Shaping Tomorrow's London West End

londonDave Hill, The Guardian, May 01, 2013

Eighteen months in production, the report of the West End Commission on the evolutionary needs of London's commercial and cultural core launched at the Prince of Wales theatre and is a show that deserves a successful run. Though welcomed by Philippa Roe, leader of Westminster whose idea the project was, its recommendations for shaping the place that annually generates around £40b, hosts 200 million visitors a year and logs more crimes than the centres of Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Birmingham combined, present interesting challenges for those who run London, perhaps especially its Conservative elements. Chaired by the chief executive of Manchester, it could be an enduring template for the future development of the capital.

The report's recommendations include enhanced public transport, a greening of the environment, better road traffic management, more protection for heritage, a stress on affordable housing, improved recruitment of local people into jobs, a single approach to managing the night-time economy and more coherent marketing. Importantly, it argues to that achieving these things requires "a new leadership and governance model," involving key interested parties, including the mayor, in the context of further powers, including financial ones, being devolved to London from central government.

The strategic approach the document describes makes existing West End initiatives and aspirations look rather piecemeal, and current mayoral philosophy, a little lacking. The report is also a reminder of two large facts of London life, both of them so obvious there is a danger of forgetting they are there. One is that the West End is as complex, as it is varied as it is economically and symbolically vast. The other is that its problems, like many of London's as a whole, are largely consequences of success.

The transport issues in particular brings these points home. The advent of Crossrail, starting in 2018, will, says the report, "transform the way in which people travel to and from the West End," but adds that the extra capacity will swiftly be devoured. It identifies "post-Crossrail planning" on transport and infrastructure as "the most pressing requirement," urges more traffic-free days and says that "rebalancing the use of street and square space in favour of those on foot is inescapably at the heart of the challenge for the West End."

The report also recognises that the West End is not only a white hot centre of business and fun, but also a place where people live. It urges the West End boroughs - Westminster primarily, of course, but also Camden - to do all they can to preserve and increase levels of affordable housing, noting that much of the evidence the commission received emphasised that its community mix is "a key feature in the ongoing vitality of the West End." David Shaw, who heads the Regent Street portfolio for the Crown Estate, was eloquent on this theme at the launch.

Philippa Roe's next port of call was City Hall, where Boris Johnson added his welcome for the report and, I understand, agreed it would be a good idea if more of the tax wealth the West End creates could be invested in improving the area. The report of his London finance commission, due on 15 May, will have plenty to say about that sort of thing. Its chair, Tony Travers, and Sir Eddie Lister, the mayor's chief of staff and planning deputy, were chatting companionably at yesterday morning's unveiling.

The report of the West End Commission is online here.

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