Marks & Spencer refused permission to demolish and redevelop the Oxford Street store

Marks & Spencer has been denied permission to demolish and redevelop its flagship store on Oxford Street in London’s West End in a victory for campaigners concerned about the carbon footprint of the redevelopment.

The Department for Grading, Housing and Communities confirmed that Michael Gove, the Secretary of State, had not agreed with the inspectors’ recommendation to approve the plans and had “decided to deny permission”.

Stuart Machin, chief executive of M&S, said the decision left the retailer “with no choice but to review its future position” on the UK’s highest street after nearly a century “at the whim of one man”.

He accused Gove of “playing gallery” with the decision, which he said was a “myopic act of self-sabotage” whose effects would “be felt far beyond the West End”.

Machin insisted that a redevelopment of the building “was not an option, despite the fact that we reviewed sixteen different options” and accused Gove of “strangling growth and denying Oxford Street thousands of new quality jobs”.

He said: “It is particularly galling given that there are currently 17 demolitions approved and underway in Westminster and four in Oxford Street alone, making it unfathomable why M&S’s proposal to redevelop a rambling ancient site which has twice been denied listing status has been singled out for rejection.”

Gove said it had rejected the permit in part because it “would not support the transition to a low-carbon future and generally would not encourage the reuse of existing resources, including the conversion of existing buildings.”

In a written decision, posted online, Gove said it was not convinced that M&S ​​and its architects had fully explored alternatives to demolition of existing buildings and that the public benefits of new development did not “outweigh the damage to the significance of a number of designated heritage assets”, including the nearby Selfridges department store.

Gove disagreed with the planning inspector’s assessment that rejecting the development would lead to substantial damage to the viability of Oxford Street and the surrounding area.

In his report, which was published alongside Gove’s decision, Planning Inspector David Nicholson, who oversaw a two-week investigation into the M&S scheme last autumn, recommended that the project go ahead in part because any decision making the site’s closure and partial vacancy more likely “would heighten concerns about the vitality and viability of Oxford Street.”

It concluded that if the scheme was not approved, “sooner or later”, the store would close and not be replaced by “comparable retail concerns”.

While Gove said his decision would have some negative impact, he added that “the scope of such damage would be limited.”

Henrietta Billings, director of the charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has campaigned against the M&S plan, said: “This is a very important decision that rightly challenges the way we continue to needlessly tear down and rebuild important buildings in our towns and cities.

“Reuse and convert buildings that we appreciate and save thousands of tons of CO2 in the process is a no-brainer. This is a big positive step and we salute the Secretary of State.”

The dispute over the fate of the Oxford Street store has become a cause celebre in the dispute over the shape of the redevelopments and the fate of Britain’s high streets.

In June 2022, Gove ordered a public inquiry into the plan to demolish and redevelop the store.

Meanwhile, there have been difficulties filling empty sites on Oxford Street, including those left by two other department stores: the former House of Fraser and Debenhams, which have closed and are undergoing refurbishment, if not complete rebuilding.

Geoff Barraclough, a member of Westminster city council’s economic development and planning cabinet, said it was right that the case for redeveloping the M&S store should be “robustly proven”. He said the council’s position was to “encourage landlords to renovate buildings, not demolish them.”

“Clearly this is a disappointing day for M&S, but we hope they come back with a revised scheme that meets the new evidence brought forward by the climate emergency,” he said.

There has been a shift in sentiment towards renovating existing buildings rather than demolishing them, amid growing awareness of the carbon footprint and climate impact of such schemes.

Activists argued that the M&S project would have released 40,000 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The retailer had said its planned development would use 25% less energy than the existing site, benefits that the designers argued Pilbrow + Partners would last a century, with a maximum carbon payback of 17 years and potentially less than 10.

That argument won over Westminster council planning authorities, while London Mayor Sadiq Khan opted not to intervene, considering M&S’s request to be in line with the capital’s planning strategy.

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