Placemaking in the heart of the West End

Infinite Global’s Tal Donahue spokeup with Dan Johnson, Director of Placemaking at New West End Company, to discuss what the future holds for London’s West End – one of the capital’s key retail and leisure districts – and the role of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) in placemaking.


TD: Dan, thank you very much for joining us. Can we start with just a very quick overview of your role and background? 

DJ: Thank you for having me – my name is Dan Johnson and I work for New West End Company, which is the Business Improvement District for the retail and leisure district at the heart of  London which includes Oxford Street, Regent Street, Bond Street and Mayfair as well.

TD: We’re here today talking about placemaking so, jumping straight in, what does it mean to be a Director of Placemaking? It seems like a role that should exist in many organizations… but probably doesn’t!? 

DJ: I’m the director of placemaking for the New West End Company and for me it’s a dream job. It’s an absolutely amazing opportunity to transform the public realm and people’s experience of visiting  London’s West End. And it’s come at the perfect time as well – there’s so much investment that’s taking place in the Oxford Street district at the moment. We have the Elizabeth line arriving in a couple of years’ time, which will bring an additional 200,000 people to Oxford Street every day. In addition, we’re working in partnership with Westminster City Council to transform the public realm on Oxford Street to create a better experience. We’ve almost completed a public realm scheme on Bond Street, which has increased footway space by 65% and we’re about to start work on Hanover Square, which will close half of the street to traffic to create a great new gateway to the West End for pedestrians only. So it’s absolutely an amazing time to work in the West End.

TD: A lot of a lot of the economy in your area is retail, an industry which is going through a challenging and transformative time. How important is it to have a mix of public space and leisure to help retail not only survive but thrive? 

DJ: Right now we’re all reading the stories about challenges on high streets, not only in central London but across the whole country. Our view is it’s structural change, but we can absolutely guarantee that in 5 or 10 years’ time people will still be shopping on the high street. It’s very much a social experience.

I think what is changing though is people are visiting online first, and they’re also looking for a greater and a richer experience when they visit shops as well – which London’s West End really offers. There’s something here that can’t be purpose built. We’ve got hundreds of years of history here – this interview is taking place on Heddon Street just off Regent Street, which is where David Bowie’s album Ziggy Stardust was photographed; round the corner is Saville Row which is the location of The Beatles’ final concert on a rooftop there. And then just minutes’ walk from there is the Royal Academy where you can see incredible artwork. And all that’s on top of what is an amazingly rich retail experience.

The West End is a powerhouse and it will continue to thrive in the future.

I think what is changing is that a lot of retail is becoming experiential. And we also have more well-informed consumers; a lot of shoppers will do their research before they come to the West End and they can be as well informed as the staff in the stores. And they’re also looking for experience; so what I mean by that – take the example of Lush which has a spa in its basement on Oxford Street, so as well as buying the products you can have a great spa experience there as well.

What it does do is help retain the customer in the West End for longer to have a great experience; and they talk to other people about it. So you’ll have more visitors and of course if they have a great experience they return to make more visits to the West End. So there’s a very virtuous cycle to experiential retail.

TD: I’m really interested in what you said about heritage. You talked about the rich history of this location, and all of that feeds into the identity of a place and what we would call the brand of a place. In the West End you’re very fortunate to have a lot of heritage. How important is it for the West End to maximize that and are there any lessons that you can think of for other locations that perhaps don’t quite have the same amount of heritage. What can they do to build on the assets they do have? 

DJ: The Oxford Street district is fortunate in being rich in a huge number of assets; the cultural assets, the historic assets and architectural assets as well. It’s a great experience coming to the West End. Unlike other shopping and retail centres we don’t need to put on entertainment. It’s very much a rich experience here and that’s very much part of the brand of the Oxford Street district.

Whilst we are quite different to a number of places across the UK – there may be a number of high streets that are struggling right now – I think there are comparable lessons to be learned, experiences to be shared. And part of that is looking at the historical and cultural context of a place that adds interest, and that provides a reason why people would visit an area, spend time there and spend money in that area. So it is more than just about the retail offer; it’s about the context which that retail offer sits in and that really helps the town centre thrive.

