How Oxford Street became a national disgrace: ROBERT HARDMAN on the decline of Britain’s most iconic shopping haven
Ask anyone in Britain to name a famous shopping street and the chances are Oxford Street is to retail what Threadneedle Street is to banking, or Harley Street to medicine. Yet it has seldom looked less alluring than it does now.
Last week, the Mail revealed how, by night, it has become a dormitory for rough sleepers with rows of mattresses and cardboard boxes now clustered in doorways each evening.
And on Wednesday this week, police wielding batons clashed with dozens of youths after chaos erupted when a social media-fuelled campaign to ‘rob JD Sports’ and shoplift went viral.
As for those heading here actually to buy something, your shopping options are not what they were.
You still have plenty of choice when it comes to shoe shops; I count 21 of those.
Robert Hardman outside House of Candy, one of a number of American sweet shops taking over Oxford Street
Shop units have become makeshift dormitories for the homeless at night, with shopping trolleys, cardboard boxes and umbrellas used to create sleeping quarters
Oxford Street has lost iconic shops that have given way to American candy stores, vape kiosks and more than 40 empty units
Mighty Selfridges is still there, if you want the big department store experience. Ditto John Lewis.
But a plaster for your sore, blistered feet? I count just four pharmacies along the entire 1.2-mile stretch.
As for a restorative pint, it can be a long search. Of the 237 retail units on Oxford Street, just one of them is still a pub.
Never mind. Because what people really want these days is none of the above.
What the world is crying out for, apparently, is a packet of overpriced American sweets, a flavoured vape, a wheelie suitcase and a Big Ben fridge magnet.
That, at any rate, is the impression you get if you take a stroll up Oxford Street today — at the height of the tourist season.
For the grand old West End boulevard has at least 26 shops known as ‘candy stores’ (it is hard to keep count as some of these shops pop up and then disappear faster than a shop assistant when I ask them to point me towards the manager).
Otherwise known as souvenir stores, these are all those shops selling tat and tooth rot. Customers will also struggle to find a price tag.
Oxford Street in 1940. Bombing raids in London did not deter shoppers from venturing out – and department store John Lewis reopened just three weeks after the German Air Force razed the greater part of the store to the ground
Marauding youths raided Oxford Street on Wednesday after a social media-fuelled campaign urging them to ‘rob JD Sports’ and shoplift went viral
Nine people were arrested following disorder on Oxford Street on Wednesday
‘Candy’ stores hope that the distracted tourist will simply wave a contactless card at the till before they notice that the pack of Starburst has just set them back £6.99.
At least these visitors will not be short of places to change money. Another curious Oxford Street development is the proliferation of money exchanges.
At a time when we are constantly told that cash is over, there are a baffling number of currency shops here. Every candy store seems to have one inside.
READ MORE: Marks & Spencer executive warns demise of Oxford Street is fuelling crime including US-style flashmob looting
I count an additional 13 stand-alone operations, too. Assuming, of course, that no funny money is changing hands, what do they do all day?
Meanwhile, those retailers selling actual goods are also being deprived of very significant turnover thanks to the Government’s pig-headed refusal to drop the ‘tourist tax’.
As the Mail has long been arguing, the Treasury’s decision to end VAT-free shopping for overseas tourists is costing the British economy billions.
In simple terms, a tourist thinking of buying a £10,000 watch like the one I am looking at in a shop window here in Oxford Street could hop on a train to Paris, buy it there and save thousands of pounds (including the train fare).
Adam Hug, leader of Westminster City Council, which runs this area, despairs: ‘Oxford Street and the West End are a major attraction for overseas visitors, and by not offering VAT-free shopping, we are effectively signposting them to go and spend their money in other parts of the world.’
Thanking the Mail for its ‘welcome and powerful support’ to ban the tourist tax, he is adamant that reintroducing tax-free shopping would add thousands of jobs and billions of pounds to the economy.
Here in the heart of what used to be the most prized postcode in the land — W1 — it all leaves you with the impression of a tired old British institution finally expiring in a cloud of vape fumes.
For out of all the shops on Oxford Street, spanning four London Underground stations from Marble Arch to the west up to Tottenham Court Road to the east, what is the No 1 shop category?
It is shops selling nothing at all because they are empty – 43 of them in total. Two of the biggest names of yesteryear, Debenhams and House of Fraser, are now building sites.
The situation has got so bad that top retailers have started to speak openly.
Topshop is another casualty of Oxford Street’s continuing decline
Some shops on Oxford Street temporarily closed on August 9 as social media users threatened to raid stores as part of a ‘flashmob’
‘Oxford Street is a problem,’ said Brian Duffy, chief executive of Watches of Switzerland, last month. ‘I would almost describe it as a bit of a national embarrassment.’
Earlier this week, Sacha Berendji, operations director at Marks & Spencer bemoaned that while the area had once been ‘the jewel in London’s shopping crown’ it now consisted of ’empty shops’ and streets lined with rubbish.
This followed equally harsh words from the company’s chief executive, Stuart Machin, who warned of ‘a proliferation of tacky candy stores, antisocial behaviour and footfall in the doldrums’.
A classic example is Candy World, on the site of the old HMV megastore near Bond Street Tube station.
It is piled high with racks of sweets, including those American brands, plus the mandatory vape displays and phone cables.
I have to get an assistant to scan a KitKat before he can tell me that it costs £2.99. A tube of Pringles is £6.99. A small pack of M&M’s is a fiver.
This seems extortionate. So I go in search of the boss. Nervous staff, some with sketchy English, either ‘don’t know’ who their manager is or else point to the chap at the till.
‘He not here,’ says the cashier. When is he due? ’Tomorrow. Maybe.’ What’s his name? ‘Er, George.’
