The important argument about the relative environmental benefits of retrofit versus rebuild for the flagship store has been hijacked by some cheap political point-scoring, writes Gleeds chairman Richard Steer

richard steer BW

The ongoing debate over the proposed demolition of Marks & Spencer’s iconic Oxford Street store in favour of a mixed-use development has taken a new twist. First Nicholas Boys Smith, the government’s housing design tsar, called on Michael Gove to reject plans from Pilbrow & Partners to demolish and rebuild the store, which had the support of London mayor Sadiq Khan, on environmental grounds. 

Now a host of well-known names from the world of art, heritage and the built environment – including TV presenter and architect Kevin McCloud, London Eye designer Julia Barfield and comedian Griff Rhys Jones – have written to the housing secretary to call for a public inquiry. Gove put the plans on ice by issuing Westminster council with an article 31 holding direction in April. 

In a way I am not surprised that this story has gained traction. Apart from the involvement of a well-known brand such as M&S, we see an arguably unloved government minister keen to be seen to be supporting the UK’s race to reach net zero, while at the same time scoring political party points by opposing what many of his fellow Tories see as an irritating Labour London mayor.

It is also true that the climate crisis has forced all sectors of the economy to consider their emissions, prompting property owners and developers, such as M&S, to look again at the impact of construction.

We know that new buildings will be lean, using green energy and taking advantage of solar, insulation and a plethora of other sustainably valid technologies to heat, cool and control the building

Our consultancy often finds itself at the sharp end of the eco debate, operating as project and cost managers on projects such as the pioneering 105 Victoria Street and Grosvenor’s sustainable South Molton Triangle. Of course, clients want best value but the World Green Building Council calculates that construction, together with the energy required to heat, cool and power buildings, accounts for almost 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions – so there must be balance.

In operational terms we know that new buildings will be lean, using green energy and taking advantage of solar, insulation and a plethora of other sustainably valid technologies to heat, cool and control the building. Indeed, Savills suggests that 95 to 98% of any new glass and steel building being built in London today’s ability to meet net zero ambitions will be impacted by the materials used in its construction. So, the prize on offer for decarbonising the entire lifecycle of a building during its build phase is significant.

Let’s be clear, the fuss over M&S is not an academic argument – post pandemic there are lots of other projects in the pipeline. While the latest edition of the New London Architecture Tall Buildings Survey shows a slowdown in applications for towers over 20 storeys, there were 98 full planning permissions granted in 2021,  26% higher than in 2020 and the highest annual figure on record. Some 56% of permissions were granted in outer London boroughs. Where London leads, the likes of Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, and Newcastle may follow.

Tenants are also increasingly demanding more efficient buildings and their landlords are trying to deliver by giving old structures a new lease of life, hence a boom in the retrofitting and repurposing of buildings. Ironically, this has been aided by covid and the change in working patterns brought about by the pandemic.

Where I see hypocrisy in Gove’s intervention in the M&S planning application is the blatant double standards on display at the heart of government  

If you are going to change the way the workspace serves a mobile workforce rather than just replacing worn-out equipment, the building might as well be completely reconfigured inside and out and transformed into a modern, eco-efficient, workspace.

Where I see hypocrisy in Gove’s intervention in Marks & Spencer’s planning application is the blatant double standards on display at the heart of government. A significant inhibitor to the UK reaching its obligations to achieve net zero carbon status by 2050 is not the demolition of an old department store, it is the fact that almost all of the UK’s 29 million homes will need to be retrofitted in order to meet it,according to a Committee on Climate Change report. 

Of those, 3.3 million are interwar homes, half of which have uninsulated solid walls and are among England’s worst performing in terms of gas energy use density. This is a huge issue when you consider that emissions need to fall by about 25% from 1990 levels by 2050 for the UK to reach its carbon budget, but in the housing sector the implementation of measures to reduce emissions has stalled.

No-one argues that a major retrofitting programme would not only produce warmer, more energy efficient homes which are cheaper to run, but would also create 500,000 green jobs. However there has been no mention of this opportunity to re-fit and repurpose by the Treasury or Mr Gove’s own department. 

We get lots of warm words, but cold cash has been hard to find. It is much easier to grab a cheap headline by taking on a well-known high street brand.  

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds Worldwide