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Gove blocks M&S demolition plan

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M&S wanted to knock it down and start again; Michael Gove says it should just be refurbished
M&S wanted to knock it down and start again; Michael Gove says it should just be refurbished

Marks & Spencer wants to knock down its former flagship store on London’s Oxford Street and rebuild it. Its planning application went to public inquiry last autumn, resulting in a recommendation from the inspector that permission be granted.

However, Michael Gove, as secretary of state at the Department of Levelling Up, Housing & Communities (DLUHC), has ultimate say on such planning matters. He disagreed with the planning inspector, David Nicholson, and has turned M&S down.

His lengthy reasoning is set out on the department’s website.

But the nub of the issue is whether it is more environmentally friendly to knock down a building with a poor energy performance and replace it with a well-performing one, or simply to refurbish it. Gove says that M&S has failed to make the case against refurbishment. M&S vehemently disagrees and says that Gove is killing Oxford Street and British retail on a whim.

DLUHC said: “Overall, the secretary of state concludes that the evidence before him is not sufficient to allow a conclusion as to whether there is or is not a viable and deliverable alternative, as there is not sufficient evidence to judge which is more likely. The secretary of state also does not consider that there has been an appropriately thorough exploration of alternatives to demolition. He does not consider that the applicant has demonstrated that refurbishment would not be deliverable or viable and nor has the applicant satisfied the secretary of state that options for retaining the buildings have been fully explored, or that there is compelling justification for demolition and rebuilding.”

It added: “The secretary of state considers that in this case it has not been demonstrated that the products and materials in these buildings have been kept at their highest use for as long as possible.”

M&S chief executive Stuart Machin said: “After a two-year process where our proposals were supported at every stage, our investment in 2,000 jobs, building one of the most sustainable buildings in London, improving the public realm and creating a flagship store, is now effectively in the deep freeze. Today the secretary of state has ignored his appointed expert David Nicholson who recommended approval of our scheme.

“When 42 of the 269 shops on what should be our nation’s premier shopping street sit vacant, disregarding the expert opinion and approval of the appointed planning inspector and playing to the gallery by kiboshing the only retail-led regeneration proposal is a short-sighted act of self-sabotage by the secretary of state and its effects will be felt far beyond M&S and the West End. It is particularly galling given there are currently 17 approved and proceeding demolitions in Westminster and four on Oxford Street alone, making it unfathomable why M&S’s proposal to redevelop an aged and labyrinthian site that has been twice denied listed status has been singled out for refusal.

M&S's rebuild plan
M&S’s rebuild plan

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“The suggestion the decision is on the grounds of sustainability is nonsensical. With retrofit not an option – despite us reviewing 16 different options – our proposed building would have ranked in the top 1% of the entire city’s most sustainable buildings. It would have used less than a quarter of the energy of the existing structure, reduced water consumption by over half, and delivered a carbon payback within 11 years of construction. It is also completely at odds with the inquiry process where the analysis on sustainability, including from independent experts Arup, was accepted.

“We cannot let Oxford Street be the victim of politics and a wilful disregard of the facts. At a time when vacancy rates on what should be the nation’s premier shopping street are 13% higher than the average UK high street and Westminster Council is pleading for help in managing the growing proliferation of sweet shop racketeers, the Secretary of State has inexplicably taken an anti-business approach, choking off growth and denying Oxford Street thousands of new quality jobs, a better public realm and what would be a modern, sustainable, flag-bearing M&S store.

“There is no levelling up without a strong, growing Capital city, but the ripple effect extends well beyond Oxford Street. Towns and cities up and down the country will feel the full effects of this chilling decision, with decaying buildings and brownfield sites now destined to remain empty as developers retreat. The nation’s fragile economic recovery needs government to give confidence to sustainable regeneration and investment as well as following due process; in London and across the UK. Today the secretary of state has signalled he is more interested in cheap shot headlines than facts and if it weren’t so serious it would be laughable.

“We have been clear from the outset that there is no other viable scheme – so, after almost a century at Marble Arch, M&S is now left with no choice but to review its future position on Oxford Street on the whim of one man. It is utterly pathetic.”

Public relations practitioner Andrew Teacher said that while the row had a “reputational impact” on Marks & Spencer, it was unlikely that Michael Giove would be in post beyond next year so they could “simply sit and wait for the political winds to change”.

Turner & Townsend sustainability director Richard McWilliams believes it to be more significant than that. He said: “The decision over the M&S store on Oxford Street is the latest sign of the need for the construction sector to wean itself off an excessive focus on new assets.  It is good to see embodied carbon playing a leading role in the consideration of an application, but this is about more than a single issue or a single decision.  We need to look at all the elements required to enable a sector-wide transformation towards retrofit as a default choice. 

“At the heart of this is building the skills we need to properly assess and deliver retrofit for commercial buildings so the case for retrofit can be made confidently and accurately.  We are seeing exponential demand to upgrade offices, homes and public buildings to lower bills, shore up our energy security and reduce operational emissions.  As regulations tighten around performance elements such as EPC ratings, and property owners act to avoid stranded assets, retrofit is becoming increasingly attractive to private investment.

“However, we need a tenfold increase in capacity from where we are now if the UK is going to make these changes and turn retrofit from a niche sector specialism into the norm.  In the capital, the Mayor of London’s Retrofit Accelerator – workplaces – has seen success through setting benchmarks and creating a clear pipeline of work around which capacity can be built.  Replicating this at a national level for private property will require clearer standards if we are to reach a point where the retrofit market is self-sustaining.”

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