Rejecting the plan to demolish and replace Marks and Spencer’s flagship store will cause “terminal harm” to Oxford Street, the retailer’s barrister Russell Harris KC warned today as the public inquiry into the controversial scheme got underway.
The inquiry was announced in June after communities secretary Michael Gove stepped in to block Westminster Council’s approval of the plan, which would see a new 10-storey office and retail building on the prominent site near Marble Arch where an M&S store has stood since 1929. The council was Conservative-run at the time, but was won by Labour in May.
Gove, who was reappointed to his post earlier today, will face a finely-balanced decision when inspector David Nicholson makes his recommendations – one between the need for “urgent” investment to secure the future of Oxford Street, according to M&S, and growing climate change concerns about the impact of “embodied carbon”, the CO2 gas released by demolition and construction.
Conservation groups spearheaded by SAVE Britain’s Heritage are leading the charge, citing the scheme’s upfront cost of 39,500 tonnes of carbon and billing the inquiry as the first major planning test of “our disposable, knock it down and re-build attitude to our cities and historic buildings”. The decision will have “potentially far-reaching consequences for construction and development”, according to the Architects’ Journal.
But setting out his stall to the inquiry, Harris had an apocalyptic vision of his own of the area’s “inevitable decline” in the face of the “worst retail environment in 50 years” if the scheme did not go ahead, with M&S having no commercial option other than to vacate the site. “M&S will leave if the application is refused,” he said.
The start of the inquiry followed yesterday’s opening of the new Bond Street Elizabeth Line station, accommodating 137,000 passengers a day and heralded by Sadiq Khan as a “huge boost” for retail and hospitality in the West End. But bricks and mortar investment is needed too, in office space as well as retail, to sustain the footfall the area needs, said Harris.
Nearby Selfridges also weighed in to back the M&S plan as important in “maintaining Oxford Street as the UK’s national shop window,” Harris pointed out, adding that a recent bid to get the existing building “listed” had failed, with the government deciding it was of insufficient architectural or historic interest.
The environmental case that will be centre stage over the coming two weeks, however, with SAVE witnesses including architect and embodied carbon expert Simon Sturgis lining up to challenge M&S claims that there is no viable option for rehabilitation, and that the new building will in fact be one of the most sustainable in London – arguments already accepted by the council under its previous administration and by Mayor Khan.
For Harris this is a rematch with Nicholson, the inspector who dismissed his pleas on behalf of the similarly contentious Tulip plan for a 305-metre viewing platform in the heart of the City last year, including on the grounds that its use of “vast quantities of reinforced concrete” would be “highly unsustainable” – the first formal citing of embodied carbon as a reason to refuse planning permission.
Mindful of that verdict, M&S is highlighting the energy efficiency of the scheme, as well as its high quality, and adding a pledge to recycle or reuse some 95% of the current building’s materials, including some in the new structure, promoting “circular economy” principles.
Commentators acknowledge the scheme is different from the Tulip too, a scheme in which Nicholson found insufficient benefits for business or for tourism to outweigh his concerns. With the West End continuing to struggle post-Covid, the balance could well be different this time.
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