Westminster has blocked Sadiq’s plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street. So are London’s boroughs too powerful?

What might have been: artist’s impression of the pedestrianised Oxford Street. Image: TfL.

For most of its history, London didn’t really exist. The city out-grew its ancient walls many centuries ago; yet right up until the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855, the resulting conurbation was run not by the City of London Corporation, but by a patchwork of different parish councils. Margaret Thatcher’s decision to scrap the Greater London Council, 131 years later, has gone down in history as a politically-motivated act of short termism, and it was – but it was also, in some ways, a reversion to tradition.

The capital got its legal identity back in 2000, with the creation of the Greater London Authority. But Sadiq Khan still has fewer levers to pull than, say, Anne Hidalgo in Paris or Bill de Blasio in New York. Being mayor of London is less like being a chief executive than being a feudal lord: getting stuff done tends to involve marshalling forces who have their own priorities, and who are very aware of the fact they don’t answer to you.

Which is why a single borough council has been able to effectively veto one of Khan’s highest profile plans.


Oxford Street is Europe’s busiest shopping street. It’s also horrible: a dirty, smoggy canyon, where the pavements are too narrow and the space between is rammed with buses and the pollutants they spew out. So the idea of pedestrianising it – turning the street into a place it might actually be pleasant to visit – has been talked about for years.

Under Sadiq Khan, it seemed like it might actually happen. The Labour mayor campaigned on the issue and, once elected, instructed Transport for London (TfL) to start quietly restructuring the bus network to make pedestrianisation possible. Last November, TfL unveiled plans to start closing it to traffic from this December, along with the inevitable concept images showing how lovely the new, motor-free Oxford Street would be.

But all this, it turns out, has been a colossal waste of everybody’s time, because Westminster City Council has changed its mind. Last week, its leader Nickie Aiken said in a statement that, following public consultations and council elections, “It was clear... that local people do not support the pedestrianisation proposals.” That may well be correct: over at OnLondon, Dave Hill makes a compelling case that it’s electoral concerns that put the council off.

The thing is, though, that the locals who object to the plan aren’t necessary right. They may have good and sensible reasons for opposing pedestrianisation – perhaps it’ll mean an increase in traffic on their own street, for example. But just because it’ll be bad for them, that doesn’t mean it’ll be bad for those who shop on Oxford Street, or for London as a whole.

TfL’s road network, in red, and the motorways, in blue. Every other road in London is run by the local council. Image: TfL.

But it isn’t London as a whole that gets to decide this one. London’s streets are the domain of its councils – and councils are answerable to their voters. And so, a project that could have benefited all Londoners has been stymied by the objections of a few.

This sort of thing happens with depressing frequency. There are many reasons why TfL has failed to produce a London-wide network of cycling routes (cost, inertia, black cabbies being a pain in the arse). But a big one is that doing so would involve altering streets controlled by the boroughs.

And not all the boroughs will play ball. Some – Camden, Southwark, Tower Hamlets – are quite enthusiastic. But Hackney, despite housing one of the highest concentrations of cyclists in the entire country, could not be persuaded that a Cycling Superhighway needed segregated space, and instead sent CS1 down a series of back roads.

Quietway 1 is split into two routes, north and south, each of which stops suspiciously close to the Westminster borough boundary. And not a single scheme has penetrated the borders of Kensington & Chelsea: the borough remains an impenetrable barrier to any route between west and central London.

Neither the mayor nor TfL are empowered to fix any of this. They can persuade. They can cajole. But they can’t command, and if the boroughs don’t want something, then there’s no way of forcing it upon them.

What might have been: the ringways. Image: David Cane/Wikimedia Commons.

This has not always been a bad thing: not all grand-projets are a good idea. Back in the 1960s, it was big road schemes that were all the rage, and it was only the intransigence of the boroughs that prevented an urban motorway from being driven through Hampstead and Highbury Fields.

Nonetheless, the fragmented nature of London’s local government means that plans to solve the capital’s problems will always be at the mercy of small groups of highly motivated NIMBYs. Unless TfL is granted more powers, at the expense of the boroughs, Oxford Street won’t be the last.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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To boost the high street, cities should invest in offices

Offices in Northampton. Image: Getty.

Access to cheap borrowing has encouraged local authorities to proactively invest in commercial property. These assets can be a valuable tool for cities looking to improve the built environment they offer businesses and residents.

Councils are estimated to have spent £3.8bn on property between 2013 and 2017, funded through the government’s Public Works Loan Board (PWLB) at very low interest rates. Offices accounted for half of this investment, and roughly a third (£1.2bn) has been spent on retail properties. And local authorities were the biggest investor group for UK shopping centres in the first quarter of 2018.

Why are cities investing? There are two major motivations.

First, at a time when cuts are squeezing council revenue budgets, property investments can provide a long-term revenue stream to keep quality public services up and running. Second, ownership of buildings in areas marked for redevelopment allows councils to assemble land more easily and gives them more influence over the changes taking place, allowing them to make sure the space evolves to meet their objectives.

But how exactly can cities turn property ownership into successful place-making? How should they adapt the buildings they invest in to improve the performance of the economies?

Cities need workers

When developing the city’s property offer, the aim should be to get jobs back into the city centre while reducing the dominance of retail space. For councils who have invested in existing retail space and shopping centres, in particular, the temptation may be to try and retain their existing use, with new retail strategies designed to reduce vacancies.

But as the Centre for Cities’ recent Building Blocks report illustrates, the evidence points to this being a dead-end. Instead, cities may need to convert the properties they own so they house a more diverse group of businesses.

Many city centres already have a lot of retail – and this has not offered significant economic benefit. Almost half (43 per cent) of city centre space in the weakest city economies is taken up by shops, while retail only accounts for 18 per cent of space in strong city centre economies. And many of these shops lie empty: in weaker city centres vacancy rates of high-street services (retail, food and leisure) are on average 16 per cent, compared with 9 per cent in stronger city economies. In Newport, nearly a quarter of these premises are empty, as the map below shows.

The big issue in these city centres is the lack of office jobs – which are an important contributor to footfall for retailers. This means that, in order to improve the fortunes of the high street, policy will need to tackle the barriers that deter those businesses from moving to their city centres.

One of these barriers is the quality of office space. In a number of struggling city centres, the quality of office space on offer is poor. But the low returns available for private investors mean that some form of public sector involvement will be required.


Ownership of buildings gives cities the opportunity to reshape the type of commercial space on offer. Some of this will involve improving the existing office stock available, some will involve converting retail to office, and some of will require demolishing part of the space without replacing it, in the short term at least. Without ownership of the land and buildings on it, this task becomes very difficult to do but will be a fundamental part of turning the fortunes of a city centre around.

Cheap borrowing has provided a way not only for local authorities to generate an income stream through property investment. but also opens up the opportunity to have greater control over the development of their city centres. For those choosing to invest, the focus must be on using ownership to make the city centre a more attractive place for all businesses to invest, rather than hoping to revive retail alone.

Rebecca McDonald is an analyst at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.