West End plan for overhaul of shabby Oxford Street

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The Independent Online

Leading retailers will unveil a series of new proposals today they claim will restore the tarnished reputation of shopping in the West End of London, a key battleground for many of the country's biggest department stores and clothing chains.

New West End Company (NWEC), the company charged with driving forward the shopping destination, is launching The West End Knowledge, a fact-laden trivia test intended to make shop staff experts on the district and their retail rivals. The scheme, which embraces the London cabbie's concept of The Knowledge, will help John Lewis shop floor staff to learn facts about Liberty, for instance.

Retailers including Selfridges, Boots, Debenhams and House of Fraser have already embraced the scheme.

NWEC is launching the first edition of The West End Knowledge this week by email and leaflets in stores, helping to quiz staff on 20 trivia points.

A NWEC spokesman said: "In this economy, every shopper counts so a scheme that promotes the wider benefits of the district and that encourages cross-shopping and return visits seems a shrewd thing to do."

In partnership with Westminster City Council, NWEC also plans to introduce its first official visitor centre on Cavendish Street, just off Oxford Street, before the end of 2009. NWEC, which has a £34m budget until 2013, also wants to increase the number of wayfinding signs from 27 at present to more than 50 by Christmas, as part of a multi-million pound signage scheme with the council and Transport for London.

Richard Dickinson, the former East Midlands Tourism boss who became NWEC's chief executive in February, revealed he also plans to crack down on Oxford Street's infamous "Golf Sale" man, who many retailers believe epitomises all that is wrong with the district. "Golf Sale man's days are numbered," said Mr Dickinson. He told The Independent that the golf retailers behind Golf Man have been contacted about potential fines this month.

More strategically, Mr Dickinson said his two major priorities were to reduce traffic and to regenerate shopping areas in the West End. In particular, the east of Oxford Street has a well-deserved reputation for being dirty, litter strewn and having too many grotty shops.

Mr Dickinson said major transport changes were needed to cope with an expected boom in retail sales, growth in the capital's population and to maximise the potential of the Olympics in 2012. About 200 million visitors spend £5.5bn a year in the West End's shops, but this is set to explode to £8.9bn by 2016. London's population is also forecast to grow by 1 million by 2016. Mr Dickinson said: "On this trend, there has to be better transport. We want [visitors] to enjoy Oxford Street rather than endure it – we have to reduce traffic and that is very important going forward."

Over the next three months, NWEC needs to develop plans, such as reducing the number of bus routes or having a dedicated bus travelling each way along Oxford Street, said Mr Dickinson.

He also said that Crossrail will transform tube stations, such as Tottenham Court Road, and the surrounding area. Crossrail trains will take 31 minutes from Heathrow airport to the West End.

This week, Crossrail – the new railway line that will run from Maidenhead in the west to Shenfield in the east – received Royal Assent and the Crossrail Bill was passed by Parliament.

Asked about current trading in the district, Mr Dickinson said: "The West End is bucking the [downward] trend. The weather over the past two weeks has helped."