Re-Imagining the West End – How can we build certainty in uncertain times?

02 Nov 2018

Opportunity was the order of the day at our West End focussed London breakfast, as property professionals from all over the country gathered to hear the panel speak about ‘Re-imagining the West End: how can we build certainty in uncertain times.’

The panel was chaired by Sir Peter Rogers, the Chairman of the New West End Company. He was joined by illustrious panellists Katherine Russell (Head of Real Estate, Planning, Policy & Commercial at John Lewis Partnership), Brian Bickell (Chief Executive, Shaftesbury), Dierdra Armsby (Director of Place Shaping, Westminster City Council), Lucy Musgrave (Founding Director, Publica), and Debbie Jackson (Assistant Director of Regeneration and Economic Growth, GLA).

The panellists discussed a wide range of topics, but one theme ran through all of their comments: the West End must adapt and develop to stay relevant in times ahead.

Debbie Jackson, the Assistant Director of Regeneration and Economic Growth at the GLA, opened the panel with a 20:20 presentation about the West End that highlighted its importance as a player in the London (and UK) economies. “The West End is a dynamic place with fluid boundaries and wide-reaching influences,” said Jackson, before going on to highlight that the West End accounts for over 3% of the UK’s annual GDP, and that its rents are the highest in the UK, though the market remains resilient.

Lucy Musgrave of Publica agreed that action was needed to bring the West End to its full potential, but warned against the dangers of over-gentrification. She highlighted that London’s grittiness is part of its charm, citing the recent proposed refurbishment of Oxford Street. Musgrave said: “London is head and shoulders above many major world cities. There is an extraordinary layering of diversity of land use, and people love the diversity of the city. Bond Street and Oxford Street were extraordinary case studies: they were beautiful, but not fit for purpose. However, these projects can take a long time and I am confident that when we make a spectacle of the West End, it will be truly extraordinary.”

Brian Bickell of Shaftesbury commented on the diversity of the West End’s economy, and how the consumer experience is in a state of flux: “In the West End, there’s a seven day week economy that changes from day to night and season to season. It’s all about attracting people back here, and making the West End a place that people want to visit. The way we use buildings is changing: consumers are not just after a product, they are interested in a brilliant leisure experience. Planning shouldn’t be a barrier to change.”

Dierdra Armsby of the Westminster County Council offered some sage input about the way local councils interacted with regards to placemaking. Armsby said: “There are a lot of big conversations about the way that planning and placemaking is happening at the moment, and how that needs to change. Presently, when the county council assesses the financial needs of a community, they only consider the needs of residents, not daytime visitors. As a community, we need to think creatively about filling in the gaps. There is a day and a night to be had in the West End, and that’s what we need to support. There should always be an exciting and enticing offering across uses in the area.”

Katherine Russell of John Lewis and Partners weighed in on the way the consumer experience is changing, and how to use existing space to creatively adapt to consumer needs. Russell admitted: “It’s true that bricks and mortar is not an easy trading environment. Retail property certainly plays a role, but that role will look very different in the future. There are four ‘p’s’ when it comes to this new type of retail property. The first is proposition. At John Lewis, we’ve noticed that consumers react favourably to bespoke services, so we’ve increased our employee training to improve customer service, and offer tailored, concierge offers. The next ‘p’ is partners. We’ve heavily invested in our partners, sending our product coaches to acting schools and making sure that each partner is fully briefed on the details of products. The third ‘p’ is property: we aim to reduce our occupancy costs in 2019, and maximise our value in the estate by fully utilising the spaces available. The final ‘p’ is placemaking, and this is the only one we can’t do on our own. The external environment is important, and at John Lewis & Partners, we’re committed to helping make the West End a place that people want to go.”