Gove rejects M&S Oxford Street demolition

Setting out his decision for refusal in a letter, the levelling up, housing and communities secretary said the Pilbrow & Partners’ 10-storey replacement scheme conflicted with policies on heritage and design.

He also specifically highlighted the embodied carbon impact and waste involved in the plan, something raised extensively by the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign and by SAVE Britain’s Heritage at last year’s public inquiry.

Although the plans had been approved by both Westminster City Council and London mayor Sadiq Khan, the application was called in by Gove last summer.

In his decision letter, Gove said he disagreed with M&S’s argument that there was no viable and deliverable alternative to demolition,  arguing that the project was not compatible with the transition to a low-carbon future and the need to reuse existing buildings and materials. The new build would have released around 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in terms of the immediate impact.

The letter said: ‘The secretary of state is not persuaded that it is safe to draw the same conclusion reached by the inspector, namely that “there is no viable and deliverable alternative” … which leads to the inspector’s overall conclusion that “there is unlikely to be a meaningful refurbishment of the buildings”.

It went on: ‘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.’

On the embodied carbon impact, Gove said the construction of the new-build replacement would ‘impede the UK’s transition to a zero-carbon economy’, despite his acceptance that some of the impact would be mitigated by carbon offset payments secured under the project’s section 106 agreement.

While he acknowledged several benefits of the M&S scheme, including employment and regeneration, he said that the project and the loss of the unlisted 1929 Orchard House building would harm surrounding heritage assets at Marble Arch, such as the adjacent Selfridges building and the wider conservation area.

The letter stated: ‘The secretary of state considers that the harm to designated heritage assets in this case carries very great weight [namely the setting of Selfridges, and the harm to the settings of the Stratford Place conservation area, the Mayfair conservation area  and the Portman Estate conservation area].

‘The secretary of state agrees with SAVE’s view that the upper floors [of Orchard House] have retained much of their architectural detailing and that the lost details are a more minor matter that do not detract from the building’s fundamental merits. Overall he considers that, notwithstanding the alterations, Orchard House has significant value in its own right and in its context.’

In response to the news, M&S chief executive Stuart Machin described Gove’s decision as ‘unfathomable’, especially when other demolition-led developments around the site had been waved through. He added: ‘The suggestion the decision is on the grounds of sustainability is nonsensical.’ (see full response below).

‘I hope his decision will be vigorously challenged by M&S’

Pilbrow & Partners founder Fred Pilbrow also expressed shock at the decision, branding it ‘bizarre’. He told the AJ: ‘How can a planning system that charges no less than three separate authorities – Westminster City Council, the Mayor of London and now the planning inspector – to determine one application, simply overrule their unanimous conclusions?

‘Gove heard none of the evidence first-hand. I hope his decision will be vigorously challenged by M&S.’

Despite a major backlash to its plan, Marks & Spencer (M&S) had previously vowed to abandon the flagship superstore if its Pilbrow & Partners-designed redevelopment plans were rejected.

The retailer’s ‘threat’ was made at the start of last autumn’s planning inquiry into the controversial scheme to replace three existing buildings with a 10-storey office and shopping development.

In an opening statement at the inquiry, read by lawyer Russell Harris KC on behalf of M&S, the company warned it would leave the site near Marble Arch if the planning application were rejected – and argued that this would have dire consequences for the local area.

M&S cited expert consultants before concluding that the ‘the international centre [of Oxford Street] would be terminally harmed by the loss of M&S from this location’ and that the western part of Oxford Street, where the site sits, would ‘decline rapidly and harmfully’.

But SAVE, which led the objections to M&S’s plans at the inquiry, had previously branded M&S’s pledge to leave the site as a ‘threat’. In the organisation’s own opening statement, read by barrister Matthew Fraser, it said: ‘M&S have dismissed the creative refurbishment alternative to such an extent that they have made a threat to the secretary of state to leave Orchard House altogether if they do not get their way.

‘This is not the constructive attitude of a retailer dedicated to sustainability, heritage conservation and the future success of Oxford Street.’

Elsewhere in the inquiry, M&S reiterated its belief that any refurbishment scheme would ‘not be fundable or deliverable’ due to difficulties with ‘inherent and inescapable constraints’ including floor-to-ceiling heights, the column grid pattern and the need for new office space to be ‘of the highest quality, to be viable’.

SAVE countered that the scheme should be halted due to the heritage damage caused by the loss of the 1930s Orchard House as well as to nearby heritage assets, including Selfridges.

It also pointed out that urgent action is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and curb runaway climate change, arguing that the 40,000 tonnes of CO2 which would be created by the redevelopment, ‘could still be avoided if M&S seriously and creatively considered the option of refurbishing the buildings’.

Henrietta Billings, director, SAVE Britain’s Heritage

This is a hugely important decision that rightly challenges the way we continually and needlessly knock down and rebuild important buildings across our towns and cities. Repurposing and converting buildings we cherish and saving thousands of tonnes of CO2 in the process is a no-brainer. This is a massive positive step and we salute the secretary of state.

Response from Marks & Spencer in full – Stuart Machin, chief executive

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.

The suggestion the decision is on the grounds of sustainability is nonsensical. With retrofit not an option – despite us reviewing sixteen 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.

‘It is utterly pathetic’

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.

Recommended For You