Appropriately in the city of dreaming spires, the £440m Westgate centre extension in Oxford has been a vision of retailers, developers and city councillors for over 20 years.
Now after several false starts and setbacks, it’s about to open its doors to a largely jaded and underwhelmed city.
In the post-Brexit, post-internet shopping landscape, amid softening consumer confidence, falling city centre footfall and rising property costs, it’s a project whose time came and went about 10 years ago.
Yet no-one appears to have woken up and smelled the coffee.
There have certainly been a number of ill omens surrounding its construction, while access problems for new retailers and rumours that construction work is likely to continue after the official opening don’t bode well.
Neither do reports that only 60 out of 125 units will be trading come opening day.
“Dozens of staff vacancies are still unfilled and news that around 35 out of 85 confirmed brands already trade in the city has sparked fears of gaping holes in existing shopping areas, especially as the focus will now be shifted some way outside the established city centre”
As of last week, dozens of staff vacancies were still unfilled and news that around 35 out of 85 confirmed brands already trade in the city has sparked fears of gaping holes in existing shopping areas, especially as the focus will now be shifted some way outside the established city centre.
The Labour-run City Council has dismissed most of these concerns, but they’ve always had something of a love/hate relationship with retailers, seeing them as both tasty bait for eye-wateringly expensive parking spaces and evil capitalists unworthy of their consideration.
Businesses pleading for damagingly high parking charges to be reduced were repeatedly told they were vital to the city economy, yet the council now plans to fall in line with the more reasonable charges in the Westgate.
It seems city finances and increasingly dangerous air quality are now of less importance. Either way it may prove too little too late for shoppers fleeced in the past, having vowed never to return.
The second circle of transport hell in Oxford is perpetual road works. Even now, one of the main access routes quoted on the new Westgate website is partially closed.
It’s promised to be clear before the Westgate launch, but that’s no guarantee in Oxford. I remember one particularly memorable Christmas when every major road into the city was restricted.
“Stung by criticism for lack of creativity, the council has dropped the problem into the laps of Westgate retailers, tasking them to disseminate ‘positive messages’ to ‘nudge’ customers and staff into leaving cars at home”
Road improvements to deal with predicted congestion are yet to materialise, prompting haphazard contingency plans, including a team on standby to erect traffic lights in Frideswide Square, even though £6.7m was spent removing them two years ago.
Stung by criticism for lack of creativity, the council has dropped the problem into the laps of Westgate retailers, tasking them to disseminate ‘positive messages’ to ‘nudge’ customers and staff into leaving cars at home.
The Westgate website has taken this to heart with car travel last on the list of options, alongside dire warnings about the availability of parking. John Lewis is also set to appoint a ‘travel plan champion’ three months after opening.
The best idea so far is a raffle for park-and-ride users.
Perhaps the first prize will be directions to one of several easier-to-access shopping locations including the newly expanded Bicester Village just up the road, Milton Keynes, Reading, or even Westfield London, only 40 relatively quick miles up the M40.
Runners-up will probably be offered another trip to Oxford.
Considering the years of fantasising about the new Westgate and predictions of three-fold increases in footfall, it may seem astounding that so little has been done to facilitate either, but it’s not surprising to anyone who’s had previous experience of trading in Oxford.
The belief appears to be that a magical new shopping centre will sweep away all these long-standing problems like Alice finding the portal to Wonderland.
That remains to be seen, but I fear this dream could very easily turn the corner into nightmare in the months and years to come.