Last year, plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street to make way for traffic-free public space in Central London were thrown under the bus.
Despite being one of the Mayor of London’s flagship policies, Westminster City Council blocked the plan, citing the concerns of local residents. This scenario highlighted the many different functions of London’s city centre – and how tensions between different users can come to a head.
The future of Central London is being shaped by five, often conflicting, factors:
Central London is at the heart of one of the most visited capitals in the world
London consistently ranks as a top destination for tourists. 19.83 million international visitors came to the city in 2017, second only to Bangkok. Central London has an extensive tourism offer, featuring world class cultural attractions, iconic green spaces and four UNESCO world heritage sites: The Tower of London, Palace of Westminster, Maritime Greenwich and The Royal Botanic Gardens.
It’s also an international retail destination. In 2018, 33 new international retailers debuted their stores in Central London. In addition to the well-visited Oxford Street (which alone has more than 300 stores), newcomers like Coal Drops Yard in King’s Cross are helping to make it a shopping haven.
It’s also home to a diverse range of local and international businesses
The Central London boroughs are home to three-quarters of London’s offices and over one-fifth of office space in England and Wales. London’s Central Activities Zone (CAZ) – the core area of central London defined in planning policy – is home to more than 125,000 businesses, from the Google offices in King’s Cross, to Bloomberg’s brand-new headquarters in Bank, and creative clusters in the West End. Undoubtedly, the CAZ is a competitive place for businesses both large and small to reside.
It’s a hotspot for employment
This impressive agglomeration of large and small businesses in one area means that employment remains highly concentrated in Central London. In 2018 there were an estimated 1.7 million jobs in the CAZ, approximately 29 per cent of London’s total employment. From bankers, to tech specialists, chefs, and caterers, London’s employment is diverse though currently dominated by sectors such as professional, scientific and technical services; finance and insurance and information and communication.
Central London is also home to an increasing number of Londoners
Post-war period London saw decades of decline in Central London’s population. But fast forward to today and London’s population is approaching 9 million, and is estimated to reach 10 million by 2036, the largest it has been in 80 years. Westminster, Camden and Tower Hamlets had the fastest growing boroughs in 2017-18, and a total of over 230,000 people now live in the CAZ area.
To meet London’s demand for housing, the Mayor of London estimates that the capital needs to build roughly 66,000 homes a year. Central London can play a part in this, although the need to preserve office space has to be balanced carefully with ongoing pressure for the conversion of office space into residential in Central London.
The governance is complicated
Central London is also the centre of political activity for both capital and country. Parliament and City Hall are just three stops apart on the Jubilee Line. Both have interests in Central London. The CAZ also features parts of ten different Local Authorities, each with their own priorities, and 20 Business Improvement Districts that represent the local business needs. These branches of government represent voters, albeit across different geographies and these multiple layers of governance in one space can further complicate tensions.
Central London is the engine fuelling the nation, with a great deal happening at once. The CAZ area is a prime destination for tourists, a business district, the headquarters for political governance and a home for thousands of residents. As London’s economy and population continues to grow and change, keeping Central London functioning effectively while balancing these conflicting demands will be crucial to both London and the UK.
Centre for London’s Central London research project is investigating what can be done to ensure that this vital district prospers and thrives.