Before he went on his holidays, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, was a busy man. In addition to dealing with the challenges of regional inequality and the housing crisis, he weighed in on some local planning decisions.
Gove’s powers to “call in” are wide-ranging with few limitations – another example of Henry VIII-style decision-making in England. By convention, powers to review or overturn planning determinations at national government level are exercised only when a matter is of national importance or conflicts with national policy. But lately, developments in Tunbridge Wells, East Cheshire and Leamington Spa (the latter since withdrawn) have all caught the secretary of state’s eye.
He frets that these schemes – often housing-led – are “too generic” or “too ugly”. He has said on record that he will use all the powers he has “to make sure that developments which are not aesthetically of high quality don’t go ahead”. This threat has now been carried out in London and its impact is anything but beautiful. It has had a chilling effect on those coming forward with investment plans for the capital just when they are most needed.
Gove announced in July that he had thrown out Marks & Spencer’s plan to redevelop its flagship store at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. It had been two years since the retailer submitted proposals for replacing its asbestos-ridden, clapped-out existing buildings there, surrounded by “the reek of failure”, with a new, low carbon mixed-use development. Providing retail space fit for the 21st Century, it would have secured the future of a major “anchor” retailer and provided badly-needed high-grade, sustainable office space geared to getting workers back into central London.
All of this would help Oxford Street to recover and more generally boost the productivity of a central London economy damaged by Brexit, a cost of living crisis and a seemingly unending, bitter war of words between central government and City Hall. As it is, Oxford Street risks looking less like its rivals Fifth Avenue or the Boulevard Haussmann than a graveyard of retail history.
The plans have faced fierce opposition from, among others, Save Britain’s Heritage, an expert lobby group made up of the great and the good from the world of architecture and heritage. Gove is, of course, the minister who, on the eve of the Brexit referendum, famously told us that “people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”. But no matter. SAVE, as it is known, proclaimed the M&S unlisted building a “handsome landmark” and decried the loss of “a perfectly good building”.
These views have not been universally shared within the world of building design and aesthetics. Nikolaus Pevsner’s Buildings of England, which is the gold standard text to which architectural experts including SAVE usually cling, struggles to say much in favour of the haphazard job-lot of what is actually three buildings, other than that it is at least in part “dull fronted”.
What was going through Gove’s mind? Ostensibly, he was concerned about aesthetics and carbon. Beauty is, of course, at least in part in the eye of the beholder and therefore subjective. But overturning three decisions made in favour of M&S – by local authority Westminster Council, the Mayor of London and the planning inspector appointed by Gove’s department – should surely require a solid justification.
Yet, remarkably, his decision was heavily weighted towards, not so much the merits or otherwise of the development itself, but his opinion of what its impact would be on Selfridges, that leviathan of a building standing on the other side of Oxford Street’s junction with Orchard Street which was surely totally out of character with its surroundings when it was opened in 1909. Indeed, it was criticised at the time as an “American invasion of London”.
Selfridges itself has backed the M&S scheme. Yet Gove wrote that the “apparent harm” to the Selfridges building and some others nearby should carry “very great weight”, rather than accepting that it would have only the “moderate impact” ascribed to it by the inspector. And despite agreeing that the application was in overall compliance with London policies on greenhouse gases, energy, reducing waste and the circular economy – policies which are among the most stringent for any world city – and acknowledging the economic benefits the scheme would bring, he concluded that the proposal “fails to support the transition to a low carbon future”.
As a result, it is hard to imagine what sort of economically viable building could ever meet Gove’s test for delivering net zero. His move also risks enabling the existing environmentally- unfriendly store to limp on as it is or, worse still, to become yet another vacant or under-utilised plot for years to come. Despite some positive developments, a stroll down other parts of Oxford Street confirms that this is a real possibility.
But fear not: such is Gove’s Alice in Wonderland world, he went out of his way to suggest that the M&S decision should not create a precedent; this was a unique set of circumstances; read-across to other projects should not be presumed. Like so much in Whitehall, this is another “one-off” from which no wider lessons can or apparently should be learned.
That is all too convenient. It allows Gove to pick and choose between planning decisions he likes and doesn’t like. He has already, with a straight face, decanted civil servants into brand new (and not that pretty) carbon-intensive buildings in Wolverhampton and Darlington, where there are heritage buildings available to be put to good use. Those who support his M&S decision should be wary of what they wish for: a future secretary of state might have very different views on building aesthetics from the current one.
Gove has undermined the rules-based decision-making system for development. Perhaps antipathy towards Sadiq Khan and London more generally was a factor. If so, that would be a betrayal of not only trust in the planning system, but also of the investment case for the Elizabeth line, with its two major stations on Oxford Street, at Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road.
It also risks undermining the long-term position of central London – the most carbon efficient place in the United Kingdom to live and do business. And it might make it harder for Westminster and the New West End Company’s public space plan for Oxford Street to succeed.
Losing Marks & Spencer from the western end of Oxford Street would be a disaster. The jobs and economic prosperity the blocked redevelopment would bring are desperately needed. Legal action by the retailer against Gove’s decision is now underway, following Berkeley Homes doing the same over his rejection of their Tunbridge Wells scheme (which Gove has since said he will look at again).
For the sake of Oxford Street, the environment, the economy, and the credibility of a rules-based planning system, let’s hope M&S wins. Londoners and the West End deserve better.
Alexander Jan is chief economic advisor to the London Property Alliance and former Chief Economist of Arup. X/Twitter: Alex_Jan_London and On London. If you value On London and its writers, become a supporter or a paid subscriber to Dave Hill’s Substack for just £5 a month or £50 a year.