Westminster city council’s decision to block the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street threatens to undermine Sadiq Khan’s hopes of a legacy that will be remembered for decades. Khan is now facing the biggest test of his mayoralty. If he allows the scheme to fall by the wayside, his tenure will be seen as a failure and London will be left with a shabby, polluted street as its once-famous commercial centre.
The pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, which Khan adopted as his policy after I suggested it at one of the hustings during the mayoral candidateselection process, is key to its future. With online shopping causing daily casualties of well-known high-street retail names, is it any wonder that fewer people want to brave the fume-filled narrow stretches of pavement when 50% of the street’s space is given over to empty buses and taxis? There have been four deaths and numerous serious injuries caused by motorised traffic on the road in the two years since Khan took over. This carnage should not be allowed to continue.
Moreover, there is the arrival in December of Crossrail, whose trains will bring up to 1,200 people into the street’s two stations, Tottenham Court Road and Bond Street, from a single train – and there will be up to 24 per hour in each direction.
Most cities in the world have learned that pedestrianised areas lead to an improved economy and a better environment and yet Westminster, a deeply reactionary Tory-led authority which makes tens of millions of pounds of profit from parking tickets and fines, insists London remain in the dark ages. Its Tory leader Nickie Aiken, who, astonishingly, revealed the council’s decision to block pedestrianisation on the very day House of Fraser announced it was closing its store, admitted in double negative speak that, “we do think that most people, ourselves included, feel that doing nothing is also not an option”.
Yes, two-thirds of local people objected to the closure, but only because they feared more traffic on their local streets, which is unlikely to happen since only the buses and taxis currently allowed in Oxford Street will be displaced. So the effects will be minimal. More importantly, two-thirds of Londoners overall supported the plan and the mayor must show that he represents them, not the few misinformed nimbys of Westminster.
Khan, quite rightly, condemned Westminster’s decision but that’s the easy bit. He seemed to make no commitment to pushing ahead with the scheme other than a vague pledge: “I won’t walk away from Oxford Street.” Neither has he set out any strategy about what action he could take. Westminster seems intent on stalling through yet more consultation, but the time for talking is over. Instead, Khan must show that he really believes in a policy that has widespread support across London.
He could take lessons from his predecessor. Most of what Boris Johnson did as mayor was showboating, but his one success was the cycle superhighways. They are now used by tens of thousands of cyclists daily and yet, at the time, some key business interests, notably the Canary Wharf Group, threatened legal action, horrified by the thought that humble cyclists would be given priority over limos speeding along Lower Thames Street. The powerful taxi lobby was also intent on wrecking the scheme. Nevertheless, Boris – backed by his eccentric cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan – held firm and the world-class route along the Embankment is his legacy.
Gilligan was a genuine cycling proselytiser and campaigner; Khan, on the other hand, has appointed a cycling and walking commissioner, Will Norman, who comes across as a bureaucrat. Khan has further weakened his position by having just replaced his deputy mayor for transport, Val Shawcross, with the former MP Heidi Alexander, who has no previous experience in transport.
Khan must throw his natural caution to the wind and show Westminster he means business; he can do this by cutting off any funds going to the council since every borough gets an allocation from Transport for London. He should continue to move bus routes away from Oxford Street, which in any case is a necessary step to closing the street to traffic, and he could even threaten to ban licensed cabs from the street. The very future of the centre of London is at stake.