Move to block rebuild of flagship Oxford Street store broadly welcomed but retail body warns it could damage the West End

Michael Gove has refused Marks & Spencer’s plans to redevelop its flagship London store in a move that is expected to set a precedent for future demolish and rebuild projects.


Housing secretary Michael Gove

The communities secretary ignored the advice of the planning inspector to recommend the Oxford Street scheme, designed by Pilbrow & Partners, which would have replaced the 1920s building with a 10-storey retail and office block.

It is the second time Gove has discarded the advice of the planning inspector this year after he refused Berkeley homes’ application for 165 homes near Tunbridge Wells.

The latest move has been hailed as a “massive positive step” by campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage, which led the case against the plans in last year’s public inquiry.

But representative body the New West End Company warned it had the “potential to damage the district’s reputation as a leading destination for global businesses and investors.”

Below are some of the industry’s reactions to today’s decision.

Henrietta Billings, director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, says:

“This is a hugely important decision that rightly challenges the way we continually and needlessly knock down and rebuild important buildings across our towns and cities. Repurposing and converting buildings we cherish and saving thousands of tonnes of C02 in the process is a no brainer. This is a massive positive step and we salute the secretary of state.”

Simon Sturgis, SAVE’s expert witness on embodied carbon at the inquiry & founder of carbon consultancy Targeting Zero, says:

“Congratulations to Michael Gove for a very important and influential decision. This shows that the government is serious about the climate crisis and understands that real change is needed if we are to achieve net zero by 2050. We must now progress with nationwide guidance on planning and building regulations (eg Part Z) to support this decision and deliver carbon reductions across the entire built environment industry.”

Dee Corsi, chief executive of the New West End Company

“Today’s decision is a missed opportunity to accelerate the growth of the West End and has the potential to damage the district’s reputation as a leading destination for global businesses and investors. It is particularly disappointing, given that the proposal was previously approved by both Westminster City Council and the Greater London Authority, as well as meeting the aims of the London Plan and the National Planning Policy Framework. 

As we understand, the current building has no historical or architectural significance and yet the new design would have been a significant enhancement to Oxford Street. The West End’s unique character has always been shaped by its buildings and those that live, work and shop in the area, and its reputation as a world-class destination has been maintained across centuries through consistent reinvention of the built environment. 

The proposal for Marks & Spencer’s flagship redevelopment is part of Oxford Street’s future growth story and today’s decision misses the opportunity to capitalise on the positive momentum the district is currently experiencing. Investment in the Elizabeth Line has already delivered over 73 million passengers into Oxford Street stations since opening, whilst the Oxford Street Programme promises a once-in-a-generation transformation the public realm.

A thriving West End is necessary to support businesses throughout the UK, acting as the national shop window for our most iconic brands. It draws visitors from around the world, who contributed £28m to the UK economy in 2019 and is a major reason why investors choose to invest and live in London.”

Richard McWilliams, director, sustainability at Turner & Townsend, said:

“The decision over the M&S store on Oxford Street is the latest sign of the need for the construction sector to wean itself off an excessive focus on new assets.  It is good to see embodied carbon playing a leading role in the consideration of an application, but this is about more than a single issue or a single decision. We need to look at all the elements required to enable a sector-wide transformation towards retrofit as a default choice. 

“At the heart of this is building the skills we need to properly assess and deliver retrofit for commercial buildings so the case for retrofit can be made confidently and accurately. We are seeing exponential demand to upgrade offices, homes and public buildings to lower bills, shore up our energy security and reduce operational emissions. As regulations tighten around performance elements such as EPC ratings, and property owners act to avoid stranded assets, retrofit is becoming increasingly attractive to private investment.

“However, we need a tenfold increase in capacity from where we are now if the UK is going to make these changes and turn retrofit from a niche sector specialism into the norm.  In the capital, the Mayor of London’s Retrofit Accelerator – workplaces – has seen success through setting benchmarks and creating a clear pipeline of work around which capacity can be built. Replicating this at a national level for private property will require clearer standards if we are to reach a point where the retrofit market is self-sustaining.”

Charles Begley, chief executive, London Property Alliance, said:

“The intense debate around a single store underlines the significant challenges developers and investors face when making long term investment decisions to deliver sustainable economic and environmental growth. This particular case demonstrates the lack of clarity and leadership nationally on the issue.

“Whilst the Secretary of State’s decision sends a political message, it does not provide the substantive planning policy guidance the property sector and local councils need to make finely balanced decisions around upgrading or demolishing poorly performing buildings.

“We fully support a retrofit-first approach in order to retain heritage and reduce embodied carbon, but this should not just be about retrofit-only as such decisions cannot be binary.  The best way to reduce the carbon footprint over a building’s full life cycle often involves a blend of approaches and compromises to create truly world-class sustainable buildings for the future.

“We want to work with government so those gaps in policy can be addressed and help avoid the politicisation of single consents.”

Alistair Watson, partner and UK Head of Planning and Environment at law firm Taylor Wessing said:

”The Secretary of State has been sitting on a ticking time bomb since last year and we’ve all been waiting to see what happens when it goes off. Today, Government has rejected Marks & Spencer’s proposal to rebuild its store on Oxford Street in order to help meet net zero targets. With this decision, Government is telling the real estate industry: ‘prove to us why you can’t refurbish and repurpose’. At least now we know what the Government thinks, it’s just been a particularly painful and expensive way of learning what it thinks.”

“Before the intervention by Government, the scheme, which would have boosted the economy and brought about an important regeneration project with very significant economic, social, and environmental benefits, had been approved by Westminster City Council and the Mayor of London. The Government had also received an Inspector’s recommendation to approve the scheme. Today’s decision illustrates many things, including the inadequacy of the planning system in its current form.”

Jon Eaglesham, managing director of Barr Gazetas, said:

“This is a welcome decision in my view. The structure, the bones of the building, are good, it can be carefully repurposed and given a new life without being completely demolished and a new build. 

“Ultimately, the fact that the debate even took place is a failure of our regulatory system. Whether you agree with the decision or not, we shouldn’t be allowing decisions of this magnitude and regularity to be decided by the Planning Inspectorate based on planning policy that is not fit for purpose and does not respond to the climate emergency we face.

”We urgently need an updated regulatory framework that embeds embodied carbon at the heart of every project. This then allows projects to be decided on Policy at the local level.”