Oxford Street was once the retail envy of the world so what has gone wrong, writes Henry Riley

11 August 2023, 14:46 | Updated: 15 August 2023, 11:30

What has gone wrong with Oxford Street asks Henry Riley
What has gone wrong with Oxford Street asks Henry Riley. Picture: Global
Henry Riley

By Henry Riley

Why millions of people flock to Oxford Street every single week is a complete mystery...

When people come from all over the world to visit London – they're desperate to visit Big Ben, the London Eye – and to experience shopping on Oxford Street...quite why though, remains a mystery.

This once-iconic 1.2 mile stretch of road saw its first shops open in the 1880s, and was a bustling shopping destination when its flagship department store Selfridges opened in 1908.

But Oxford Street is now facing an identity crisis. It is severely struggling in terms of shop vacancies - recent figures show that 42 out of the 269 shops now stand empty.

Similarly footfall levels have fallen drastically, with a 21% decline compared to 2019.

So what is going wrong?

Admittedly, the decline of the high street is not solely a problem affecting this shopping hub, though the rate of 16% of shops being empty is more than the 13% average in London.

Europe's busiest shopping hub still sees half a million people a day pound the street to wait in a 2 hour queue at Primark, or to gaze through the windows at Selfridges (and swiftly leave when they see the prices).

Speaking with tourists on the road, one word can summarise their experience: "underwhelmed".

Many of them were promised a unique, world-beating shopping opportunity - and instead were treated to low-end gift shops.

Similarly there is now an issue with crime in the area, with Sacha Berendji, an executive at Marks and Spencer, claiming the recent wave of crime is linked to Oxford Street’s demise.

Earlier this week saw 9 people arrested, and 34 dispersal orders issued after planned disorder at one of the world's most famous high streets.

Perhaps a bigger issue than crime, though, is homelessness.

Oxford Street is now virtually being used as a hub for rough sleepers.

When I arrived to cover the story for LBC shortly before 6am, I was struck by the harrowing scenes of swathes of homeless people.

Shop doorways and the pavement are full of pieces of cardboard being used as makeshift mattresses, with overturned trolleys used for privacy and people's belongings stuffed into old shopping bags.

I counted 41 people sleeping rough - often congregated in groups.

What was once the retail envy of the world, is now seemingly a place with incidents of crime, destitution and a place merely to buy expensive American sweets, phone cases and vapes.