Does the £1.6bn Westfield shopping centre spell doom for small shops?




Andrew Gilligan


Evening Standard


White City

TAKE a last look around, West Londoners. Only a week to go now until you're hit by the retail equivalent of the neutron bomb, leaving your area physically intact but destroying all organic shopping life within a five-mile radius.

The epicentre is the new Westfield mall at Shepherd's Bush, as big as Bluewater and the third largest in Britain. When it opens next Thursday it will have 265 shops, 50 restaurants, 1.6million square feet of retail and 4,500 lovely car parking spaces. But unlike all the other giants, this one is in the middle of a city.

As in all major civil emergencies, you are advised not to leave your home. In fact, you may not be able to leave your home, because there's a good chance the area's traffic already the worst in London, according to TfL will seize up.

Westfield says 60 per cent of its customers will use public transport. Even if that happens, and it's fundamentally against the mall retail model, it still leaves around 12 million visitors a year, or 33,000 a day, coming by car.

Shepherd's Bush, with its market and scruffy ethnic shops, was recently named London's "least cloned neighbourhood". The entire town centre will now essentially be replaced by a new one, almost 100 per cent cloned and white-owned, a little to the east.

And ye of Kensington, Notting Hill, Chiswick and Ealing don't imagine you'll be spared. In better times, there might be enough trade to go round. But now, the only way Westfield's owners and tenants can make back their investment will be by taking business from you.

Yet the main culprits are not Westfield but the people who let it happen. If something like this can get planning permission, we seriously have to ask whether our rulers' endless talk of sustainability, the environment and encouraging public transport means anything at all.

You may say: yes, but people want to go to these places. It's they who choose a mall over a small shop or a street market. Well, there are already plenty of shopping centres, albeit smaller ones, if you want to exercise that choice. The trouble with something on Westfield's scale is that it will end up denying choice to the rest of us who still want to shop locally.

Anyway, the choices we think we're making aren't free. We're pushed into them. And the even greater political scandal is that it's our public authorities who are doing the pushing.

They didn't just give Westfield planning permission. TfL gave it at least £30 million of public money to pay for new transport links. Of course, the centre should be served by public transport but we shouldn't be paying for it, they should.

Local bus routes are being extended, perfectly sensibly, to the mall but some of the most important routes to Shepherd's Bush are being diverted so they will only serve Westfield. Direct bus links to the existing shops are being removed.

As well as seeing their competition subsidised by the taxpayer and their customers chauffeured, at public expense, in the opposite direction, some stallholders at Shepherd's Bush market have faced rent hikes of up to 200 per cent this year. Their landlord is TfL.

Above all, every small shop and restaurant to the east of the new mall has had to cope with the immensely damaging western extension to the congestion charge. Westfield is outside the zone, putting it at an even further advantage.

Government, and especially Labour government, is supposed to be about narrowing the gap between the powerful and the powerless. What we have here is an unusually clear example of the all-too-frequent reality public authorities take from the small and poor and give to the big and rich.

And it's happening all over London. In January, a fascinating London Assembly report on the capital's markets showed that the privately-owned ones, such as farmers' markets, were thriving but the council-controlled ones were mostly in decline.

In Newham, the elected mayor, Robin Wales, is still fighting to turn the successful Queens Market into a developer-sponsored corporate shell. In Hackney, the council is running a systematic and effective campaign of destruction against its once-famous street markets. The last stallholder at Well Street has just folded his tents. The disgraceful treatment of small tenants at Broadway Market is well known.

At Ridley Road, in Dalston, which the council wants to redevelop, it has cut off the electricity and launched repeated petty prosecutions of stallholders. One, against the so-called metric martyr Janet Devers, last week earned Hackney national opprobrium and ministerial condemnation.

Hackney's elected mayor, Jules Pipe, has a depressing vision of his borough as a "regeneration" paradise, full of Costa Coffee outlets and production-line apartment blocks called things like "The Icon" and "Urbis". Pipe recently condemned opponents of his blueprint for Dalston as members of the "Keep Hackney Crap mentality".

Actually, Jules, Hackney isn't crap I'm surprised and sorry you think it is. Your developments are, though.

Today, at the London Assembly, there's a discussion about markets and little shops. One of the questions it should ask (but probably won't) is why the London political establishment just doesn't like small shopkeepers and traders.

Maybe it's about culture: our rulers, increasingly unrepresentative of the communities they serve, are simply more comfortable with other middle-class white people in suits. Maybe it's about scale: councils like big schemes the voters can see, and individual traders, with their petty agendas and grievances, get in the way.

But maybe it's just that money talks. Hundreds of millions of pounds of investment sounds seductive, even if it turns out to be an investment in retail destruction and traffic gridlock. Smaller sums of money may have talked at Westfield, too: the company made a substantial political donation to Ken Livingstone.

The thing to remember about what's happening is there's nothing inevitable or necessary about it. The erosion of London's retail character isn't entirely a consequence of late capitalism, social change or new shopping lifestyles. It's also a deliberate creation of faulty politics.


