Social streets for physical distance
In the short to medium term, the West End will need to allow residents, workers, and visitors to physically distance while visiting the area. But physical distancing requires extra space – and the West End is often short of it. The West End, particularly Soho, has historic networks of narrow streets that make staying physically distant hard. Queuing systems in place outside most shops also add to pressures on limited pavement space. Though footfall is unlikely to return to 2019 levels immediately, bars and small theatres can operate outside, where the risk of virus transmission is lower. Following campaigns by local businesses and Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), Westminster has allowed the timed closure of 15 streets in the borough, and has extended outdoor seating areas in another 10, 10 while Camden has pedestrianised the Seven Dials area seven days a week. These interventions are very welcome, and should be developed further over the coming months.
Recommendation 1: Central London boroughs should continue to expand opportunities for businesses to operate outdoors, either through the timed closures of roads, or temporary replacement of parking spaces. Boroughs will also need to be sympathetic towards shelter structures needed to enable outdoor operation to continue through the winter.
Timed closures of additional streets will require management of deliveries, to ease pressure on the carriageway during the daytime, and minimise the nuisance caused to residents at night. The West End is already at the forefront of work to optimise delivery and servicing movements: the Crown Estate is opening a new consolidation centre for Regent Street businesses, 11 and most of the West End is covered by plans to reduce delivery and servicing vehicle movement. But implementing ‘social streets’, and the need to decarbonise surface transport means that London must accelerate its plans to consolidate vehicle movement and a shift towards smaller, electric vehicles and cargo bikes would also advance London’s decarbonisation agenda.
Recommendation 2: Landowners and Business Improvement Districts should bring forward objectives to consolidate and time deliveries to limit disruption to businesses, visitors and residents across the West End.
Unlocking public transport The West End, like the rest of central London, is hugely reliant on public transport to operate. Prior to the pandemic, of those entering central London during the morning peak, only six per cent did so by car and motorcycle, three per cent by bicycle and eight per cent by bus compared to 82 per cent by underground, DLR and national rail. 12
But the crisis has changed mobility patterns, at least for the time being. In August, London Underground ridership remained 70 per cent below the same period last year. And while cycling levels have surged to triple their 12 pre-crisis levels at some weekends, this has been from a much smaller base, and has shown signs of decline as car traffic has risen again. 13
Emerging public health research from France and Japan suggests that transmission risk on public transport is low, and outbreaks are much more likely to happen in social settings. 14
Recommendation 3: Transport for London, in collaboration with the government and Public Health England, should explore whether public transport could operate at higher capacity without increasing virus transmission.
Travel to the West End should also be made easier for those who cannot or do not want to use public transport. In May, the Mayor of London announced that critical central London routes would be made free from private cars, and local authorities have restricted some streets to vehicular through-traffic during parts of the day, to offer safe routes to more vulnerable road users. Councils should move quickly to expand the number of safe walking and cycling routes and make sure schemes are joined up to create new, continuous routes into central London.
Cycle hire also has a role to play in encouraging Londoners to return to the West End. Usage of Transport for London’s cycle hire throughout the summer months was at a record level, thanks to continued maintenance and free ridership offers. But bikes are only available within zone 1, and a few areas of zone 2. The offer from private hire operators also has a central London bias. Yet, cycle hire is a good way for commuters and visitors to experience new modes of transport to reach the West End.
The Mayor of London and boroughs should bring forward a business case for expanding the availability of bikes, e-bikes and e-scooters for hire in outer London, and parts of inner London that are currently underserved.
The government should offer funding to increase cycle hire provision in London as part of the national cycling strategy. With Transport for London’s finances severely affected by the prolonged slump
Keeping the West End’s cultural institutions alive
West End theatres are infrastructure for London’s global appeal, drawing over 15 million visitors a year, 15 and are a vital part of the West End’s ecosystem; indeed, many associate the West End with theatreland alone. They play a significant national role – the West End makes up 60 per cent of annual revenues for UK theatres, 16 and are building blocks for London’s international appeal. Their closure has had a knock-on effect on footfall and consumer demand in hotels, restaurants, bars. In 2019, 18,364 performances took place across London’s theatres, drawing in 15 million spectators, bringing in £800 million in revenue and £133 million in VAT payments for the Treasury. 17
With performance venues under lock down for six months already, temporary closures to curb the spread of COVID-19 risk becoming permanent for many smaller, often independent, cultural institutions across London. Among these, Soho Jazz and blues venues such as Trishas or Ain’t Nothing But… were forced to launch a crowdfunding campaign to survive. 18 On 5 July, the government introduced a grant and loan programme worth £1.57 billion, to compensate cultural institutions for the loss of income. 19
But the cultural workforce is already bearing the brunt of the crisis. According to Bectu, the sector’s trade union, 5,000 jobs had already been lost in UK theatres by July – 2,000 of which were since the government announced its bailout plan, and 2,700 of which were from London theatres. 20
Meanwhile, shows could experiment with creative ways of reopening to start bringing audiences back to the West End. Small productions could borrow space from bigger venues for physically distanced performances, and stage shows outdoors in the West End’s squares and parks. Landowners and cultural institutions could also coordinate a weekly ‘London fringe’ event, consisting of small performances – gigs, dance, short plays and mime, drag acts, comedians – scattered across the West End streets and venues able to reopen. Not only would this give London’s performers an opportunity to work, and audiences a reason to return to the West End, it would also enliven public spaces and renew Covent Garden’s tradition of street performance, while spreading visitors out across the West End’s streets.
