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Marks and Spencer has accused Michael Gove of being “anti-business” and said it would review its future on London’s Oxford Street after the communities secretary blocked plans to rebuild its Art Deco flagship.
In a statement on Thursday, Gove overturned a decision by Westminster council to approve the retailer’s plans for redevelopment of the site, which would have seen the demolition of three existing buildings and the construction of a nine-storey development, including a new M&S store, restaurants, offices and a gym.
The scheme has become a flashpoint in a wider debate over the construction industry’s role in decarbonising the UK economy.
The council saw the project as a key part of its wider ambitions to revitalise an area of London’s West End blighted by knock-off sweet shops and tourist traps.
But the government was under pressure to block the plans from heritage and environmental campaigners, who argued that the proposed redevelopment was not justifiable for heritage reasons and because of its impact on the UK’s transition to a zero-carbon economy.
They said the loss of the carbon emissions “embodied” in the building itself — from the energy used to create and transport the materials — gave it a significantly larger environmental footprint than a “retrofit” that would preserve parts of the structure.
In the absence of specific government policy on embodied emissions, the ruling is likely to be seen as a precedent for developers and planners in how to approach the question of whether to demolish or refit buildings.
Gove accepted the argument of conservation group SAVE Britain’s Heritage that M&S did not fully explore alternatives to demolition, or demonstrate that a refurbishment would “not be deliverable or viable”.
He added that the proposed development would fail to support the UK’s ambitions to transition to a low carbon future and “would overall fail to encourage the reuse of existing resources, including the conversion of existing buildings”. Gove also identified “harm arising from the embodied carbon”.
Stuart Machin, chief executive of M&S, said Gove had “inexplicably taken an anti-business approach, choking off growth and denying Oxford Street thousands of new quality jobs, a better public realm and a . . . flag bearing M&S store”.
He branded the decision as “pathetic”, saying: “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.”
Councillor Geoff Barraclough, Westminster council’s cabinet member for planning and economic development, said: “Clearly this is a disappointing day for M&S but we hope they return with a revised scheme which meets the new tests presented by the climate emergency.”
Construction industry groups have been arguing for some time that embodied emissions should be considered in the national planning framework and building regulations.
Simon Sturgis, an environmental consultant who acted as an expert witness for SAVE, said Thursday’s ruling would have “ripple effects” on Britain’s built environment.
He added that it would encourage developers to take a “more subtle and ingenious approach to existing buildings” and planners to put their “good intentions” on the environment into concrete policy.
“If M&S do choose to leave the site,” he said, “I already know of a number of developers who would only be too happy to get their hands on it — for a refurbishment.”