It would not have been unreasonable to think Oxford’s Westgate Centre faced a difficult existence during Covid.
And no doubt it has, but Oxford has some remarkable advantages over other centres.
As Brendan Hattam told us, in normal times the tourism industry brings nine million visitors and, outside of the peak of the tourist season, the city has 32,000 students.
So, while the demise of the high street would appear to present big challenges even without Covid, the concept of fulfilment of online orders from stores makes total sense and may, perhaps, help stores maintain a physical presence.
The centre is new enough to have modern, flexible rental structures and people who made their way to its rooftop restaurants as soon as it reopened, would have had to pass many alluring shopfronts.
Furthermore, Oxford seems to have a bit of everything. The Covered Market, the chain stores at the Westgate and a generally fascinating central area, combine to make a trip to the city a most worthwhile experience.
But big obstacles remain. When will the tourists return? When will the majority of students return?
We can only hope the UK’s recovery starts now and is no longer a distant mirage that seems to stay in the future however much time passes.
And Oxford faces a whole new challenge next year in its bid to reduce emissions. Later this Summer it will cost £10 to drive a petrol car into a small area in the city centre.
In Spring 2022, the area will expand massively, and in 2025 the cost will double to £20. It’s a very bold move but when all this really begins to bite next year, the effect on shoppers should engage city centres everywhere.
Oxford will continue to fascinate but, given the issues ahead, there must be some stakeholders in the centre who have their fingers crossed for the future.
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