Footfall in London’s West End has fallen 92% in the past year, a troubling insight into a normally bustling global city centre that employs 500,000 people and welcomes more than 200 million visitors a year.
The plight of London’s West End does not hit the headlines more because no one is there to see it; out of sight is out of mind. Our great capital is asleep, but as vaccinations soar, we now need a robust and ambitious plan from government to reawaken central London and bring it roaring back to life.
Heart of London Business Alliance represents many of the UK’s best-known organisations, including the Royal Academy of Art, the English National Opera, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, BAFTA, Fortnum & Mason, The Ritz, Hearst UK, Global Radio, many of the great estates, 45 West End theatres, more than 50 red carpet premieres and of course the Piccadilly Lights.
Among our 500 members, there is no doubt that central London will come back to life. However, there is uncertainty about how soon and whether they can survive until then.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s Budget included some welcome measures, acknowledging our repeated calls for business rates relief, furlough and VAT cuts to be extended and the government’s Culture Recovery Fund to support the West End’s world-class culture and leisure sector. However, we would still like to see an insurance scheme for live events introduced to instil confidence in the reopening of this critical sector.
Government needs to go much further to help central London, which has been hardest hit due to its reliance on high-volume footfall from tourists and workers. The Budget provided some much-needed relief that will allow many businesses to survive another day of this crisis phase, but offered far less in the way of investment in London’s re-opening and recovery.
Yes, the UK has sped ahead of the rest of Europe in its vaccine rollout, but our celebration must be muted by the fact that international visitors are unlikely to return this year. These visitors spend five times more than local visitors and workers, and most experts estimate that international tourist numbers will not return to 2019 levels until 2023 at the earliest.
Of course, domestic visitors and workers will return far sooner and we must ensure that we make it as easy and as attractive as possible for them to do so. We need a public transport system that is safe, reliable, and affordable; a lifestyle offer that is better than ever before, based on the nation’s greatest asset and USP, its culture and heritage; and backed up with considered, consistent and clear communications.
Lest we forget, the government’s agenda to level up the regions is predicated on a prosperous London. Of course London will bounce back, but government has a choice: leave it to the market to find its way back or help drive and fast track its recovery with a dedicated, ambitious, and well-funded plan.
What better day than March 23, the first anniversary of the first lockdown, for government to announce a five-year recovery plan for London?
Ros Morgan is chief executive of Heart of London Business Alliance