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FEATURES - WESTMINSTER SQUARES GET HIP

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Despite being a tourist Mecca, London's Leicester Square is in dire need of an overhaul says Gareth Gardiner-Jones...
Despite being a tourist Mecca, London's Leicester Square is in dire need of an overhaul says Gareth Gardiner-Jones

Many of Britain's cities have won international recognition for intensive makeovers of their metropolitan hearts, but there is one surprising exception to the rule - the capital.

London's Leicester Square may have international brand recognition, but the reality can be a disappointment for tourists and locals alike.

Instead of being a showcase for the New Britain of urban renewal, the place seems to have more in common with a forgotten jaded seaside town from a bygone age.

Among the disenchanted is Westminster City Council which is drawing up radical plans for change. The process has already begun with some minor cosmetic adjustments, largely aimed at the street crime and anti-social behaviour which had started to blight the square and its vicinity. Under the council's civic renewal programme, three priority areas are already delivering tangible results.

Since January last year, the presence of 24-hour wardens and CCTV cameras has led to a 50% cut in crime in the square and significant improvements in lighting, graffiti, illegal trading and busking. Westminster has also pioneered the use of on-street urinals, to combat another growing anti-social tendency.

Leader Simon Milton (Con) sums up the latest plans, which are far more ambitious. 'We want Leicester Square to be the home of cinema and live entertainment and a family friendly environment that provides a really special experience for all who visit from the UK and around the world. London is one of the world's truly great cities. Leicester Square should be the jewel in the crown.'

As a role model for its lofty ambitions, Westminster is looking far further than the example set by UK city centres. 'If we are successful, Leicester Square will become the centrepiece of London and a symbol of regeneration equivalent to New York's Times Square with, we hope, similar positive benefits, making it a symbol of London's c ivic renewal', Mr Milton says. '[Times Square] was transformed from a down-at-heel crime blackspot to the buzzing, family friendly, centre of theatre that it is today.'

As a start, Westminster recently began a feasibility study into the potential of the four street blocks forming the north terrace of the square. Over the next few months, it will identify the opportunities and constraints for major refurbishment, partial or comprehensive redevelopment, and the relationship to existing unitary development plan policy.

The urban design specialist Edaw, has been asked to formulate a public realm strategy for the square's streets and gardens. The company redesigned Manchester's Piccadilly Gardens, formerly a jaded hang-out for street drinkers but now containing a large elliptical fountain and a pavilion. The company has been looking at the possibility of reopening the recently closed Museum of the Moving Image in Leicester Square, perhaps even beneath the square. Later, planswill be drawn up for the south side of the square too.

Mr Milton wishes to engage property owners and local stakeholders about the potential for fundamental development. 'We will only deliver fundamental change working with existing property owners and community groups to deliver a project with the support of all parties,' he says. 'We are at an early stage of the project, but we have already received indications of support from several property owners, the London theatres and the Leicester Square Association. We will also be talking to relevant bodies such as the Greater London Authority and English Heritage.'

However, the council is keen to stress that to create its vision, it is not just talking to urban planners and landowners but also those who have the pulling power to attract people to the square. 'Planning affairs are not the only issues that must be addressed, though, and we are talking to leading figures from the world of theatre and cinema as we believe they will play a big part in achieving our grand vision,' Mr Milton says .

Film director Ridley Scott and theatre impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh are among the influential figures to have provided input to date.

The short-term vision for the square includes more al fresco dining, but fewer drinking dens, amusement arcades, fast-food chains and coffee bars - an attempt to remove the impression of being in 'Anywhereville'. Longer term plans are far grander. 'While it is too early to talk about specifics we might well see new high-class hotels, say with Las Vegas-style casinos and cabaret, and alongside that, a new world-class cinema and a top-flight theatre,' Mr Milton says.

Local stakeholders such as Piccadilly Circus Partnership are pushing for the area to become a business improvement district, which from next year will see local private businesses fund public urban improvements in the UK. This month, Leicester Square businesses will be approached and asked for 1% of their rateable value a year, which could result in a £500,000 cash pool.

This would then be matched by the government. It is this initiative which has been responsible for the face-lift of New York's Times Square.

Longer term significant funding will be needed. The council is exploring costings, and considering the options for packages of private and public investment. 'Our thinking will be shaped very much through our discussions with all our partners,' Mr Milton says.

'Having said that, if potential investors want to come forward, then of course we would be happy to talk to them.'

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