Reader views (10)


I live as close as it is possible to get to Westfield London without actually being on the site. Westfield has consistently shown little regard for residents by carrying out all-night working with no warning for weeks on end, and they are currently using the gate by my house as a works entrance - again, no notification or warning - with really heavy duty machinery using it from 7am. We have tried endlessly to get them to tell us where shops that have applied for the late night licenses are with no luck.

And the sheer, utter chaos caused by the closure of Wood Lane for months, the closure of the station (apparently because the escalators needed changing but they're the same ones), the roadworks around the Green which have been going on for two years (that's a traffic jam outside your house everyday fro 670 days) and the total inability of the council to do anything about it left me and many other residents with little interest in Westfield.

Hammersmith and Fulham council has let Westfield do whatever it likes. Its motto is "putting residents first" but judging by its behaviour in the last few years, it is more interested in the instant solution to the problem of the White City site offered by Westfield rather than coming up with something that might benefit residents. It is a lazy piece of planning that history will not treat kindly.

And by the way, Tony McMahon, there are plenty of good places to eat in Shepherds Bush. Westfield will not help them.

- Dan, London

I live in Ealing, and from looking at my local shopping areas, I can tell exactly which ones will do well in competition with Westfield and which ones won't.

The ones that won't be affected are Richmond, Chiswick, Northfields and Pitshanger Lane: well-maintained, nice to visit areas, with a good selection of upmarket and independent shops, plus good public transport links.

The ones that will really suffer are Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush: run-down, dirty areas with a petty crime problem, a poor range of downmarket chain stores and convenience stores and badly linked-up public transport and few parking facilities. The problem with these areas is that it's only their proximity to people's homes that encourages anyone to go to them. Local councils need to tackle these areas with better town planning and crime reduction initiatives.

- Liz, London

London is becoming more and more sterile, Kensington High St for me was ruined when the indoor market was replaced by a high street shop.

- Ross, London, U.K.

Looks like Andrew is on his usual rant against the factthat we now live in the 21st century (he never got over loosing the gas lamps of his childhood!).

I visited Shepherds Bush yeasterday and saw the major improvements that have been largely funded by westfield are improving the area with new pavements, roads and upgrades to transport infrustructure like the new underground and overground statiosns.

He talks about cogestion and yet they want to remove the c-charge an action which will cause far more cogestion than this centre.

As for local shops well if with all the additional people visiting the area they cant attract extra business then it shows that they dont deserve to survive.

Buses are not being removed from the area they are being relocated in purpose built bus stations which will aid interchange between buses and bus/rail and should have been done years ago. The difference is TFL has been spared the cost of this as funding has come from Westfield. No doubt the same will happen when their other centre at Stratford opens in East London in 2010.

With our weather shopping in comfort away from the elements will be lubly jubly and is something Oxford Street and the West End needs to do. Why should only the rich have the benfits of Burlington Arcade?

- Melvyn Windebank, Canvey Island, Essex

In the last couple of weeks the new Westfield seems to be in every journalist's mind. I agree: it spells trouble, it is a white elephant, who needs that sort of thing in the middle of a rather congested area, nothing bits real shopping experience, etc... But they have been building it forever... why hasn't anyone noticed it? And how did that sort of thing got approved to start with?! Now, I guesse we must shut up and put up!

- Paula Tome, london

At least we know about future car use at White City.

The planning application to expand Brent Cross Shopping Centre was registered with Barnet council last March, but the "transport assessment" has still not been published.

- Jon, London

Andrew, I am afraid there is one inaccuracy in your article. You assert that those driving to a large shopping centre are exercising a choice not to shop at shopping destinations comprised of a collection of small shops offering a variety of goods.

The fact is that they do not have the choice to drive to these shops, because there is nowhere for them to park. However, they are unwilling, perhaps with reason, to lug their shopping on public transport. Hence their choice is a choice to drive, not to avoid smaller shops.

Councils could level the playing field by reducing dedicated residential parking and ensuring that there is one dedicated short stay space for every small shop, within a minute's walk. This would make the streets clearer most of the time, as visitors would be occasional, but enough to sustain a profit margin.

Most residents would vote for this, as most residents do not own cars. However, I am not aware of any London Council offering them this choice under a proposed controlled parking scheme.

Both central AND local government are far too close to the supermarket chiefs for comfort.

- Reg, London

You want to know how much this will affect local shops? Ask the proprietors of the shops on Oxford St, Paddington in Sydney how much the enormous Westfields at Bondi Junction (10 mins up the road)affected their business...

- N W, London, UK

I used to work at the BBC in White City. Shepherds Bush is a tip badly in need of major regeneration. Many of those who will get jobs in the shopping centre will be from ethnic minority backgrounds. Not every Asian person wants to run a shop you know! It will create hundreds of jobs as we go in to recession. And as you must know, there has never been anywhere decent for BBC employees at White City to go and eat.

- Tony Mcmahon, London, UK

So now west London has a brand new shopping and traffic experience under way, what about us south Londoners, where is ours ?. North London has Brent X, there is Lakeside and Bluewater in the east, whats wrong with our money down south. There are thousands of small businesses barely surviving who could be put out of there misery by a brand new shiny building with bus links, parking and coffee with creches, music and seating. Why is it that no one wants to go south of the river.

- Mr. S.Port, London