Posted on 7 Feb 2014
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Retail Q&A with Westminster City Council

What new retail led developments are coming forward in the Council's area? What are the key challenges to the existing high streets in the Council's area?

In Westminster, retail tends to come forward as part of mixed-use proposals, which is the main policy approach in our City Plan to foster sustainable development, and a diversity of uses. Victoria and Tottenham Court Road Opportunity Areas have significant amounts of retail coming forward as part of substantial mixed use redevelopments around major transport interchanges (including the new Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road), along with ongoing refurbishments and redevelopments of individual buildings at plots at the east end of Oxford Street. One of the key neighbourhood district centres at Church Street/Edgware Road is also likely to undergo significant change and renewal in the next 10-15 years as part of an area-wide housing regeneration project. A number of smaller scale developments are also coming forward in, for example, Mayfair which are responding to high demand in this internationally renowned retail location.

Is parking a serious issue for the high streets within the Council's area, and what has been the outcome of the Council's smart parking trial?

Westminster’s high streets benefit from excellent, unrivalled accessibility by public transport, particularly in and around Westminster’s Central Activities Zone. Even in the high street type centres in Westminster’s more residential areas, the vast majority of journeys are made by foot, bicycle or public transport. This is illustrated in our 2013 health check studies for 10 of Westminster’s key high streets, which showed that on average only 6% of all customer journeys to these centres were made by car. The ongoing debate that presupposes that ‘more’ or ‘free’ car parking is beneficial to a town centres success is therefore questionable in the context of Central London. The data from the smart parking trial is already being used to identify occupancy levels of spaces and who is using them, including resident permit spaces, allowing the Council to respond to need while having the benefit of being able to direct drivers to empty spaces and therefore use parking spaces more effectively.

Does the Council agree with the new measures to allow changes of use out of retail into other uses such as residential, or does it think that this will threaten the survival of the high street?

Central London, and Westminster in particular, has a very different retail market compared to the rest of the UK. Many parts of the West End have very few vacant units, and the highest retail rents in the country are found on Bond Street illustrating the high demand and limited supply. The vacancy rate of units in our high street centres in the more residential parts of the city are monitored annually, and again are well below the UK average, and currently range between 2-7% of units. Westminster has comprehensive, bespoke policies in place to manage vacant units and changes of use in designated shopping centres and cases are judged on their merits on an individual basis. We therefore do not agree with the current proposed changes, which could allow viable, occupied units to change to residential uses, and has the potential to break up healthy shopping frontages and threaten their overall vitality and viability, while losing essential local services in Westminster’s residential areas, meaning people would have to travel further to buy everyday goods. Our retail policies sit alongside our proactive mixed use and residential policies, which seek to secure residential development as the primary use throughout the City, and allows us to regularly exceed our housing supply targets.

There appears to be a growing shift away from the established policy of town centres first. What is the Council's view of town centres first?

Westminster continues to utilise the town centres first policy to support and enhance the vitality and viability of existing shopping centres by directing new retail and commercial uses to these locations. The London Plan also supports this policy approach. Secondly, this approach is a way to preserve residential amenity across the City by directing commercial uses to areas that are already designated for such uses. This works in Westminster due to the density of the city and the accessibility of designated centres, which allows commercial space and uses to be balanced against residential uses and the quality of life of Westminster’s residents.

For more information, please contact David Richardson at david.richardson@michelmores.com.