Discount vouchers, outdoor performances and reduced rent for artist residencies are some of the measures being proposed to kickstart the economic recovery and stem job losses in London’s West End amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The absence of international tourists and the slow return of office workers to their desks have led to stubbornly low footfall in central districts, while consumer spending has shifted to the suburbs, as people shop and dine out locally.
The Centre for London thinktank has set out a recovery plan for the prime shopping and arts district to encourage visitors back to theatres, live performance venues and shops, in an area that has relatively low numbers of residents.
It is proposing culture vouchers for theatre discounts, once indoor performances restart, modelled on the government’s successful eat out to help out scheme, which offered discounted meals to diners during August. Reduced prices are intended to encourage attendance by the less well-off, while increasing spending in nearby cafes, restaurants and bars.
The West End accounts for some of the most vulnerable jobs in the capital, according to the Centre for London, comprising one in five hospitality jobs in the city, one in six jobs in the arts and one in eight jobs in retail.
The theatre hub has been particularly impacted by Covid-19, with an estimated 2,700 jobs already lost in London theatres, according to Bectu, the trade union for the creative industries.
The capital’s theatres hosted 18,000 performances in 2019, attracting 15 million spectators and bringing in £800m in revenue, according to data from the industry group Society of London Theatre.
The Centre for London is encouraging landlords and local government to work together to stage weekly “London fringe” events on the city’s streets, enabling visitors to enjoy outdoor performances.
If shops and hospitality venues remain permanently closed following the pandemic, it is suggesting owners of those empty spaces offer them to artists, chefs or performers at reduced prices for residencies.
Centre for London is also calling on the government to offer tax breaks to startup companies that move into empty premises, similar to those given to businesses in enterprise zones.
“The West End has shown itself to be resilient, but needs help in the coming months,” said Richard Brown, the deputy director at the Centre for London, who added the area needed to be able to “sustain the rich mix of places, events and venues that give it human scale and character, as well as opening up space for new ideas and new enterprises”.
Footfall remains well below levels required to sustain business, according to the New West End Company (NWEC), which represents 600 businesses in London’s prime shopping area around Oxford Street, Regent Street, Bond Street and Mayfair.
The district recorded £10bn of sales in 2019, which is expected to drop by 50% this year.
Measures are needed to “ensure that the West End is able to recover and continue to thrive as an economic powerhouse contributing billions in tax revenues annually”, said Jace Tyrrell, the chief executive of NWEC.
The business group has warned previously that as many as 50,000 retail jobs could be lost in the West End, a view echoed by Nickie Aiken, MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, who blames a lack of confidence in public transport.
The Centre for London also believes bicycle and scooter rental schemes should be made available more widely across the city, not just in central areas.