Slowly and safely, the West End and Westminster is coming back to life.
It is still quiet on the streets that normally hum with a million visitors a day. But as the nation tentatively emerges from total lockdown, we are putting in place a programme for renewal.
At Westminster Council, we have just published our extensive plans to provide more space for cyclists and pedestrians in the heart of the capital. This ambitious movement strategy has been put together with residents, amenity societies and others who have given us more than 500 suggestions on how to get the City moving.
Across the weekend cones went down along Oxford Street, Regent Street and many other parts of Westminster as the first phase in creating extra space for walkers and cyclists. Low cost and temporary, these measures will widen pavements, change traffic lanes into pedestrian walkways, install signage and guidance on social distancing and create pop-up cycle lanes. Busy transport hubs like Paddington and Marylebone stations will see social distancing measures introduced to ensure people can feel safe travelling into the area.
Every part of Westminster will see temporary measures introduced. With the phased return of children to the classroom, we are introducing school streets across the City where cars are banned from roads surrounding playgrounds for short periods of time during the day to reduce traffic and pollution and help maintain social distancing.
We need to get people working; we want to get people spending. And that means not only famous brand names and historic arcades coming back to life; it means spending in those local shops which have been shut for weeks and sorely need to trade again. Westminster City Council has launched a “Shop Local” campaign complete with an interactive map listing more than 200 different outlets.
Our historic markets – some of which have been going since the 18th century – are back in business. This week I visited one in Pimlico, Tachbrook Street market, where once again the aroma of falafel and street foods fills the air. Lunchtime browsers are again navigating the stalls guided by two-metre markers on the floor. The vendors greet their regulars through facemasks.
It’s a rolling programme and we will be doing further intensive work to be ready for the anticipated opening of shops and restaurants whenever Government guidance is changed.
So how will we balance ensuring an area like Soho – a magnet for tourists, visitors and the after-work crowd drawn to its buzz – has the same feel in a socially-distanced world?
The honest answer is nobody is quite sure. There is no book to read in advance on how a major world capital recovers from COVID-19.
We have what I think is a radical plan, but the council doesn’t have a monopoly on good ideas. We need to think creatively, listen to our residents and other groups like our Great Estates and businesses. Are there ways we can relax licensing and planning for a temporary period to allow more on-street dining and recreation? West End Live, our annual Trafalgar Square summer celebration of West End musicals, is postponed for now - but could we recreate it in a virtual setting, in the way major musical acts are playing live over Zoom right now? Temporary street closures might enable us to hold COVID-secure events, showcasing our status as an international entertainment hub.
If I can’t offer you a prediction on exactly what the new normal will look like, I can at least offer this guarantee – that in Westminster we have resolve, we have resourceful residents and we are working together to do everything we can do breathe new life into our fantastic City.
Cllr Rachael Robathan is leader of Westminster City Council