Battered by Covid and needing to adapt, this special part of central London is gradually reviving and taking a new shape
The West End of London’s huge importance to the UK’s economy is one of those things a lot of people in the UK, including almost all its leading national politicians, are reluctant to acknowledge. But no amount of pretending will alter the fact that, pre-pandemic, about 3% of the UK’s annual economic output was generated from the West End’s roughly eight square miles. A dead West End is a killer for the country, not just the capital. How has it been doing in the run-up to the first Christmas since 2019 that hasn’t been heavily restricted by Covid?
It’s certainly felt livelier of late and the advent of the Elizabeth Line has helped. Figures compiled by the New West End Company (NWEC), the business improvement district of Oxford Street, Regent Street and Mayfair areas, for the week commencing 12 December show an overall increase of 4% compared with the same period in 2021 but 24% down compared with the same period in 2019.
That might seem discouraging, but NWEC says the combination of heavy snowfall and national rail strikes on Tuesday 13, Wednesday 14, Friday 16 and Saturday 17 “have had a major detrimental effect on visitation across all parts of the West End”, with footfall down by 22% compared with the previous week compared with falls of 10% across Greater London as a whole and 11% nationally. In the preceding five weeks, overall footfall for the area had been down by between 3% and 9% compared with 2019.
The figures for week commencing 12 December also show considerable localised variations: the number for Savile Row was up by 25% compared with 2019, despite the rail strikes, and for Oxford Street East they were up by 24%. At the other end of the scale, the figure was down by 22% in Duke Street and by 18% in Oxford Street West. A breakdown of daily footfall isolates the impact if the rail strikes – on Thursday 15 December, when there wasn’t one, overall football was up by 28% compared with 2021, but on both 13 and 14 it was up by only 1%.
Transport for London stats for the same period, going up to Sunday 18 December, tell a different part of the same story. Go to their network demand website, click through to “demand by station type” and pick out entry and entrance figures for individual stations from the column down the right-hand side.
Tottenham Court Road – served by the Elizabeth Line as well as the Central Line and Northern Line since May, of course – has seen a big leap since a year ago. On 15 December 2021 (a Wednesday), there were 53,013 station entries and exits. On 15 December 2022 (a Thursday), which was not a rail strike day, the figure was three times higher – 159,615.
At Oxford Circus on the same two comparison days the figures were respectively 118,800 (2021) and 174,727 (2022).
The West End is recovering and, as John McRae of Architects Orms, designers of The Outernet, Heather Topel from Grosvenor and Geoff Barraclough from Westminster Council explain in my latest podcast for The London Society, its remarkable eco-system of shops, restaurants, clubs and bars, theatres museums and galleries, and local communities that are larger and more varied than many might think, is renewing and reconfiguring. It hasn’t reached a settled new form yet, but it is already taking shape.
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