By Griff Rhys Jones
There are big plans for Oxford Street in the offing. You may already know of them and they are certainly going to affect the residents who live around that retail artery. There was a consultation with Transport for London, but it appears that they put up the “wrong address” on their internet site. Undismayed, they report back that most people are in favour of their proposed changes. (I think they mean the ones that they directly approached, not the ones who couldn’t get through to their consultation process.) I hesitate to go into print. I hesitate to be a NIMBY (though I have always believed that if we don’t care for our own backyard then nobody else is likely to) but the desire to pedestrianize Oxford Street will have more repercussions than allowing the shopper to romp and yomp along the ancient thoroughfare un-menaced by extremely slow-moving traffic.
When I moved into what is considered the centre of town, some twenty years ago, I rather imagined that I had good planning to thank. In the nineteenth century dirty, polluted air drove people out to the suburbs in search of breathing space. The clean air acts of the nineteen fifties appeared to liberate the centre of London. It took time, but humans moved back. It was a shock to be told, a few years ago, that I actually lived in the most polluted area in Europe. Not coal smoke: an invisible and more deadly poison was drifting through the air. Its origin is not hard to discover. Walk along Oxford Street and count the number of heavy diesel engines pumping their particulate matter into the immediate atmosphere. Buses and taxis stopping and starting, idling and accelerating. Empty or not, they chug, fume and sputter ceaselessly. Delivery lorries throb out their fumes endlessly.
Mr Mayor and his TfL team rightly want to dispose of this evil and save the temporary inconvenience to shoppers. They intend to move the noxious poison away from Oxford Street and out into the back streets: along Mortimer Street and up Great Portland Street through the inhabited area. They seem to want to put this stuff where people live and babies sleep, where children go to school and people work all day, where we cycle and walk — where we eat. I don’t follow this. If you have shit in your garden, would you move it into your living room?
London is a successful city because it is inhabited. In the seventies planning divisions across Britain became obsessed with “zoning”. It is still taught as the solution to urban life. Move poisonous factories away from the living quarters. This was a good idea, but it was extended to include offices and shops (which produce little pollution). These areas were separated from the human dormitories. This official compartmentalisation devastated the big cities of Britain and created alienating, post five o’clock, no-go city centres. Nobody wanted to live in our downtown wastelands any more. The do-nut effect took over Liverpool, Bradford, Leeds, Ipswich, Peterborough, Belfast, Newport… Stop. Many, many other major towns or cities. Of course, it also relied on a Corbusian fantasy. Human beings were shown zooming effortlessly around on electro-glide mono-rails in architectural drawings of supreme impracticality. But in actuality people preferred cars. And where the car was banned, they took to buses.
There is of course every intention to get rid of diesel transport and render delivery lorries and taxis inert, but er… not yet. It’s not practical, you see, certainly within the next ten years. So, the well-intentioned desire to separate humans from the dirty means of production has led to rivers of belching, fuming, choking, noisy, polluting traffic — far more deleterious to health and peace than any modern factory. In few places in Britain are people actually zoned from this real pollution — ring roads and feeder lanes, access routes and three-lane motorway-feeders. Except, funnily enough, in London. Not just because of the congestion charge. We actually have fewer motorways choking the great Wen. They were opposed by those damned NIMBYs. (Just visit Glasgow or Bradford to witness the effect of “good transport solutions.”) There was, originally, a six-lane highway planned for the Tottenham Court Road. It was heading for Centre Point. We should thank those pesky NIMBYs that it never happened.
We who now live in central London should pat ourselves on the back. We are the proper green future of the urban world — walking to work, living close to facilities, in a fully mixed environment of work space, entertainment, living-space and small local supply shops. It is the commuter and the daily Gadarene rush to occupy offices, to go shop down-town and to supply big shops and workplaces that really causes pollution.
You might think that “pedestrianisation” is therefore a good thing. Lots do. But look more closely. There is another reason why this is being pushed through. This is part of a plan to “big up” Oxford Street. Oxford Street is still the largest shopping area in London. (Surprised? Well, it is very long). But it has steadily lost ground over the last twenty years to the Westfield Centres in Stratford and Shepherd’s Bush and that Brent Cross place. Now Westminster want to fight back. They are allowing bigger edifices. The corner of Rathbone place, big enough and a handsome Edwardian building in itself, is now scheduled for destruction – to be replaced with a bigger monolith. Surely, they argue, the new Elizabeth Line can be used to ferry more people into the centre of town? More shops, more offices. More traffic, more deliveries, more buses. More taxis. More “commerciality”. London having avoided the zoning that has ruined city after city across Britain in now getting it by default. As these areas are “improved” in the name of profit, so the living areas become less tenable. Even untenable, if you deliberately push all the pollution off your concourse and into the neighbouring streets which you then happily fill with more, bigger offices and supply lorries.
We all love to shop, but retail, as exemplified by the old fashioned commercial multi-chain-store parade in the centre of town, is actually dying. Everybody recognises this. Mary Portas became a Czar on the back of it. (As if we needed an out of date Russian aristocrat to sort this out.) Many have loudly, and publicly, lamented this “decline of the High Street”. But what is a Canute-like policy to “maintain growth” at all costs? We still grow alright, just not in the way that backward-looking planners and councils want. People still consume. People still buy. The future, however, is clearly with more on-line shopping. As I write this it has been announced that the rate of shop closure has doubled. People prefer to use their local centres like the hermetically sealed Westfield. What windy wide wet street can possibly compete. It certainly won’t compete by getting bigger. Can’t we recognise that the migration of people who want to come and live in city centres is a good thing, a green thing, a sustainable thing and assist them? It has happened in the last twenty years, against official opposition, not only in Leeds and Manchester but also in Islington and Paddington. Preserve character, value and quality in good Victorian buildings: recycle them and restore them. Make the streets good to walk in, and live in, free of that excessive commuter traffic hurrying around the city. London is a series of villages. Big them up. Let Walthamstow and Ilford become new exciting centres, so that people can live, shop and work there. Let the main West End high street shrink and discourage the gutting of the centre to create a no-go commercial area. Oxford Street is only “in danger” from bad commerciality, opportunism and high rents.
We know already, those of us who live here, that we must avoid Oxford Street after six. We hurry across this deadly, empty canyon to get to the mixed vibrant world of living, eating, entertaining, music and habitation on either side. We tolerate its big shops, but if it were to shrink would we care? If some of the shops were to go would we rush to build new ones? Let us celebrate the mixed economies of Fitzrovia and Marylebone. Let us recognise that a true central capital city has museums, places of worship, parks, palaces, concert halls, libraries, universities, cinemas, theatres, and habitation as well as “business”. Let us step back from creating massive out of date, mono-cultural, shop-hour and working-time deserts right in our midst. It serves no one but the perpetrators. The people who run or own these businesses don’t live there. They have no stake in the area beyond square footage and product-shifting. We do.
Griff Rhys Jones is the president of Civic Voice and of the Victorian Society who have protested the destruction of Evelyn House at the corner of Oxford Street and Rathbone place. Historic England have also opposed it.