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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Britain’s High (Low?) Street

Updated: Apr 14

Oxford Street is, we are told, experiencing what has been described variously as a rebound, a recovery or a revival. The tatty American candy shops are going, the funky new fashion names are coming in and the traditional anchor stores are changing. The aim is to make what Westminster council calls ‘one of Europe’s premier shopping destinations’ fit for a post-pandemic world, but are these measures enough and what should this mile-and-a-quarter-long street be for anyway?

Rising rents (levied by landlords), rising rates (collected by councils) and changing shopping habits were known problems from what a friend calls the before times; Covid only amplified and accelerated the issue. Everyone now seems keen to get things back to how they were, and footfall and vacancy rates are indeed slowly improving. There are lots of new glazed façades on the street, and lots of new names. So even if Westminster’s characterisation is rather hubristic – New Bond Street is arguably a better candidate, for a start – it matters for economic reasons, but it also matters for societal ones.

Most Londoners have bought something in Oxford Street. My first visit to central London as a child was to the east end of the street so that I could haunt Forbidden Planet; a decade later I was spending my first pay slip in Smithers & Leigh, a now-lost record shop at the west end. Many Saturday afternoons in the years since saw me walk its entire length for presents, clothes or videos. Both sets of reasons are true if you live in Manchester, or Plymouth, or Newcastle. The important lessons that might be learned in London thus matter for other major cities and for their equivalent ‘high streets’.

LESSON 1: Size does matter…

Oxford Street was once the nexus of the department store, as Tessa Boase’s lovely little book

reminds us, and the concept of one establishment able to supply everything a shopper might need retains an obvious appeal in an age where time is short and convenience is king. The two remaining examples in the street have very different approaches to that idea, however. Selfridges, the second largest shop in the entire country (beaten only by Harrods, perhaps the most famous and of course also a department store), acts as a showcase for many independent brands whereas John Lewis mostly sells its own lines. The two philosophies complement each other for now, but whether the latter can actually survive is another question.

It seems less and less likely that one concern can continue to fulfil the increasing demand for more specialised, more unusual or simply cheaper goods across the range of things that can now be bought, a range that itself is becoming wider and wider every day. That John Lewis has quietly abandoned its ‘Never knowingly undersold’ promise, closed a number of stores and started shrinking its sales floor space in favour of office accommodation for rental tends to confirm this. Selfridges, on the other hand, delivering on its founder’s ethos of openness, innovation and exhibition, runs its flagship as a “creative playground where you can socialise, get inspired and explore positive ideas” and to that end now includes its own cinema and a permanent events space, alongside its ongoing experiments in retailing (not all of these work out though – ten years ago a rotating glass lift within the self-contained Louis Vuitton ‘townhouse’ concession broke down within days and was later discreetly removed).


The shells of former department stores that until recently still held large, single-category retailers or had already been adapted once are also undergoing transformation. Their physical volume is key. At Oxford Circus the old Topshop will welcome IKEA, a move west for furnishing stores from their long-term location of choice in Tottenham Court Road, and the upper levels of the old Bhs are now occupied by a large food court. What was for many years the Plaza mall has been reshaped to contain one speciality retailer, meaning that its building will now have done duty as all three major shop types. All of these retain frontages from different eras, which is appropriate.

House of Fraser’s strongly Modernist store from 1937 is currently under wraps during its transformation into the Elephant, a mixed-use building for working, dining and keeping fit (as well as some shopping); it too will be kept the same externally. Two blocks down, Debenhams’ rather less impressive premises of 1971 will emerge from its own chrysalis as three floors of retail and three of offices and looking very different thanks to a robust reclad. And there is Marks & Spencer, occupying a trio of undistinguished and unsuitable buildings and so aiming for comprehensive redevelopment on the same site to produce a state-of-the-art store that is nevertheless smaller and topped with more offices – having had his decision to refuse the scheme ruled unlawful earlier this year, the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities is currently considering his options. Personally I think it’s a no-brainer, and the scheme should go ahead. Those concerned about sustainability have a valid point but seem selective in their targets, whilst other concerns are more relevant here.


LESSON 2: … Except when it doesn’t

Many more modest insertions have been made along Oxford Street over the past few years, with Crossrail (now the Elizabeth Line) the driver thanks to the amount of demolition necessary to create four entrances to two stations. Some of these new buildings have architectural ambition and most have altered the townscape, more or less effectively. Many are being aggressively marketed with surprisingly blunt invitations on their hoardings – ‘Insert your brand here’ was my alternate title for this piece.

These new premises and the refitting of existing stores have resulted in online-only brands like Gym Shark opening their first physical outlets and old names like HMV returning to its original home (though the blank walls within and lack of any recognition of its rich heritage are depressing as well as startling, in context). All will change the mix, but it feels to me that Oxford

Street needs to do more to recognise its status as an armature connecting specific districts. Non-fashion and hospitality occupiers should thus not be scattered everywhere but instead carefully placed and clustered to direct people to local speciality areas, whether the theatre district to the south east, the purist wealth of Mayfair to the south or the more bohemian refinement of Fitzrovia to the north. Such physical links that do exist currently - the side streets - could be subtler and more penetrable. The commercial and architectural grain of Oxford Street is probably too coarse for truly boutique and concept stores, but the fact there isn’t a dedicated book shop anywhere along its length following the closure of Waterstones and, rather longer ago, the brilliant Borders seems like an obvious gap to be filled, to name but one.


LESSON 3: Who’s in charge here?

It's worth noting here that that sheer extent of the street, awkward Oxford Circus boundary between major freeholders and the not-always-clear position of the New West End Company, the BID that advocates for it, aren’t always helpful. Crucially Westminster council has often made mistakes. It seems to have been caught unawares by the sudden proliferation of those short-term, down-market tenants despite this being a consequence of three months’ rates relief being available to landlords when a previous occupier leaves; the now-infamous Marble Arch Mound was an obvious error from the start even before it swallowed millions of pounds of public money and the council’s deputy leader (not literally – he resigned); and the on-again, off-again pedestrianisation plan (finally agreed in September, albeit in a toned-down form) all further dulled an image that had already been tarnished.


Contrast this with the impressively focussed, not to say single-minded, line taken by the Crown Estate in Regent Street, which diverges from Oxford Street in more ways than one. As owner and manager it has been able to control (it would I’m sure say curate) the tenant mix like a piano keyboard, shifting it upmarket and implementing important projects to facilitate this such as the AirW1 and Café Royal schemes. A way to tighten up the governance of Oxford Street would help.


Thinking outside the box

Whether retail hub, experiential zone or work/eat space, Oxford Street could certainly benefit from a rethink. Times change and yesterday is not today. I go there far less often than I used to, and I’ve set out some of the reasons why. Let’s see if that can be changed, so a new generation can fold it into its own story.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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