Seaforth chief says clients “need to take the high road now” as M&S battles to save its plans to rebuild flagship Oxford Street store

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Marks & Spencer is in the second week of hearings of the public inquiry into its controversial plans to rebuild its flagship Oxford Street store

Developers risk losing occupiers if they do not try harder to reuse and refurbish existing buildings, the public inquiry into the controversial redevelopment plans for Marks & Spencer’s flagship store has been told.

Tyler Goodwin, chief executive of London-based investor and developer Seaforth, said clients “need to take the high road now” if they are to retain the trust and support of their customers.

M&S is in the second week of hearings at the inquiry into its Pilbrow & Partners-designed proposals to knock down its 1920s Art Deco store on Oxford Street. The plans were called in by communities secretary Michael Gove in June.

The retailer is facing opposition from campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage, which was granted main party status after leading a campaign against the redevelopment which won the backing of a string of high-profile names across the built environment and beyond. Save is looking to raise £20,000 in donations to cover its legal costs.

The scheme has stoked controversy due to the amount of embodied carbon its detractors say that demolition will produce compared to a refurbishment, and the loss of the original unlisted building, known as Orchard House.

The outcome of the planning inspector’s report, expected in January, is likely to be highly influential for the future of major demolish-and-rebuild projects and the treatment of heritage buildings.

“Global warming is already an urgent issue,” Goodwin said. “Our industry must do more now to reduce our whole-life carbon in developments. 

“That doesn’t mean stopping development, but it does mean trying harder first to retain, reuse and adapt what we have.”

Seaforth is currently developing more than 500,000 sq ft of office space in central London, all of which are refurbishments of existing buildings. These include Space House, a grade II-listed brutalist building designed by Richard Seifert and George Marsh in 1968.

Goodwin said the firm’s customers have ”already made the connection between their commitments to achieving net zero and their leasing decisions”.

Celebrating elements of a historic building “tells a powerful story and is a constant reminder to your customers and their customers that they are in a building that helped make a difference”, he added. He also warned that today’s younger generations are “tomorrow’s customers – and they are fed up with our kicking the can down the road”.

> Also read: Save slams Marks & Spencer’s “threat” to leave flagship store if demolition plans are blocked

Several big-name retailers have rallied around M&S in support of the redevelopment. Ikea, which is preparing to move into the former flagship Topshop store on Oxford Circus, has backed the plans. The furniture seller’s UK country retail manager and chief sustainability officer Peter Jelkeby told the inquiry that the firm was “delighted to see the proposals”.

He added: “The high street, and particularly a street of such international economic importance as Oxford Street, needs this type of investment and regeneration to continue attracting customers and visitors, as well as providing confidence in the UK’s high streets and inspiration to other retailers.” 

Selfridges has also thrown its support behind the scheme, which it said would “help deliver the step change in the quality of place that is needed on Oxford Street”.

The western end of the street, where the M&S store is located, has been said by the scheme’s supporters to have seen a marked downturn in recent years following several high-profile departures including Debenhams and House of Fraser.

M&S has said that a refurbishment of the building is unviable and has warned it will also be forced to leave if the redevelopment is blocked, a move which Save Britain’s Heritage has said would not be the “attitude of a retailer dedicated to sustainability”.

The company’s lawyer, Russell Harris KC, described the shopping strip last week as a “failing centre” which had the unmistakable “smell” of decline. He warned this would “accelerate dramatically” if the retailer left the site.

But Scott Lindsay, architect at Simpson and Brown, told the inquiry that he believed there was “no apparent case” for demolition and the building could and should have a sustainable future.

> Also read: Can we make demolition greener?

Last year the practice carried out a retrofit of a strikingly similar Art Deco building in Edinburgh for client Diageo which won a number of sustainability awards.

Conservation architect Christine Humphreys told Tuesday’s hearing that retailers could design shops within “all kinds of constraints” and suggested that M&S was not making the best use of the existing building.

“Agents and clients claim that certain kinds of existing spaces are no longer ‘viable’ for offices and shops,” Humphreys said.  

“Where does this judgment come from?  Are tenants really lining-up to rent column-free space in a post-covid world? Are people demanding to work in open-plan offices without opening windows?

“The nooks, crannies and columns that come with existing buildings can make for more interesting designs and spaces.  

“However, the truth is that nooks, crannies and columns take up lots of area when measured over many floors of a big building. And more area equals more money, period. It is all about profit.”

Last week, actor and Victorian Society president Griff Rhys Jones told the inquiry that M&S were “not using the space in a very imaginative way compared with the possibilities that an old building offers”.

He said Orchard House could be a “brand and a badge and an exemplar of the spirit of recycling for M&S”, adding that it was “disappointingly short-sighted that they have dismissed this opportunity out of hand”.

Gove will ultimately determine whether the plans can proceed, based on the advice of the planning inspector who presides over the public inquiry.