Heart of London Business Alliance was recently re-elected the West End’s local Business Improvement District in a ballot of more than 600 businesses and property owners.
We represent an area covering Piccadilly, St James’s, Haymarket, Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square and St Martin’s Lane – in other words, one of the best patches of real estate in the world.
When we last had to undergo the same ballot process five years ago, nobody could have foreseen the events that were coming our way. But, if anything, the pandemic has developed our understanding of the value we can add and the role we can play in representing local businesses, including property owners.
While the experience and realities of Covid have reshaped and reinvigorated the business community, for the business sector in central London specifically, the focus must be on securing the future of the most diverse, energetic and cutting-edge destination in the world.
The pandemic has shone a bright light on the significance of central London to the wider UK and global economy, and so the West End should continue to be positioned at the very heart of the nation’s economic recovery. Therefore, it will be important to work with the government to drive strategic change that will help London maintain its status as a great global city.
Government can best achieve this by setting a roadmap for the return of international visitors, helping businesses ensure they can draw on staff with the right skills and making sure our public transport system receives the investment it deserves.
The most recent footfall statistics show people are gradually returning to London. This is welcome but the wider context, as a recent Centre for Cities report notes, is that central London lost 47 weeks’ worth of sales between March 2020 and September 2021 – the biggest loss in the UK – so there is a long way to bounce back.
For our part, we will do all we can to make sure people returning to London have a great experience. Our business plan, West End 2027, outlines a programme of activity to help the West End recover and thrive from Covid as a global powerhouse.
The centrepiece is its placeshaping strategy, which includes more than 40 potential public realm projects, all designed to preserve and enhance the unique character of the central London area. The public realm schemes will include the creation of a new Arts Quarter in the network of small streets behind the National Gallery, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. The Arts Quarter is anticipated to bring forward around £1bn of investment as development opportunities come forward.
Bringing culture to the streets and integrating art into the built environment is based on the idea that it will be more important than ever to have spaces in the West End that people want to come back to, particularly as footfall picks up.
But it is only by businesses, property owners and government working together that the West End will recover, grow and thrive as a global cultural and commercial powerhouse and, in turn, ensure a much faster recovery for the nation.
Ros Morgan is chief executive of Heart of London Business Alliance