Retailer to review its position at flagship store after nearly a century on London’s busiest shopping street

The boss of Marks & Spencer has described Michael Gove’s decision to block the retailer’s plans to rebuild its flagship London store “utterly pathetic”.

Stuart Machin said that M&S was now “left with no choice but to review its future position on Oxford Street on the whim of one man”.

The brand, which has occupied the 1929 Orchard House and two attached buildings for nearly a century, had received approval from Westminster council in 2021 to demolish the buildings and replace them with a 10-storey scheme designed by Pilbrow & Partners.

The plans were later backed by London mayor Sadiq Khan, but were called in by Gove last year and sent to a public inquiry.

Stuart Machin

Stuart Machin

Yesterday, the government announced Gove was refusing the scheme on heritage and sustainability grounds against the advice of the planning inspector.

The case has been closely watched by the construction industry as an indicator of the future of major demolish and rebuild projects, which have become increasingly contested because of their embodied carbon impact.

M&S has argued that the new building would be in the top 1% of London’s buildings in terms of sustainability and would pay back the carbon lost by demolition within 11 years.

But Gove questioned the reliability of the retailer’s calculations, concluding a rebuild would emit “far more” carbon than a refurbishment until the UK’s energy grid achieved net zero, a benchmark which is not set to be hit before 2035.

> Also read: Gove’s M&S decision: the start of a new era, or a ploy to conceal net zero backsliding?

> Also read: Gove’s M&S decision: how the industry reacted

Machin described the decision as “nonsensical” and claimed the scheme had been a “victim of politics and a wilful disregard of the facts”.

“Towns and cities up and down the country will feel the full effects of this chilling decision, with decaying buildings and brownfield sites now destined to remain empty as developers retreat,” he said.

“The nation’s fragile economic recovery needs government to give confidence to sustainable regeneration and investment as well as following due process; in London and across the UK. 

“Today the Secretary of State has signalled he is more interested in cheap shot headlines than facts and if it weren’t so serious it would be laughable.”

“We have been clear from the outset that there is no other viable scheme – so, after almost a century at Marble Arch, M&S is now left with no choice but to review its future position on Oxford Street on the whim of one man. It is utterly pathetic.”

The view was echoed by retail body the New West End Company yesterday, whose chief executive Dee Corsi warned Gove’s move had the potential to “damage the district’s reputation as a leading destination for global business and investors”.

The group represents 600 retailers, restaurants, hotel and property owners across Bond Street, Oxford Street, Regent Street and Mayfair.

Corsi said the scheme’s refusal was a “missed opportunity”, adding: “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”.

Gove found that the top storeys of the building, which would contain office space, would harm the setting and prominence of the adjacent grade II*-listed Selfridges building.

He added that Orchard House, which is not listed, did possess “architectural and historic interest” and contributes positively to the historic character of Oxford Street.

Save Britain’s Heritage, which led the case against M&S’ proposals in the public inquiry, yesterday celebrated the refusal as a “massive positive step” for heritage and net zero.

The charity’s director Henrietta Billings described Gove’s move as a “hugely important decision that rightly challenges the way we continually and needlessly knock down and rebuild important buildings across our towns and cities.” 

Simon Sturgis, the group’s expert witness at the inquiry, said: “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.”