Michael Gove has ordered a public inquiry into Marks & Spencer’s plan to demolish and rebuild its flagship Oxford Street store after campaigners claimed it would release 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Westminster city council approved the scheme to tear down the 90-year-old store near Marble Arch, but the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities has called in the development plan amid growing calls for the reuse of buildings that embody large amounts of carbon.
However, Marks & Spencer hit back at Gove’s “political grandstanding”, insisting that in the long term the more energy-efficient new building “will more than offset any emissions from the redevelopment”.
In a sign that climate change considerations are increasingly important to planning decisions, Gove has tasked an inspector with determining if the scheme is consistent with national planning policy, citing a chapter that states: “The planning system should support the transition to a low-carbon future … [and] shape places in ways that contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”
In November 2021, Gove rejected plans for a viewing tower in the City of London designed by Lord Foster, complaining about the “highly unsustainable concept of using vast quantities of reinforced concrete”.
The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, decided not to intervene over the M&S application considering that it was in line with the capital’s planning strategy.
The campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage and magazine Architects’ Journal organised a letter to Gove, signed by several leading architects, which argued that the existing building should be retrofitted rather than demolished.
It described it as “a development which is environmentally wasteful, destroys an elegant and important interwar building and … negatively affects Oxford Street”.
Architects including Julia Barfield, the co-designer of the London Eye, and Robert Adam, a favourite architect of Prince Charles, signed the letter, which said: “We should be adapting the building, not destroying it.”
But Marks & Spencer’s property director, Sacha Berendji, said on Tuesday that the retailer was “bewildered and disappointed at Michael Gove’s baseless decision” to order a public inquiry. Berendji said the building “cannot be modernised through refitting as it is three separate buildings containing asbestos”.
He said: “Twenty per cent of units on Oxford Street lay vacant and the secretary of state appears to prefer a proliferation of stores hawking counterfeit goods to a gold-standard retail-led regeneration.” He added the decision would have a “chilling effect for regeneration programmes across the country”.
“An independent assessment of the building’s carbon impact across its whole lifecycle concluded that the new-build offered significant sustainability advantages over a refurbishment and, on completion, will be among the top 10% performing buildings in London,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “This is a disappointing and misleading statement from M&S.
“Call-in decisions are made in line with established policy. It is right that a project of such significance should be considered by the independent planning inspectorate and ministers.”