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Let’s (not) go al-fresco

By Rebecca Coleman
27 September 2021

By Rebecca Coleman

Something decidedly un-European is occurring at Westminster Council. In the past two weeks they have announced that plans to install temporary pedestrian piazzas at the most congested parts of Oxford Street will no longer go ahead, as well as the news that al-fresco dining will cease at the end of the month.

The rejection of the two frankly continental proposals, goes beyond the realm of a dismissal of European café culture (sorry, Brexiteers). Nor can it be wholly attributable (despite the press and local Labour Party’s best efforts) to the failure of the Marble Arch Mound, which so far has claimed the job of the Deputy Leader of the Council and an astonishing £6 million of public funds.

The real reason is quite simple and affirms a truth that underpins the planning system: if the residents don’t like it, you’re in for an uphill struggle. And it’s fair to say the Oxford Street District Framework, accelerated by the Mound’s political and financial fallout, has seriously rubbed the 38,000 people who live within the area.

A few weeks ago, and importantly, prior to the Council’s announcement that they would scrap both schemes, a letter to the Council from Westminster’s 23 Amenity Societies (resident’s associations) blamed the Mound on the Council’s failure to listen to local people. The first line is damning: ‘Briefly, we feel that residents are not being properly listened to and their voice not heard, wither through their representative councillors or in the mechanism that Westminster City Council uses to consult prior to bringing in certain new schemes within the area.’

Further down the letter, the society draws ‘worrying parallels’ between the Marble Arch Mound and projects such as the Oxford Street Piazzas and the al fresco policy. The specific concerns of the societies will strike a chord with anyone familiar with community engagement: more traffic, more anti-social behaviour and more noise.

The letter proved to be a death sentence for both. Now, the Oxford Street District Framework lies in stasis, with a new ‘Vision for Soho’ being created in consultation with local residents that will focus on more permanent schemes. In an update to the project website, Westminster Council says it has always made it clear that ‘all improvements must benefit our residents as well as businesses and visitors’ and underlines that it will be consulting ‘openly and fully’ with local groups on future schemes.

The timing, when London is desperately looking to attract more footfall into the centre and Christmas around the corner, can only be described as poor. However, with the London borough elections now just nine months out, it is now time for the city’s local authorities to start prioritising voters, rather than tourists.
Starting life more than 2,000 years ago as part of a Roman road connecting Essex and Hampshire, the Street has a surprising and enduring history at the heart of London. Jump forward to today, the wider district now attracts 200 million visitors a year, with 60 million more anticipated once the Elizabeth Line opens. Pedestrianisation, having been threatened for decades, seems like an inevitable inconvenience to come for residents.

For the meantime, with the proposals in the rear view and the elections in the headlights, the Council will be sticking closely to the classic adage: when in Oxford Street, do as the Romans do.