TD: How closely do you work with the various occupier brands in your district? And what is it that having an umbrella district brand brings?

DJ: One of the key things that a Business Improvement District can do is bring together disparate landlords to work together to improve an area and also bring together the various occupiers which will have their own advanced marketing strategies. What we can do is complement those and add value by marketing a whole district and in giving the district a brand identity. And within London’s West End it has a number of identities.

We’re very clear that New West End Company as a Business Improvement District is not the consumer facing brand – that’s very much a business to business brand. Our brand for our district is really the West End. In this we have Oxford Street, which is world famous and a great experience that eminent writers have written about; people like Virginia Woolf who described it as a great rolling ribbon of a shopping experience – she wrote that in 1932 and that hasn’t changed and people still come to experience that.

We have Bond Street and Mayfair and that’s very much part of a luxury brand quarter. And then we have the really well-designed experience of Regent Street and the Nash Ramblas which links the parks to the north from the south and it’s a grand set piece architecture that you just don’t experience anywhere else in London. We have hundreds of brands, so New West End Company brings these together as an overarching approach to what the retailers themselves offer.

TD: And just building little on the public realm… Public realm is at the heart of great placemaking. What are you looking at right now in regards to public realm?

DJ: It’s a very exciting time for us in the West End because we are working closely with Transport for London and Westminster City Council to deliver an amazing range of public realm schemes and we are quite literally right now building a new West End.

We’ve already virtually completed the Bond Street public realm scheme which was a £10m project half funded voluntarily by the private sector. So the role of the Business Improvement District brought together public and private investments to deliver this really transformational public realm scheme which increases footway space by two thirds and created a new town square.

In addition we’re working on Hanover Square which will close half of the square to traffic and create this amazing pedestrian gateway to the West End which will be open when the Elizabeth line opens in a couple of years’ time. And then, finally of course, Oxford Street, which is a mile long Roman road. Oxford Street is known as the nation’s high street. You know I like to say what we’re building is the world’s high street. We’re working closely with Westminster to deliver amazing transformational proposals to widen the foot ways throughout, create traffic free gateways – particularly at Oxford Circus – and reduce traffic on the whole street so it results in a very pleasant experience for pedestrians visiting the West End.

TD: I’m really interested in the point about public private partnerships. When we did our original placemaking research in 2018 one of the things that came up was the fact that to really deliver good placemaking you need a lot of upfront investment. And often it can be a challenge to articulate the business case for that required upfront investment. What role can BIDs play in this process? 

DJ: One of the really critical things that a BID can do in an area is bring together and forge a partnership of the willing.

In many circumstances a BID area will have a disparate land ownership, a number of property owners and the business groups – and we bring them together to deliver services, products, transformational projects, improvements to the public realm which individually wouldn’t be rational for any of those landlords to do.

Secondly it also can be the collective voice for all of those landlords and facilitate collaboration with the local authority. So one of the things that we’ve successfully done at New West End Company with prime projects such as the Bond Street public realm improvements and the Hanover Square scheme, is secure private investment in the concept designs and use these to build a business case for investment by the public sector and the private sector. We started projects which an individual landlord wouldn’t be able to start, and initially the local authority couldn’t quite see the case for. Without the BID I just don’t think we would see the changes that we’ve seen to date in the West End delivered at the pace that we’ve seen.

TD: If we’re talking about New West End Company as a brand with a mission and a message, how do you go out and take that message to businesses? How do you create that compelling vision for what the BID can deliver? 

DJ: BIDs are elected by their members – the businesses in an area – so you’re always accountable and that accountability usually takes place every five years. In our last ballot New West End Company secured a mandate of 92% support so we’ve got a great mandate moving forward, but a BID is never complacent. We very simply like to say that we do two things for our members; we either save them money or make them money. So we only deliver projects and programmes, and work on interventions that work for our members. And in many cases, we add value; where the smaller members cannot deliver projects on their own, we bring them together; we collate their resources to deliver on a scale that individually they wouldn’t be able to deliver. And we deliver at a pace that a local authority perhaps can’t deliver. We add a huge amount of value.

