The public inquiry is over and we now await the inspector’s decision. Henrietta Billings and Fred Pilbrow put the case for and against plans to build a new flagship store for Marks & Spencer on Oxford Street
Refurb: A perfect opportunity for a market-leading, innovative and comprehensive retrofit
SAVE Britain’s Heritage has been campaigning for the retention and re-use of existing buildings for nearly 50 years, and at first glance, the M&S building in London’s West End looks no different from many of the cases that cross our desks on a weekly basis: a handsome and re-usable historic building under threat from demolition and the hope of a lucrative planning permission.
What marks this battle out from others is that the M&S campaign breaks new ground on several fronts. It is the first public inquiry to consider sustainability alongside heritage as a major issue. The policy and the science is also new and we are all reacting to the new climate reality.
The urgent net zero agenda and growing public anxiety about how we treat our environment is adding pressure to the argument that a new, updated approach to development is critical and required now
SAVE has long advocated the sustainable re-use of threatened buildings, but we consider the issue of carbon and embodied energy to be so relevant to our work that we decided to engage Simon Sturgis and Julie Godefroy as key sustainability experts to make the case for deep retrofit over demolition at the inquiry. The urgent net zero agenda and growing public anxiety about how we treat our environment is adding pressure to the argument that a new, updated approach to development is critical and required now.
The M&S campaign has triggered widespread media attention and we have been emboldened by the strong public support that we have received. The public inquiry could not have come at a more timely moment.
Julia Barfield, managing director of Marks Barfield Architects, pointed out, in remarks she made to the inspector in person, how rapidly understanding of the importance of embodied carbon has changed. She said: “As architects we are trained to take a brief from our client and come up with the best design response.
“The brief here [on the M&S site] was clearly to maximise the site’s potential and the architects have fulfilled their brief well – creating a building minimising operational carbon that five to eight years ago would have been considered fine. However, now that we understand the upfront impact of embodied carbon, it really isn’t.”
This is a major reason why the plans stick out as out of date. There is no fundamental structural, facade deterioration or safety explanation for why the buildings should be demolished. They are fully viable carbon assets. As we heard at the inquiry, M&S’s decision to demolish and re-build was taken in 2018 and, despite the greater understanding that now exists around embodied carbon, has not been revisited since.
M&S itself has announced an ambitious green agenda. In September last year the company stated that it was seeking to cut a third of its carbon emissions by 2025 and to be fully net zero by 2045. In our view – as set out by Sturgis at the inquiry – the M&S buildings present an ideal opportunity for a market-leading, innovative, comprehensive retrofit.
Here is a chance to introduce greater operational energy efficiency to the buildings; avoid the large embodied carbon emissions of demolition and re-build; achieve the desired improvements in terms of providing high-quality retail and office space and public realm; and avoid the harmful heritage impacts of the proposed new-build scheme.
M&S can be the leaders in sustainability that they claim to be and commission an imaginative, deep retrofit scheme, providing a pioneering example for others to follow – and SAVE is not alone in that view. Developers Tyler Goodwin, the CEO of Seaforth Land, Jacob Loftus, CEO of General Projects, Charlie Baxter, MD of Alchemi, and Ashley Nicholson, founder of Verve Properties, all submitted statements to the inquiry.
So did architects and designers Sarah Wigglesworth, Ian Ritchie, Mark Hines (who led the refurbishment of BBC Broadcasting House), Michelle Ludik of HOK, David Coughtrie, Christine Humphreys, Scott Lindsay of Simpson & Brown, and Stirling Prize-winner Steve Tompkins of Haworth Tompkins. They were joined by representatives of Heritage Declares, Architects Declare and the Architects’ Climate Action Network.
Technical specialists Dr Alice Moncaster, an internationally recognised expert on the carbon impacts of construction, and Will Arnold, head of climate action at the Institute of Structural Engineers as well as art historians and academics Andrew Saint, Alan Powers and Barnabas Calder also submitted statements backing SAVE’s case.
The campaign has thrown into stark relief the need to make demolishing buildings without overwhelming evidence simply unacceptable. The buildings and construction sector is responsible for about 40% of UK carbon emissions. We lose more than 50,000 buildings a year through demolition and construction is far more carbon-intensive than refurbishment.
