Transforming Oxford Street: Plan to return Britain's famous shopping street to its former glory

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Once famous for its mile-long stretch of big name brands, Oxford Street has recently earned itself a reputation for tacky souvenir shops and brightly coloured candy stores, leaving a sour taste for those with fond memories of Britain's most famous shopping street.

Things got so bad even the boss of M&S called it a 'national embarrassment' - but perhaps not for much longer.

Westminster Council has grand plans to return the street to its former glory and entice more shoppers and retailers back to the heart of the West End.

But in a world changed by the pandemic and online shopping, they've got their work cut out.

Dee Corsi, Chief Executive at New West End Company, is optimistic and said the street was on the "cusp of a new dawn", she added: "I think Oxford Street is going through the most exciting reinvention that it’s ever had. The stores that are already here are investing significantly in their stores and offerings.

"Equally we’ve got new brands coming - the return of HMV and Pandora opening a third store on Oxford Street so the reinvention is happening anyway.

"To compliment that there is work happening with Westminster Council giving the whole public realm an upgrade on Oxford Street.

"So we’re on the cusp of a new dawn on Oxford Street.

"I think there is a challenge nationally across high streets and I think the pandemic effectively sealed the deal for Oxford Street, it was already struggling some might say but the pandemic really exacerbated that change. It’s allowed us to regroup and evolve.

"We’ve also got a million square foot of mixed retail and leisure being developed on Oxford Street and when that comes online that’s incredibly exciting.

"It’s a diversified offering."

St Christopher's Place has shops, fashion boutiques and restaurants just off Oxford Street Credit: ITV News

A thriving Oxford Street pumps millions of pounds into the local economy and brings hoards of people to the area keen to spend their cash.

St Christopher's Place is a charming oasis of calm brimming with familiar name shops and independent boutiques.

Tucked away in an unassuming side street close to Selfridges it is perhaps London's best kept secret and benefits from a busy West End.

"Don’t give up on it, Oxford Street is not dead and it’s still a great day out, there’s a lot to be done in the West End," said General Manager of St Christopher's Place, James Wall.

"In terms of pure footfall numbers if Oxford Street is busy then it helps us.

"All the economic challenges the country is facing you wouldn’t necessarily feel it here. We’re in a unique area in the West End, we’re seeing some good performance.

"The regeneration of Oxford Street has been discussed for ten or fifteen years - there have been various different plans.

"I think what has been put forward it realistic. I think it’s the right stepping stone for something to build on and lay strong foundations to allow the street to bounce back," James Wall explained.

Among those relying on West End trade are Catherine Humphrey who works at Christys' in St Christopher's Place, a company which has been making hats for 250 years.

Hats on display at Chrtistys' in St Christopher's Place Credit: ITV News

She said business benefitted from Oxford Street being busy as people looked for a personal service.

Catherine added: "Hats are really something you need to try on and have measured - the big thing about Christys' it isn’t so much the selling, it’s the helping out.

"So it’s based on customer service we measure people’s heads and tell them what suits them. A lot of people are fascinated by an English hat shop.

"There is footfall that comes from Oxford Street. There are a lot of people who cut through here and you see a lot of office workers cutting through.

"And it’s word of mouth. It’s still heaving on Oxford Street we must get a lot of people from the street come down here."

Plans to regenerate Oxford Street involve improvements along the entire length of the street from Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road. The council plans to improve the overall appearance of the street and boost space and safety for people on foot with better lighting and more green spaces with seating for shoppers. Busy junctions including Oxford Circus will also be redesigned to create more space for pedestrians.

Hopes were high of a further boost to trade with the opening of Ikea in the former Top Shop but that's been postponed by a year.

And the redevelopment of M&S's flagship store near Marble Arch is on hold after Michael Gove said no.

Other big name retailer are getting ready to open their doors in the months ahead including Paris Saint-Germain, Kurt Geiger, Steve Madden, Footasylum and Pocket Planet.

Oxford Circus in the heart of Oxford Street Credit: ITV News

Existing retailers also have the added concern the axing of VAT-free shopping for overseas visitors which stopped over two years ago.

"There are shops selling Rolex watches for £10,000 and that Rolex will be £8,000 in Paris for a tourist," said Councillor Geoff Barraclough from Westminster City Council.

"You could fund your entire trip by the VAT you get back in France.

"Basically we are telling all foreign tourists go and make your purchases in Paris, it's crazy!" he added.

Amid all challenges and change one retailer which has stood the test of time is John Lewis on Oxford Street.

The store began as a drapery shop and opened for business back in 1864 and is still going strong.

John Lewis has its flagship store on Oxford Street Credit: ITV News

Head of Branch Paul Marsden said he backed the New West End Company's plans for the future of Oxford Street and was working closely with Westminster Council.

He said: "We're really supporting Oxford Street to be the best that it can be in the marketplace.

"I think Oxford Street has lots to come for and lots to enjoy and is a great day out shopping.

"We’ve been trading at John Lewis on Oxford Street for nearly 120 years and this is our flagship store - by far our largest shop and Oxford Street is super important to us for sure.

"We see us being here for at least another 120 years. Through the pandemic we saw online trading really rise but now we are seeing customers return into our physical shops and tourism is really bouncing back as well.

"It’s a fantastic time to be trading on Europe’s premium high street."

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