Cllr Jonathan Glanz represents West End Ward on Westminster City Council and is the Council’s Lead Member for Broadband and Connectivity.
The West End is like no other part of the UK. With hundreds of bars and restaurants, dozens of theatres, Oxford Street – the Nation’s High Street, and the Luxury Quarter around Bond Street. But the West End is also a mixed community, with residents living above the shops and offices, all of whom are used to the hustle and bustle and noises of activity making the current silent and deserted streets even more surreal.
The success of the West End has forced both rents and rateable values to be much higher than in other parts of the country. Consequently, the original £51,000 rateable value limit excluded many small, modest and independent businesses from the rates holiday. Only five per cent of businesses in Westminster qualified for this, and effective lobbying by the Council led to the review by the Chancellor, extending its scope to businesses of all sizes, and clarifying that it applies to antique shops and galleries as well as other businesses.
The ongoing arbitrary limit for grants means that really modest West End businesses do not qualify for the support given elsewhere across the country and the cliff-edge divide is reminiscent of the Mansion Tax threshold from Labour which failed to recognise the unique position of Central London where £2 million buys a modest two-bedroom flat even though such a sum would indeed fund a mansion elsewhere. The grant entitlement should be to small businesses defined by the number of their employees or the square footage (as opposed to deemed Rental Value) of the premises they occupy as one size does not fit all in the West End.
The furloughing of employees, VAT and PAYE moratoria, and other government measures are welcome; it is rent which is the real challenge for businesses where they no longer have any cash coming through the door. Landlords, including the Grosvenor Estate, Westminster City Council, and British Land, have waived the current quarter’s rent. Others are offering deferrals or payment plans. Some are offering nothing at all. We should also remember that the West End is not entirely owned by huge property companies and the Great Estates. Many of the Landlords themselves are small businesses, struggling to meet obligations to their employees and banks. At present, Landlords are being offered no help or encouragement to assist the Tenants.
Walking around the West End now, you will see many boarded-up properties. Even if lockdown were to finish soon, many of these businesses have been permanently lost. High-profile names like Debenhams, Cath Kitson, and Carluccio‘s, have been well publicised, but independent shops and businesses in Soho, Carnaby Street, and the back lanes of Mayfair, whilst not making headlines, will now have gone for ever.
Small restaurants have had to let their teams go. Those individuals have often returned to other parts of Europe, and are unlikely to be coming back to make up the teams of front and back of house required to make restaurants work. Restaurants also need punters, and the idea that as soon as they are allowed to re-open, they will once more be full and profitable is illusory. Any recovery from this position is going to be long and slow. Even the sex workers in the walk-up flats of Soho have seen their businesses evaporate although some may turn to the internet for business. Many hotels are now empty but some, including Claridges, are making rooms available tor NHS staff.
Although there is talk of theatres restarting in September, the prospect of bums on seats in significant numbers is much further away. West End theatres rely not only on local residents, but on the national and indeed international markets to sell their seats, and it is unlikely that mass international travel will instantly return.
One interesting aspect is where have all the career beggars gone? Like any other business, if there is no footfall, they will move on. There are still beggars outside the open supermarkets and tube stations, but many rough sleepers, following initiatives by Westminster and Central Government, have been housed in hostel and hotel accommodation and are no longer visible on our streets. For genuine rough sleepers, services continue as part of an extraordinary upsurge in volunteering and neighbourliness, which has manifested itself in the West End. Many of the previous support services relied on volunteers, often from outside central London, to manage the soup runs etc. Saint Patrick’s Church, the Council’s Outreach Teams and other local charities have stepped in to the breach to ensure that those who are most vulnerable are still offered support. Churches, community groups and others have created an enhanced sense of community which, whilst not unique to the West End, has shown residents to be generous and self-reliant.
One positive benefit is that demand for Airbnb and other short-term letting platforms, which had previously been devastating the residential community and genuine long-term rental sector, has all but dried up. Those who have been extracting super-profits from their exploitation of the once insatiable appetite for such short-term lets, have now found themselves with no income. Flat owners are looking to mitigate their position by offering flats on longer-term lets, and actually doing so in accordance with Planning and other relevant legislation for a change.
This has had the knock-on effect, together with the inability of people to view properties, of seeing significant price reductions on rentals, which may have a longer-term benefit for those seeking to find affordable accommodation in the West End.
The West End has been written off many times, whether through parking charges, change in retail habits, terrorist threat, or competition, and I have always seen its resilience, resourcefulness, and reputation ensure that it has always bounced back and survived. Its unique mix of business, culture, leisure, and shopping facilities may require some special help from government, understanding from commercial landlords, and imagination and innovation from retailers, theatres, and the leisure industry, to revive this time, but I am sure it will.
I think this will be a long, slow and difficult road back, and we must do all that we can to support businesses, bars, theatres and clubs to bring life back to the centre of our city just as soon as we can. I ‘ll drink to that.