“Soulless” and “like an airport lounge” – this was the verdict of west Londoner Katie Ducali on the new Westfield shopping centre in Shepherd’s Bush, west London.
The opening of Westfield London – the largest indoor shopping centre in Europe – must be one of the most over-hyped events of the year.
With what is variously seen as either unfortunate timing or plucky optimism, the complex opened to much fanfare on Thursday of last week.
London mayor Boris Johnson – seemingly unaware that average household debts now stand at £9,740 without housing costs – used the opportunity to urge people not to let money “silt up” in their bank accounts but to use it to “invest in Christmas presents” as a way out of the economic crisis.
Katie was less than impressed.
“For most people on my estate it is a real struggle just to get by. We’ve seen increasing numbers of loan sharks coming round the estate. There also seems to be a lot more bailiff activity.”
Katie is a community activist and the secretary of her residents’ association on the High Lane estate in Hanwell, west London. She has three disabled children and lives on benefits.
“People round my way are worried about what the future holds,” she said.
“Everyone is finding it tough – even people who are working. Bills are rising and now Christmas is looming and people are worrying about how to pay for it.”
The £1.7 billion Westfield development is certainly a monster of a shopping centre – the size of 30 football pitches, with 265 shops and 50 restaurants.
But it is hardly a brave new world – unless of course you are fortunate enough never to have seen a branch of Marks & Spencer, H&M or Pizza Express.
Westfield London’s website explains that it offers personal stylists who – for £90 an hour, minimum 2 hour booking – will get you out of your “fashion rut” and help “busy mums who need a helping hand to dress the family”.
Hived off at one end of the mall is the upmarket Village area, with a number of boutique “designer” stores, some pink chandeliers and a very large House of Fraser.
The shops here are clustered around a champagne bar where you can relax after your personal styling with a £99 bottle of Dom Perignon 2000 and snack on some caviar and warm blinis for a mere £75.
The manager of the bar is adamant that business is going to go well despite the economic crisis.
He says that he has already been asked by Westfield bosses to extend the bar and build a new one upstairs.
Katie, however, thinks the bar is ridiculous. “Look at the prices,” she says.
“That caviar would cost more that many people have to live off in a week. And what for – a bit of pancake with fish eggs.”
Many of the shops in the Village have not yet moved in. And for those that have, it seems they think it is far too vulgar to put any actual prices in the windows. One grey woolly scarf in the window of the upmarket Joseph clothes shop still had its tag on – a snip at £119.
“It’s ironic that they call it the Village,” Katie pointed out. “There’s nothing village-like about a mass shopping centre.”
Westfield proudly boasts to have brought jobs to the area.
We met some cleaners scrubbing the floors in the main section of the mall next to a shiny BMW car on display.
One cleaner said that he earns £7.63 an hour for what – with around 40 acres of retail space – must feel like an endless and thankless task.
We worked out how many hours he would have to clean to afford the brand new BMW next to him. It came to 6,553 hours – as long as he didn’t spend any of his wages or pay tax.
Katie is clear that there are many things that West London needs – and a new shopping centre is not one of them.
“We need proper investment in public services such as healthcare and education. We need decent council housing.
“There need to be changes which really benefit the people of west London – not just another place to shop, which frankly there are plenty of already.
“I’m worried about the impact Westfield will have on the local markets.
“We need more facilities for young people and affordable childcare – that would go some way to helping local people.”
Many others feel the same. Sharon Michaels lives next to the new Westfield site.
Sharon and her neighbours made a banner attacking Hammersmith & Fulham council for putting the interests of Westfield above those of residents.
“The council made promises to us that were not kept,” she says. “For them it’s all about the money.”