Crossrail is going to disrupt West End retail for years. Is it really worth it?

Last week I attended an interesting breakfast on the health of London’s West End, hosted by the New West End Company, the Business Improvement District for the area. The prognosis was generally positive, with retailers having traded well and outperformed the UK average, while exciting new brands from overseas continue to choose the area for their UK debuts, to the point where substaintial premiums are being paid for stores.

But as I write this column from a grim internet cafe at the even grimmer Tottenham Court Road end of Oxford Street, it’s harder to see that much to smile about down here. Sure, everyone knows that the eastern end of Oxford Street is a dump and has been in decline for a long time, but the problem is that things aren’t going to get better for years with all the work that’s going on to build Crossrail.

The work has completely paralysed the eastern end of Oxford Street but is also leading to a huge amount of work just off Oxford Circus, at Hanover Square, right next to Bond Street retailers like Fenwick. But here’s the thing. This isn’t going to be a short-term job. Crossrail isn’t due to complete until 2017, and that’s assuming the new government doesn’t cut funding halfway through which given the state of the public finances is not inconceivable.

There has to be some consideration of the here and now. At present, it’s impossible to get in or out of Oxford Circus station because half of the escalators are out of use until next year. There is also concern that some of the festival-type events around the Olympics will bring the West End to a standstill around 2012.

The retail and property sectors have done their bit to make the West End a better place to shop, but getting in, out and around it is a nightmare and only getting worse. Investment in transport is a good thing, but it can’t be allowed to bring West End retail to a halt.