13 June 2018

The Ghosts of Oxford Street 

by Mark Walker 

We are undoubtedly in an era of shopping list politics where politicians will always look to popular and easily digestible policies to sell to the electorate. Sadiq Khan’s two mayoral predecessors had such policies which they could use to define their terms positively. From congestion zones to bikes, their respective terms in office are remembered for those policies. In that vein, and with more than a hint of irony, the decision made by Westminster Council to cancel the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street leaves Sadiq Khan in search of his flagship policy and raises fresh questions about the Mayor’s relationship with other local boroughs.  

To understand how the decision has come about we need to put it in context. The proposed banning of cars on Oxford Street had been muted long before Westfield bookended Zone 2 with alternative shopping destinations for Londoners. I vividly remember my Grandad (a Black Cab Driver) discussing the plans whilst simultaneously moaning about Ken changing the traffic lights to stay red longer prior to introducing the Congestion Zone. Pollution and “experience shopping” weren't an argument then, traffic flow was the primary concern.

And it is this issue that seems to be winning out. It is impossible to tackle the issues of traffic movement, moving cars into more residential areas, without a lot of political skill, leadership and good will. Two recent political departures are key. Firstly, the departure of Val Shawcross, the Deputy Mayor for Transport, has meant there was a loss of focus from City Hall while waiting for Heidi Alexander to take up the reins. Furthermore, and even more importantly, the departure of Robert Davis meant the plans had lost a vital advocate inside the Westminster Cabinet. Westminster Council leader, Nickie Aiken, has taken the opportunity to put some clear water between herself and Davis and reinforce that Westminster will be “radical” from now on and be led by residents’priorities.

With Labour winning a seat in West End ward, which is partly down to the homophobic tweets made by the Conservative candidate Hillary Su, Sadiq should have had an improved mandate to introduce his plans. Conversely, we saw the party taking up opposition to the scheme with the 291 votes secured by Ronald Whelan of the Campaign Against Pedestrianisation of Oxford Street possibly contributing to the Labour’s victory in this ward. The two year project was finished as soon as all the political parties on the ballot paper on 3rd May opposed the pedestrianisation.

Many people reading this will be all too aware of the criticism aimed at the Mayor in his unwillingness to intervene and to take a lead on issues, especially on regeneration and development. Though the future of the road is under the control of Westminster Council, a Mayor can still achieve his goal but he needs the necessary political strength and leadership to move his agenda forward. Think the congestion zone. As the new administrations across London look to implement their manifestos, the successful local Labour Party opposition to the Mayor will give him a headache as he can no longer take for granted the support of Labour boroughs.

Some Leaders will be emboldened by Westminster’s bullishness and questions will now be asked about how to get stuff done and about the London Plan itself. If Sadiq Khan and TfL bring these proposals back to the table, and personally I think they will sometime late next year in order to make them a London-wide campaign issue, Councillors in Westminster and beyond would do well to remember another saying from my Cabbie Grandad: “the light at the end of the tunnel is often an oncoming train.”

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