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The once dazzling Oxford Street is now a sorry symbol of decline for Britain’s high streets


3 min read

The onset of winter, chillier evenings and early dusk always triggers one of my earliest and most vivid memories: the annual trip “up west” to see the Christmas lights and gaze in awe at the mile and a half of dazzling window displays and Christmas lights along Oxford Street.

From Marble Arch to Tottenham Court Road, the street was a massive crush of people, mostly families squeezed onto the pavement on both sides. 

No expense was spared, and every shop pushed the boat out. You would see everything from smaller shops with single window displays to extravagant displays in the departmental stores which today, with the exception of Selfridges, have long disappeared. Along the street, carol singers, Salvation Army bands and street vendors selling roasted chestnuts added to the Christmas spirit. 

Fifty years of discussions on how to move Oxford Street forward have not produced a single radical, exciting and deliverable plan

Dressed for warmth in our smartest clothes, my sister and I clinging to our mother’s hands, we and others gazed open mouthed at the spectacle. The atmosphere was electric, the crowd happy – rich and poor rubbing shoulders, signalling the start of the festive season. 
Getting separated was a real worry; instructions were “wait under the clock at Selfridges for Mum to come and get you”. There were no mobile phones in those days! 

Today, it is hard to believe that a trip up a high street could be such a draw, but it was because this was not just any high street. It was Oxford Street, anecdotally the busiest shopping street in the world. Regent Street and Bond Street weren’t even on the radar. 

I sometimes wonder if my subsequent career in retail was influenced by this early immersion in the excitement of Oxford Street. 

Retail is our largest private sector employer, our biggest pastime and our biggest contributor to GDP. It is the lifeblood of our communities. We Brits are very good at it, but to thrive it needs constant innovation and change. 

An early boss of mine used to say: “Stuart, if you don’t look out of the window every day, when you do, the world will have passed you by.” 

Well, the rest of London has now left Oxford Street behind. Visitors must wonder what all the fuss was about, especially now overseas visitors are no longer able to claim VAT refunds – a short-sighted move by the government. 

Oxford Street has long been caught in the turf wars between the various agencies who lay claim to its development. I worked in Marks & Spencer’s Marble Arch store in the early 70s and later became the company’s chairman. 50 years of discussions on how to move Oxford Street forward have not produced a single radical, exciting and deliverable plan to return the street to its former glory. Irrespective of the acknowledged difficulty in dealing with complex traffic flow, where are the small differences that could make it an attractive destination again? 

Wider pavements, more trees and benches, more public lavatories and simple information boards would be a good, cheap, and deliverable start. As would occasional, regular events to make “going up west” an attractive proposition once more. Let’s show off our creative retail skills in this historic street, which is now a poor relation to its neighbours in Marylebone, Mayfair, Bond Street, Regent Street and beyond.  


Lord Rose, Conservative peer, chair of ASDA and former chief executive of Marks & Spencer 

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