Longstanding street traders on Oxford Street, who hawk anything from less-than-authentic replica football shirts to plastic policeman's helmets and Princess Diana postcards, could soon be a thing of the past if plans to regenerate London's most famous shopping street are approved.
New West End Company, an umbrella organisation that represents retailers on Oxford, Bond and Regent streets, is hoping to move out the traders and eventually the owners of small shops, some of whom have had rights to pitch their stalls on Oxford Street for as long as 30 years, to another part of London's West End in an attempt to smarten up the area.
The plan, which has the support of Westminster City Council, includes an effort to eventually increase the average size of the shops in the country's busiest shopping district – inevitably bringing in the bigger chains – to attract shoppers with more cash in their pockets. The move has been made possible, New West End Company says, by the £1bn redevelopment of the area thanks to the Crossrail project.
Jace Tyrell, New West End Company's director of communications, said: "It is our aim to bring Oxford Street and the rest of the area up to the standards of the Champs-Élysées or Milan. At the moment, Oxford Street is not fit for purpose – the street sellers do not look right in the area, and that's the opinion of the shoppers and businesses that use it. Don't forget, we've got 15,000 media arriving in 2012 to cover the Olympics and we need it to look its best."
He added that the plan would be to "concentrate" the traders into certain areas, but conceded that new sites are still to be identified. "Over the next 10 years, there is a huge amount of regeneration work taking place. This is a gradual process," he said.
Unsurprisingly, some of the traders disagree: "We've been here since 1978," said Barbara McKenna.
"This is very unfair. It's part of London's heritage, we have been here all these years as part of London's tradition. The tourists like to come to our business to buy goods. With us, the stall has been in the family for years, my husband has always been a street trader and we don't know anything else. I want to pass it on to my son."
Several traders inherited their right to trade in the area from previous stallholders through a mechanism known as "grandfathering". However, the City of Westminster Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, is set to remove those rights.
Brian Connell, the Westminster Council Cabinet Member for Business, Enterprise and Skills, said that the plan was not to get rid of the street traders: "We will be setting space aside for the traders and only last week, we opened a street market for food sellers in Soho, but there does need to be a change to the regulatory environment.
"This Bill is designed to help promote and encourage community street trading, and ensure its long term vitality. They will struggle to survive and thrive unless they are updated," he said.
"Of course, we can understand why the individual trader may disagree with the plans, but we are setting up pilot schemes to house them elsewhere. Do the benefits outweigh the costs of any changes? Yes, of course."
It is not the first time that New West End Company has tried to, in its view, "declutter" the area. In 2006 the group published a report that found most businesses and shoppers were in favour of ridding the area of mobile advertisers.
The report led to a change in the law two years ago, banning those holding "Golf Sale" signs and boards advertising tattoo parlours.