Property Analysis - Comment - Stand up to fear of congestion charge

Like all good research, the Experian retail rankings tell us what we already knew instinctively, but had been unable to prove - that good retail development can do wonders for the attractiveness of a particular town or city.

Manchester's renaissance as a retail destination is caused by the combined weight of new development around Exchange Square. The fact that the IRA left the city council with no option but to rebuild is sometimes forgotten. But even if that bomb had not exploded in June 1996, by now something would have had to be done.

Manchester's chief executive, Howard Bernstein, deserves full credit for the way he grasped his opportunity and galvanised the development industry into concerted action.

London's West End retains its crown as the UK's top destination, but the research comes at the very time Ken Livingstone's congestion charge is beginning to bite. Inevitably, this raises some questions about the future of Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street.

Only a relatively small number of shoppers ever arrived by car, but they tended to be the high-spending minority. For most of them, the£5 congestion charge is neither here nor there, but the hassle of making the£5 payment before 10pm, or facing an£80 fine, could become a major irritation for those who value time above money.

Suddenly Brent Cross or Bluewater could become that bit more attractive, and that's why the Howard de Walden Estate, landlord of Marylebone High Street, has got together with its retail tenants to refund the congestion charge for those who frequent its upmarket shops.

For the vast majority of London shoppers, the congestion charge will not be an issue. And if less congestion means the buses flow more freely, it could be a positive benefit. But Livingstone has to deliver on his promise of ploughing the proceeds of the congestion charge back into improved public transport.

The recent downturn on Oxford Street shows how vulnerable retailing is to a failure on the Underground, coupled with shoppers' fears about terrorist attacks in central London. The Central Line fiasco has hit retailers' bottom line. The Oxford Street Association, the New West End Company and the major landowners need to keep the pressure on Livingstone to make sure the congestion charge doesn't end up doing the same.

Don't forget that London is the first city to face congestion charges.

If it succeeds, others will surely follow.