17 JUNE 1955, Page 12

Oxford Street

BY GEORGE BRUCE 'VELY Oxford Street . . . a street taking an hour to LO cover from end to end, with double rows of brightly shining lamps. in the middle of which stands an equally long row of beautifully lacquered coaches, and on either side of these there is room for two coaches to pass one another; and the pavement inlaid with flagstones, can stand six people deep and allows one to gaze at the splendidly lit shop fronts in comfort.'

So wrote Sophie La Roche in 1786, when Oxford Street was approaching its heyday and most people had forgotten that not so many years earlier, as Tyburn Road, it formed part of the grim route to the gibbet.

How fares Oxford Street—the glittering super-market of our industrial democracy's capital city—today? Heavy traffic, street traders, architectural disharmony. have all created problems, but now there are distinct signs that improvement is on the way. London County Council Planning Authority, the Westminster City Council and the Marylebone Borough Council, as well as to property owners in Oxford Street and shopkeepers with a sense of responsibility. They are, of course, inspired by enlightened self-interest. In time, they hope to re-create Oxford Street and surpass its former attractiveness, Bearing in mind building developments which alone will help to improve the street, their action is timely. Plans for rebuilding one bombed store have been completed and await approval by the LCC. Another large store is to rebuild inside its existing walls—with business as usual. At the corner of Portman Street, near the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. builders are already at work on a new five-storey store with a car park on the roof. Frascati's old restaurant, near Totten- ham Court Road, is being converted into a store. And other large shops which completed their plans for modernisation shortly after the war, when licences for rebuilding were hard to get, have had second thoughts about design. They are now replanning on lines more in conformity with the minor revo- lution in taste which hai occurred during the last three or four years.

Lack of a basic architectural policy, or, in the past. of people intelligent enough or sensitive enough to see the need for it. has been one of the misfortunes of Oxford Street—the busiest and potentially the finest shopping street in Britain. It is the boundary not only between Westminster and Marylebone. but also between the Harley. Cavendish and Portman estates to the north and the Grosvenor estate to the south. The con- flicting interests and policies of two different local authorities and four separate aristocratic private enterprises have taken visible form in it. Consequently, it is really two streets, a con- flicting unity of opposites in one thoroughfare.

On the north side, there is a good measure of architectural dignity and attractiveness : the great stores with their fine- quality merchandise, smaller good-quality shops and the attractive side streets piercing northwards into the heart of Marylebone.

The south façade is another world, almost. Apart from the excellent buildings of one of the stores, the multiple shoe shops and one or two other establishments, it is a sorry sight. Here cluster the public houses, kiosk-like shops and the worst examples of architectural ugliness. Assuming that nobody looks higher than the top of a shop window, the owners of some shops have wrapped together in one sheet of plate-glass several buildings of different height and appearance. The effect is painful. One can only hope that now Oxford Street is beginning a phase of redevelopment, we may, if we are lucky. see the last of this ugliness in a few years.

Marylebone Borough Council have considerable ambitions for their north side of the street. They have plans to widen it as and when it can be done, so as to make room for a third line Of traffic. The hold-up at Oxford Circus which slows down all eastward-moving traffic could thus be avoided. But the method of doing it makes the project a very long-term one indeed. Since the pavements are already too narrow to rob.

shopkeepers planning to rebuild their premises would be persuaded to accept an additional upper storey in exchange for surrendering window space on the ground. The space thus gained could be lopped off the outer edge of the pavement to give more width to the road. Similar methods were success- fully used in the part between the Mount Royal Hotel and a women's dress store. It is a piecemeal method, but yet the only one which would appear to hold out hope of easing the con- gestion. Doubtless the traders would agree if the financial inducement of another storey were great enough. People don't spend their lives in the bustle and roar of Oxford Street because the sensations produced are agreeable, but to make money, or at least to earn a living. In ways every- one is painfully aware of. they pay highly for the privilege. Therefore they have a right to expect value for what they buy. In one respect—freedom from the nuisance or impediment to trade of street hawkers—they certainly do not always get it.

While look-out men keep an eye open for the police, hawkers with trays and suitcases aggressively offer for sale at cut prices the same kind of merchandise on sale in the shops whose windows and forecourts they invade. These offenders are open to prosecution for obstruction if the case is brought by the police, or for unlicensed street trading if the Maryle- bone or the Westminster City Council prosecute. Others avoid prosecution for obstruction by standing in the forecourt of an empty building or the doorways of unoccupied property. But in any case, the fines—varying from five shillings to one Pound—are not really worth worrying about. Hawkers regard them as rent for the land they use, or as a kind of licence, payable in arrears.

Marylebone Borough Council employ two full-time inspec- tors to parade Oxford Street in order to keep ale police informed of the appearance of hawkers. The police co-operate fully, but the hawkers have never yet been discouraged. The greatest deterrent would be confiscation of goods. This, of Course, would need revision of present legislation. The, case for this is at present being studied by the Metropolitan Boroughs' Standing Joint Committee.

Meanwhile, more genuine shoppers than ever before flock to buy in Oxford Street. What is surprising, when watching the thousands window-shopping on a Saturday afternoon, is that storekeepers there—after proper arrangements for half- holidays—do not seek authority for Saturday-afternoon opening.