Not just any building: Why plans for M&S flagship store struck a chord | Marks & Spencer
MArgaret Thatcher was enthusiastic as she admired a £200 cashmere jumper. “It’s lovely. That’s what I call an investment,” she remarked. The then Prime Minister was visiting the newly expanded Marks & Spencer store in Marble Arch in 1987 as shoppers flocked Thatcher was accompanied by Lord Rayner, the retailer’s chairman, as she spent nearly two hours touring the store, meeting staff, greeting customers and picking out a few items.
More than three decades later, relations between the high street stalwart and the current Tory regime are far less cordial as a row over the same Oxford Street store in London threatens to become a cause celebre in the battle over the shape redevelopment and the fate of Britain’s shopping streets.
This week Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levels, Housing and Communities, ordered a public inquiry into plans to demolish and rebuild the flagship store on Britain’s most famous high street.
Campaigners say the project would release 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, while M&S says government intervention in its “significant investment in one of our most iconic shopping centres” could have “a chilling effect on regeneration programs across the country”.
Sacha Berendji, M&S property director, pointed to Oxford Street’s struggles to fill empty stores as major retailers pulled out, saying Gove “seems to prefer a proliferation of shops selling counterfeit goods to a regeneration of the ‘gold standard of the nation’s favorite. High St’.
M&S has refurbished other stores – such as Cheltenham and Chelmsford – but says redevelopment of the existing Marble Arch store, created over decades from the merger of three no longer suitable buildings, some of which contain asbestos, is not viable.
The retailer argues that any significant redevelopment of the existing building would mean creating additional carbon emissions without delivering as many benefits from its new building. Its planned development is expected to use 25% less energy than the existing site – the benefits, according to its designers, Pilbrow + Partners, will last a century – with a maximum carbon payback of 17 years and potentially less than 10.
This argument won over planning authorities in Westminster Council, while London Mayor Sadiq Khan chose not to intervene in M&S’s application, considering it to be in line with the capital’s planning strategy.
As the country’s shopping streets need to be revamped to meet modern demands as the climate crisis intensifies, the debate over whether struggling buildings should be renovated or redeveloped will only intensify.
Will Hurst, editor of the Architects’ Journal, who backed a letter calling on Gove to intervene in M&S’s Oxford Street plans, has raised awareness of the carbon footprint of new build through his Retro First campaign. He says three-quarters of local authorities have now declared a climate emergency, but “many of them are out of control when it comes to planning and development”.
He says more than a third of the lifetime emissions of a typical office building and more than half of those from residential buildings are used in construction, so for councils with such environmental concerns it will become “insane to continue to make proposals” on new- builds.
“People are starting to realize the impact of reuse on a large scale, like construction, because they understand it on a small scale,” he says. “They plan to buy second-hand clothes or realize that they shouldn’t change their smartphone every six months.”
Nicholas Boys Smith, the director of the think tank Create Streets, says: “It is clear that the expectations of the public and the political process are changing. Change is on the way without a shadow of a doubt.
With carbon concerns on the agenda, he says there will be “some inconsistency” in decision-making and some boards and developers will be caught off guard.
M&S’s plans may have garnered national attention, but similar projects nearby, such as the demolition and redevelopment of a House of Fraser store in Victoria, have apparently been launched without too much drama.
An entire town center is set to be hit by the wrecking ball in Cumbernauld in Scotland, as is a former Debenhams in Torquay, Devon, while there are battles over plans to overthrow a Debenhams in Taunton. A request to raze another in Harrogate was recently withdrawn.
On Oxford Street alone, some shops have already been demolished and rebuilt. However, the former Debenhams, House of Fraser, Next and Topshop stores are all being redeveloped rather than razed.
Outside London there are many examples of building redevelopments including the Jenners building in Edinburgh and the Hammonds of Hull food hall which was created in a former House of Fraser.
Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation, says developers are “already embracing the circular economy and responding to market demand for more sustainable buildings”. She called on the government to do more to accelerate progress, including providing reforms to prioritize the reuse of buildings and a VAT exemption for renovations.
In Westminster, there could still be a change of course on the M&S project after the Tory administration was ousted by Labor in recent local elections for the first time since it was set up in 1964.
Geoff Barraclough, a councilor responsible for planning, said: ‘Council is serious about reducing the environmental impact of new developments with a focus on the benefits of refurbishment over demolition.
He welcomed Gove’s intervention, saying “all the issues raised by this case can be rigorously tested”.
Henrietta Billings, director of Save Britain’s Heritage, adds: “There are many examples where you can, with a little imagination, overhaul existing buildings without having to demolish them.
“We need to get to a point where unnecessary demolition of buildings is unacceptable because of the environmental costs – where [demolition] is the last resort rather than the first resort.