The UK is legally committed to transition to a net-zero economy by 2050. Yet climate modelling shows it is important that we make the biggest reduction as soon as possible, so this target was updated in 2021 to commit us to the first 78% drop by 2035.
Demolition must be the last rather than the first resort
The construction of the new M&S building is expected to release just under 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. Carbon emissions released today have a larger environmental impact compared with those released in the future, such as through a building’s operational use, because today’s emissions are in the atmosphere and contributing to global warming for longer. Therefore, major new sources of emissions such as the construction of this proposed scheme are particularly damaging.
Our recent publication, Departing Stores, shows that, as our shopping habits change, so too can our landmark department stores. With imagination and determination, these “cathedrals of commerce” can once again contribute to the life and vitality that our high streets are crying out for, while telling the rich and opulent history of a century of trade. The M&S campaign demonstrates how vulnerable these buildings are and how much public affection there is for them.
Examples raised at the inquiry such as IKEA moving into Top Shop at Oxford Circus, or three former department stores on Oxford Street – Debenhams, House of Fraser and John Lewis – all converting retail space no longer needed into new office space, shows how adaptable these buildings can be.
Demolition must be the last rather than the first resort. This inquiry offered the opportunity to provide a landmark decision that catches up with public opinion and one that could change the course of construction.
Henrietta Billings MRTPI is director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage
Rebuild: Why replacement is the more sustainable option
We walked the M&S Marble Arch site with the inspector at the start of the planning inquiry last month. The visit helped to explain why we are proposing to replace rather than refurbish the buildings on the site.
The inspector saw an existing retail environment that is heavily constrained: chaotic and confusing for customers, arranged over five poorly-connected floors in three separate buildings. None of these buildings were originally designed for their present function.
Servicing this space, with its nine cores and 10 separate storage spaces, is hugely challenging. The Marble Arch store is not performing and, unless the site can be redeveloped, M&S has been very clear that they will close it. Retail has got tougher with online competition and high streets need to enhance their offer to compete. Yet decline is not inevitable – new investment at the eastern end of Oxford Street has seen its fortunes rise.
Our plans at Marble Arch will halt the decline at the western end of the street. Selfridges and the other retailing neighbours agree and wrote in strong support of the proposals.
The quality, character and inherent structural constraints of the disparate collection of buildings on the site severely impacts their refurbishment potential. They date from 1930, 1970 and 1985.
The 1930s Orchard House occupies only a third of the site and has been rejected for listing and excluded from any of the three conservation areas that surround the site. The neighbouring buildings, Neale House and 23 Orchard Street, are both of exceptionally poor quality and detract from the setting of the grade II* listed Selfridges and surrounding conservation areas.
A site visit here really brings home the poor quality of the environment created by the existing buildings for pedestrians. A low undercroft on Orchard Street was described by a SAVE witness as “unpleasant” and the dire, service-dominated rear on Granville Place makes no positive contribution to the public realm.
Our new-build proposals would transform this unacceptable condition by consolidating servicing discretely and safely to the north of the site and demolishing the poor quality 1970s bridge over Portman Mews. This allows us to create a landscaped square space in Granville Place and to restore historic permeability across the site to Orchard Street through a new top-lit galleria.
On Orchard Street, the undercroft is swept away, and a broad pavement created by setting the new building line back from that of the existing buildings, with new trees and space to enjoy open views to Selfridges. On any view, these are significant benefits to the quality of place.
These important enhancements to the public realm cannot be delivered through a refurbishment of the existing buildings. You cannot relocate the servicing as the existing ground floor level is too low and, even if the whole first floor was removed, you would still also need to take out three cores and nine structural columns to form the service yard.
As a practice, we refurbish in preference to replace where appropriate… The nature of the requirements for the site and of the existing buildings must, however, inform the correct approach
Nor could you restore the east-west link as the route is blocked by the existing central core (and the quality of the space with the low ground floor would be more of a tunnel than a galleria). Nor, indeed, could you remove the undercroft on Orchard Street because the existing facade line leaves an inadequate pavement width.
