With next month’s Local Elections frequently dubbed a vote on Brexit and bins, the contest in parts of Westminster could be swayed by the less catchily titled issue of pedestrianisation. The proposed plans for Oxford Street – mooted since at least 2006 and most recently revived by Sadiq Khan – is a growing topic of debate for local residents and businesses, who fear potential impacts on traffic and footfall. And this week, the Campaign Against Pedestrianisation of Oxford Street unveiled its own candidates in three surrounding Westminster wards – West End, Marylebone High Street and Bryanston and Dorset Square – where the competition between Labour and the Conservatives is stronger than ever.
The arrival of this independent group ups the chances of Westminster moving to No Overall Control, as it could tempt voters with the offer of candidates who can voice concerns on a hyper-local issue and stand against a project backed by both the Tory-led council and the Labour-led Greater London Authority (GLA). Labour need to hold all of their seats and gain a further 15 to win control of Westminster. If they and the Tories find themselves neck-and-neck on the day after the polls, two or three seats going to the independents could conceivably deprive both major parties of an overall majority. The fact that the three wards in question saw a low turnout of around 29% in the previous local elections (2014) suggests that if the independents can bring voters to the ballot box, or even just convince people to give them one of the three votes on their ballot, they stand a real chance of clawing a seat or two away from the established parties.
The arrival of these single-issue candidates comes after Transport for London (TfL) extended the Oxford Street consultation until last Friday (06 April), having initially published an incorrect email for people to respond to the proposals. The extension was to ensure all interested parties could comment in full. The plans for Oxford Street include extensive traffic and cycle free stretches, as well as new seating and public art. Local concerns first became apparent last April, when an initial round of consultation showed 30% of those who participated were not in favour. Westminster City Council then made 8 pledges which would have to be met by the Mayor and TfL, including ensuring a reduction in pollution levels and having adequate and safe cycle routes. TfL published an interim report on the latest consultation, which has since been removed, due to the decision to extend the consultation. Some community groups focused on figures from the interim report reportedly showing that 77% of people in the borough were against the plans or had concerns and that 68% of businesses voted against.
Now, with all prospective candidates campaigning for another three weeks, people in these wards have a choice between traditional parties and a single issue vote, with potential knock-on effects across the whole of Westminster – a reminder that in local elections, the politics of place are a potent force.