London lessons for Guildford

17 June 2021

Oxford Street – a time of change

Oxford Street first became synonymous with shopping and fashion in the late 19th century, marked by the opening of John Lewis in 1864, followed by House of Fraser (Fraser & Sons) in 1879, 1909 saw Selfridges open.

In 2021, the picture is very different. The New West End Company, representing 600 businesses and retailers in the area, recently warned that at least one-fifth of London’s Oxford Street would be “boarded up with no hope of recovery”. This may result in 50,000 retail and hospitality jobs being lost.

It is estimated that footfall in 2020 was down over 40 per cent compared with the year before.

Change is coming

The last year has seen retailers embracing upgraded online offerings and delivery.  The retailers will have to adapt their stores to provide a unique experience for their customers to offer that same gratification.

Both Oxford and Regent street are seeing an entirely new generation of in-store innovations.  This is being led by luxury retailers, with major high street neighbours following at a more gradual pace.”

View from outside London

Paul Clement, chief executive at Ipswich Central – Business Improvement District for Ipswich, asserted that recent footfall figures do not represent the “death of the West End”.  His view is that once London workers were able to return to offices, their rotas are likely to be two to three days a week instead of the usual five. This means more people are likely to move further out to the outer suburbs of London or into the commuter belt outside the M25 since housing is cheaper – even if the commute is longer.

“Retailers in London are going to need to connect more actively with places like Ipswich which is an hour away,” Clement said, adding that places like Ipswich would reconfigure themselves around people living in their own centres, thereby converting redundant retail to housing.


Meanwhile, some retailers already have plans to downsize their sites on Oxford Street - John Lewis has been given the green light by Westminster City Council to convert 45 per cent of its Oxford Street flagship into office space.

Council View

Westminster Council is focused on “ supporting the district’s adaptation to a post-Covid world, whilst at the same time, paving the way towards a sustainable future.  Retail will always be part of that ecosystem but as we have said before, ‘business as usual’ and doing nothing is not an option for Oxford Street.”

Bold Approach

As part of the effort to re-invigorate Oxford Street, Oxford Circus will be transformed into two, pedestrian-friendly piazzas and work will begin later in the year.  It has been identified that there is an urgent need to tackle issues with pedestrian congestion and safety, poor air quality and noise. The serious congestion of Oxford Circus, of people and of traffic, is unsustainable and demands action.

The scheme is also set to include:

  • Delivering significant improvements to the public spaces in and around Oxford Circus, creating more pleasant places to eat, drink, shop and enjoy the centre of the city.
  • Introducing additional planting and seating to improve the overall look and feel of the area and encourage dwell time.
  • Significant improvements to public realm, including working with Transport for London to create improved access to Oxford Circus tube station.
  • Road closure through the introduction of Experimental Traffic Orders, between Oxford Circus and Gt. Portland Street to the East, and Oxford Circus and John Princes Street to the West, turning it into a pedestrian-first zone.
  • The launch of the RIBA International Design Competition in Summer 2021 to deliver the final scheme, ensuring “world class” designs and value for money.

Westminster has already committed £150 million to kickstart the programme and attract inward investment, taking full advantage of the Elizabeth Line opening in 2022 and the area’s links to the wider West End and beyond.

Lessons for Guildford.

Many of the issues facing Oxford Street can be seen in Guildford.  It is interesting to see a bold approach, especially to traffic management,  and a pro-active approach to helping Downsizing of retail.  Finally running an Architectural Competiion for a prime site is to be comended.

Based on news items in Retail Gazette here  and here

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