TD: There have been a number of recent announcements from government in terms of support for BIDs, but are they being utilized in the way they can be and is there enough support from central government at the moment? Is there anything more you’d like to see from policy makers: 

DJ: One of the great things about BIDs is that we have a lot of access to government, whether it’s local government, regional government or national government. It’s very important that we forge these partnerships so we can be the voice of the business community. We can articulate how we can more rapidly improve an area. And there are great public policy benefits as well as benefits for the business community as well. The projects that we’re working on can improve air quality; by improving the public realm we can improve the safety of places; we can reduce the incidence of crime; and of course we can leverage private sector investment to add value to public sector investments on projects.

One of the key benefits to the business community, is that research shows wherever a BID is established it increases property values by an order of 20% as soon as it is created, so there’s a very strong business case for BIDs themselves.

Turning to government there’s a number things that we would really welcome. Funding support is always important. High streets are going through a transition right now, so we need to invest in those high streets. Supporting infrastructure such as public realm improvements, WiFi, supporting good place management as well so that places always are safe, they look great and are great places to visit.

But one thing that central government can do to better support BIDs is review the planning system and introduce flexibility in land use classes. At the moment businesses either have to be retail, food and beverage, hospitality but in fact the boundaries have been blurred – retail is experiential. So a single land use class would really benefit high streets and it would enable businesses to respond quicker and more nimbly to changing customer demands and therefore thrive and create more jobs and a more vibrant place for people to visit.

TD: One of the things that we’ve come up against a little bit during the research is that lots of people have different definitions of placemaking. What does the term mean to you as a Director of Placemaking? 

DJ: In New West End Company we would say that placemaking has at least three perspectives to it. One is the public realm. And that’s very traditional and that is understanding how people use the spaces between the buildings and how they’re designed, how that space is allocated to different users. The second element is the people, which is the interaction with people and making sure that everyone has a good welcome in every retail unit, or in transport interchanges. It’s people’s experience with other people that makes a place memorable. And I think a third area of placemaking is animation, activation and experience. So how the public realm changes over time: that can be seasonal lighting and it can be events – I mean we do amazing work in the West End – we close Regent Street on Sundays during July so it’s turned over to entertainment and great food and beverage offers: and I encourage everyone to come along and see that. We partner with the Royal Academy and great artists to commission flags on the main streets in the West End; so people come to see great art. So it’s curation of place in this way that is part of the animation and activation element of overall placemaking.

TD: At Infinite Global we think about place branding from the perspective of creating a sense of identity, and communicating that identity and that vision to the right audience. What does the West End’s identity or brand mean to you? 

DJ: The West End really is a great brand and I think it’s a very relevant brand for the 21st century in the sense that it’s a really inclusive place. And as I said, Virginia Woolf wrote about it in 1932 as an exciting place where everybody’s here, everybody’s welcome from all over the world. Isn’t that relevant for the 21st century? And isn’t that a really important message in the context of today where some people might say that Britain is closing down to the world, but in fact Oxford Street says it’s really open to the whole world. Everybody’s welcome here whatever background you come from. I think it’s an amazing message.

I think right now we have an amazing opportunity in London’s West End and that’s the message we want to put out globally. It is a great place to invest in right now.

There is a huge amount of public sector investment taking place in the West End and I think serious property owners ought to be looking at that and looking at their own case for also investing.

Now what we’re going to see very soon is the arrival of the Elizabeth Line which will bring an additional 200,000 people to the West End every day. It will open up Oxford Street to a 20-minute journey time from Heathrow which is absolutely incredible – so you can come off a plane and then in 20 minutes you can be in the heart of London. So that’s incredible infrastructure that is going to be delivering change right now to the West End which should be complemented by the work that we are doing with Westminster City Council to transform the public realm.

There’s over £150m worth of investment in new public realm in the Oxford Street district. Our customer base at the moment is in the order of 60 million visitors to Oxford Street every year – £9bn worth of spend in the district. Both of those figures are going to grow in the future.

The Oxford Street district is very much open for business and we welcome the world to it.