. Recent journalistic probing finds that it is/was staffed and funded by “intelligence” experts from US, UK, etc., some folks out of the Reagon era and all with foreign policy agendas. As I said in 23/03 post, beware of media propaganda featuring white men who are obsessive, averse to shaving, hair cuts and office apparrel.

    btw, your amazon ring and alexa data goes to “law enforcement” agencies.

    Cheers.

  24. Jan says:

    True enough the only museum commemorating the Tyburn gallows is in the basement of the (very narrow building) The Tyburn convent which is really is only dealing with the Catholic martyrs.- Of which there were many.

    We’ve discussed before the history of the sub basement of Selfridges Oxford street which marked the end point for the signals from the Churchill’s war governments undersea communications pipeline with the US of A. I think it was you Chris who told me that all this infrastructure had been ripped out and disposed of a few years back.

    A missed opportunity really this. Such remnants of war time Britain could have been a part of a really interesting historical hub for Oxford street. Shopping will have to realign itself against other recreations and somewhere like this basement if it had been properly preserved could have ranked along side the “Cabinet War Rooms” as an interesting historical living museum.

    There are some interesting little bits and pieces in and around Oxford street like roof of the Hat factory with all it’s amazing sculptures, or that weird roof top to one of the first electricity stations not to far away on the Mayfair side of the street. These places aren’t brought to the attention of locals or tourists. It’s a great shame really.

    As Jan X writes above there’s some lovely little spots nearby. Just off Oxford lies St Christopher’s Place with the lovely clock (and classy free haircuts nearby! ) You’re not far from the “lost” underground river Westbourne there’s easily enough to keep a good few non shoppers entertained just some rethinking is what’s required.

  25. Jan says:

    ‘re Linda+Ayres comments. The Grays Antique centre is now gone the section of the building containing what were at one point certainly the remnants of the Tyburn running in the basement has been closed since well before the pandemic. No plans to re -open unfortunately.

    It’s likely the tunnelling 4 crossrail that’s enclosed and eliminated whatever part of the Tyburn that had previously escaped being enclosed within piped sections. There was a T.A. centre quite close by the Cross rail building and development sites near Bond Street tube which definitely had the Tyburn running through its sub-basement you could hear the sound of the running water very clearly down there.
    Now that T.A. centre has itself closed.

  26. Jan says:

    I think although I am not a 100% sure Mr. F. that the only real relatively recent PLANNED street within London that was created in order to foster any sort of “cafe culture” (and was apparently actually envisaged as emulating the Ramblas in your adopted city of Barcelona!) Was Kingsway in Holborn! That’s a bit of an eye opener. Apart perhaps from Sicilian Avenue this didn’t come off at all as planned. Although they did find some very interesting secondary defence usages for Kingsway I suppose.

    It will be interesting to see how all the commercial outlets created as side projects for the 2012 Olympics survive post pandemic.

    Strikes me that apart from changes in air traveling all we have seen so far is really the speeding up of processes that were already well underway. If the pandemic itself is to create any deep changes then they will emerge in the next few years.

  27. admin says:

    I love Sicilian Avenue. It’s in the wrong place but is home to the Holborn Whippet!

  28. Francesca Dixon says:

    Sadly it’s not just Oxford Street, but Wigmore street, South Milton street and Bond Street too. Wigmore street always had some fascinating shops selling cloth, linens and very posh older ladies clothing now all gone. I visited Queensway the other year and what a dump that has become poor old Whiteleys. Perhaps Kensington High street is ok, but Kings road is bad as is Knightsbridge. It seems to be a disease like ash die back or Dutch elm bits survive most is dead wood.

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