The site visit took us on to view David Chipperfield’s modernisation recently completed at the eastern end of Selfridges. Here we were able to experience beautiful 5m-high spaces, regular open column grids and great daylight. These are all the characteristics delivered by our new store proposals for M&S and all entirely precluded by the low ceilings, dense column grids and other constraints of the existing buildings on the site today.
We finished our inquiry site visit at the Kensington Building, a retrofit completed by our practice, Pilbrow & Partners, earlier this year. The Kensington site has some interesting parallels with Marble Arch – both are former department stores located on important retail thoroughfares. Both are next to a grade II* listed neoclassical neighbour. At Kensington it is Derry and Toms, at Oxford Street, Selfridges.
Aspects of our architectural response resonate between the two sites, for example the proposed use of a white Roman brick, and the enhancement of the public realm through the new permeability and active frontages. I think the scheme shows the quality of detail and material we would bring to the transformation of M&S at Marble Arch.
In evidence, I explained that, as a practice, we refurbish in preference to replace where appropriate, that we are signatories to Architect’s Declare and endorse retrofit-first where feasible. The nature of the requirements for the site and of the existing buildings must, however, inform the correct approach.
At Kensington, we started with a single building with generous floor heights and a regular open structural grid. The buildings were ugly and hostile at street level, but remodelling and recladding could successfully address these shortcomings. Their structural capacity allowed the site’s full development potential to be realised.
At Marble Arch the situation is very different. Here, we have three separate structures, each with their individual compromises in layout and quality – problems which are amplified in aggregate: dense clashing column grids, low misaligned floors and a floorplate broken up by numerous cores.
At the inquiry, SAVE’s own proposals for refurbishment made for salutary reading. They suggested the removal of all the perimeter cores and the construction of a new central core. More than a quarter of the floorplate was to be demolished and rebuilt.
This might sound better than a new building (aren’t you keeping at least three-quarters of the fabric?) until you realise that the patch and repair of existing structures is extremely carbon intensive. From our experience at Kensington, where we only had to demolish 11% of the original structure, the levels of embodied carbon for the overall building were comparable to those anticipated for the Marble Arch new-build.
Refurbishment would retain buildings that perform very poorly, underdeliver on the site’s potential and compromise the quality of the public realm
Moreover, the capacity of the existing buildings at Marble Arch means that their refurbishment can only deliver three-quarters of the space provided by a new-build. This matters because, if we are to move to zero carbon, we must make full use of the sites with the best public transport capacity – the alternative is urban sprawl, increased pressure on the green belt and more private car usage.
The operational carbon delivered by the new-build will also be significantly better than a refurbishment. The building, as assessed by Arup, will be in the top 1% of best performing offices in the UK and is designed to achieve BREEAM outstanding, WELL platinum and Wired Platinum certificates.
Very often, refurbishment will be the right choice. In other cases, as here, it will not. Refurbishment would retain buildings that perform very poorly, underdeliver on the site’s potential and compromise the quality of the public realm.
M&S has been very clear that without the ability to make the transformational investment that planning policies demand for this area, it will have no option but to leave its unsuitable premises, hastening the decline of this end of Oxford Street.
Fred Pilbrow is founding partner of Pilbrow & Partners
Key facts: How the M&S Oxford Street store saga unfolded and what happens next
M&S made its planning application to demolish and replace its current Marble Arch store in March 2021. It received planning permission from Westminster City Council in November 2021.
The secretary of state for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities then made the decision to “call in” the application and hold a public inquiry.
The secretary of state (currently Michael Gove) has the power to take a planning application out of the hands of the local authority (call in) a planning application.
The secretary of state will normally only call in a planning application when it is deemed to conflict with national policy in important ways or is seen as being nationally significant.
The secretary of state must take published government policy into account when deciding to call in a planning application.
In the case of the M&S application, heritage group SAVE Britain’s Heritage had alleged that Westminster City Council’s decision was in conflict with national policy to achieve net zero by 2050.
If the secretary of state decides to call in a planning application, an inspector is appointed to carry out an inquiry into the proposal.
The inspector’s decision is regarded as final, but can be challenged at the High Court if either party believes there are grounds to do so on a legal technicality. This is high risk and costly route.
A planning decision can also be “recovered”. This is when a minister chooses to make the final decision themselves. In such circumstances, the secretary of state has to take the inspector’s findings into account when making the decision.