Such a project would of course require financial support, and strict adherence to physical distancing rules – but it is one of the few possible ways to relaunch London’s performance scene early.
Recommendation 5: Landowners and larger venues, with support from the Mayor of London and boroughs, should stage weekly ‘London fringe’ events across the West End’s streets, to create a new space for performances that respect physical distancing rules.
When theatres reopen, they will do so during a deep economic crisis, with tourism potentially still suppressed, and fewer people able to afford to return to the West End’s cultural institutions. The government could introduce culture vouchers – similar to the Eat Out to Help Out scheme – to benefit young people, who are less able to pay, and boost audiences in cultural venues (in the West End and other city centres), relaunching the sector and also increasing associated spending of eating and drinking out.
Recommendation 6: The government should introduce culture vouchers once indoor performances reopen.
Promoting London’s culture abroad
Drawing Londoners and domestic tourists back to the West End will be an important first step, given international tourism remains at record low. But London should make sure that once international travel is widely possible, visitor numbers bounce back, and tourists want to spend more time here than they would otherwise have. London & Partners, the capital’s promotion agency has a key role to play in bringing together the capital’s cultural attractions to grow their international digital following during the crisis, to sustain London’s global profile and welcome people back. It should also showcase the diversity of the capital’s cultural offering, to entice tourists to stay longer.
Recommendation 7: London & Partners, with support from VisitBritain, should help London’s cultural institutions to reach international audiences, and prepare a campaign to showcase London’s offer to international visitors.
Making use of vacant space
As would be expected in a time of economic crisis, the pandemic has caused a slowdown of lettings in the West End’s commercial property market. At the end of Q2 2020, take up of commercial space dropped down to 62 per cent on the previous year, pushing vacancy rate to 5.2 per cent. 21 It is likely that vacancies will rise further, as the recession bites, and businesses close or seek to sublet spare space.
There is an opportunity to revitalise empty units through meanwhile use, to provide amenities, social activities, training and business development, and business incubation in the West End, particularly for entrepreneurs new to the area.
While the temporary use of vacant space is a very attractive idea, it can be difficult to achieve in practice – with poor information on which spaces are available and for how long, limits on the turnover that occupants can make in a small time, and landowners’ preference for longer-term contracts. Meanwhile use also works better for some businesses than others. Some brands can’t afford to change location all the time since they need faithful customers. But for others it could provide access to an otherwise unaffordable location. 22
But many of these issues can be overcome. While it is tempting to leave space empty to avoid taking a rent cut, meanwhile use could contribute to the West End’s identity by adding a sense of novelty and surprise. Landowners could introduce ‘residencies’ for artists, chefs or retail brands in empty units, to keep the West End animated and encourage visitors to return.
Recommendation 8: Boroughs, BIDs and landowners should make a concerted effort to use of the West End’s vacant space. This would include gathering a live record of opportunities to occupy affordable commercial space and publicising them to a list of interested organisations.
Attracting the next generation of businesses
When, and whether, the West End will return to the seemingly unbeatable economic success it experienced before the crisis is an open question. But it is evident that increased remote working could paradoxically reinforce the West End’s role as a social centre. Indeed, if routine, solitary tasks are performed at home rather than in a central London office, businesses will want to dedicate their space in the West End to fostering interactions between team members. It is also likely that if going into central London is no longer a daily chore, more commuters will want to make the most of their time there. On top of this, more people working from home a few days a week would free some office space for more workers to be based in central London. promotion agency has a key role to play in bringing together the capital’s cultural attractions to grow their international digital following during the crisis, to sustain London’s global profile and welcome people back. It should also showcase the diversity of the capital’s cultural offering, to entice tourists to stay longer.
However, there could be long period of downturn before returning to growth if consumers fail to return and some businesses inevitably falter during the crisis period. This will be an opportunity to encourage growing industries to root or expand in the West End.
But even in a time of crisis, barriers to entry remain very high. Locating in the West End means paying its very high business rates, which are calculated on rateable values of previous years. Whilst existing outlets benefit from a temporary business rates holiday, a return to their pre-crisis business rates is likely to stifle sustainability and new growth alike. In August, the Mayor of London issued a call to action to support West End’s businesses – asking for reform business rates in the face of competition with digital retailers and continued financial support for businesses that are struggling because of coronavirus. 23
The businesses that fail, and those looking for a West End location, will also have different needs. Large occupiers are likely to downsize, but their offices were often custom made, and will require significant investment for others to move in – for example, repurposing a retail floor on Oxford street into contained offices for smaller companies. It would make a lot of sense for government to offer capital allowances on fit outs for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – not only would this ensure that strategically located office space is well-occupied, but it would also lower entry barriers for those companies that might benefit from a central London location. The fit-out allowance could also be used to reduce carbon emissions from buildings, for instance by encouraging investment in insulation and heating systems.