They might as well rename this Loophole Street. For these ‘candy stores’ — only a couple use the British vernacular and talk about ‘sweets’ — continue to highlight the absurdities in the law.
Some of them refuse to pay business rates yet, when the council goes after them, the directors turn out to have vanished into the ether.
Oxford Street is packed with ‘candy’ stores that sell overpriced chocolate, sweets and crisps
Souvenir shops selling wheelie suitcases and fridge magnets are also dominant
American candy, souvenir and vape shops have proliferated in Oxford Street following the Covid pandemic as established brands collapse or move out
At the same time, trading standards officers from Westminster City Council continue to raid these places for counterfeit or dangerous goods.
One ‘candy store’ was recently caught with £22,000 of fake Wonka chocolate, while another was flogging vapes with excessive levels of nicotine.
The council sends me photographs of sackloads of confiscated junk. Fake designer sunglasses and untested phone chargers.
Even after a couple of recent raids, where the authorities took away £145,000 of stock, the same shops were back in action the next day under new but equally nebulous management.
‘We badly need a reform of the law. How can it possibly be easier to register a new company at Companies House than it is to get one of our library cards?’ asks Councillor Geoff Barraclough, the cabinet member for planning and environment on Westminster City Council.
It is currently owed at least £8 million in unpaid business rates. ‘Time and again we find that the directors are fictitious and we can’t trace the beneficial owner,’ he explains.
We stop outside one jumbo candy store which illustrates the problem.
The freehold belongs to the City of London but the head lease is owned by a property company in Hong Kong registered in the name of a Hong Kong law firm which declines to return calls.
Rough sleepers are an increasingly common sight on what was once the most desirable shopping street in Britain
Cardboard mattresses and rumpled duvets dominate the street at night – highlighting the shocking homelessness crisis that has seen the number of newly homeless people in London rise by 12 per cent
The problem stems from the pandemic. While retailers and hospitality venues could claim relief from business rates, a landlord of an empty shop could not.
So when some fly-by-night candy store company run by a Mr Mickey M. Mouse of Kowloon turned up, offering no rent but agreeing to pay the business rates — which can be a six-figure sum — struggling landlords were delighted.
When these shops refuse to pay business rates, liability falls on the elusive tenant, not on the landlord.
However, the council is not sitting idly by. It has written to all the landlords of the errant candy stores asking them to engage.
In May of this year, those that did not reply were ‘named and shamed’. Those that did respond have helped to kickstart a new scheme called ‘Meanwhile On’ aimed at bringing new blood to the street to replace the dross.
Over the next three years, up to 35 up-and-coming brands can have a shop for six months, rent-free, plus a 70 per cent reduction on their business rates.
Firms have until the end of this month to apply (candy stores, I can safely say, need not bother).
‘We have tried to appeal to people’s better nature and it is working,’ says Mr Barraclough.
He points to Candy World. Later this year, it will be turfed out and the landlord will be restoring the former tenant, HMV.
Robert Hardman outside House of Candy on Oxford Street. Soon, the American sweet shop will be turfed out – and replaced with former tenant HMV
The HMV store was once an Oxford Street landmark – but disappeared in 2019 when the firm sank into administration
Herein lies one of the ways in which Oxford Street sees its salvation. For it is not all doom and gloom round here.
London’s West End shopping footfall is driven by three principal thoroughfares: Oxford Street, Bond Street and Regent Street.
The other two are doing a roaring trade, although that was not always the case.
In years gone by, Regent Street was full of dusty airline offices. Bond Street felt neglected.
READ MORE: How Britain’s premier shopping destination is gripped by homeless crisis: Doorways of Oxford Street stores are taken over by boxes and sleeping bags as number of rough sleepers rises
Both have since been spruced up with an emphasis on pedestrians rather than traffic. Big-name brands have come flocking and footfall has rocketed.
The New West End Company (NWEC), which represents traders on all three, is adamant that Oxford Street will do the same. It is just going to take time.
‘Oxford Street is going through a reinvention. It really is on the cusp of a new dawn,’ says NWEC’s Sarah Jaconelli. ‘In five years’ time, it is going to look entirely different.’
She accepts the ‘candy stores’ are an eyesore. But, while they amount to more than ten per cent of the shops, she points out that they actually only account for one per cent of Oxford Street floor space.
The steel skeletons of what were once Debenhams and House of Fraser will soon be rebuilt, both as retail and office space. For, despite the working-from-home culture in many workplaces, the West End is seeing a counter-effect. Many big businesses are downsizing from large office blocks elsewhere and looking for smaller premises in areas where staff will feel more inclined to return to a desk.
Pharmaceutical giant GSK, for example, is about to switch from a big block out in suburban Brentford to a ‘hybrid’ (ie. smaller) HQ above Oxford Street.
On the corner of Oxford Circus stands the former flagship of Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia empire. It used to be a giant TopShop. Now it is being hollowed out to become a new Ikea.
Just over the road is the revamped Microsoft showroom. This, we are told, is the shape of things to come, not more sweets.
Back on the beat with Councillor Barraclough, he explains that more and more buildings are starting to open roof terraces.
Not so long ago, every architect would stick a car park in the basement and all the plant and machinery on the roof.
Now that driving in Central London is so hellish and no one parks here any more, they stick the plant in the basement and a bar on the roof.
So Oxford Street is not dead yet. If all goes to plan, then, a few years from now, we could be looking at a slicker, rejuvenated retail hub pumping billions back into the economy.
Indeed, it could be billions more, if only the Government would listen to the Mail’s Scrap The Tourist Tax campaign.
For now, though, Oxford Street looks shabby and underwhelming. It may have sweets galore but they leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
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