Save spars with retailer on final day of public inquiry into redevelopment plans

An eight-day public inquiry to decide the future of Marks & Spencer’s flagship Oxford Street store came to an end on Friday with the retailer clashing with heritage groups over sustainability questions.

Pilbrow & Partners’ proposals to demolish and replace the 1920s building, known as Orchard House, have sparked controversy, largely due to the amount of embodied carbon detractors say it would produce compared with refurbishment.

Pilbrow & Partners' proposals for the Marble Arch branch of Marks & Spencer, seen from the south-west

Pilbrow & Partners’ proposals for the Marble Arch branch of Marks & Spencer, seen from the south-west

Plans were called in by communities secretary Michael Gove in June, and the outcome of the inspector’s report, expected in January, is likely to be highly influential for the future of major demolish-and-rebuild projects.

Campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage, which was granted main party status in the case, argued that M&S had failed to supply documents proving it had ever considered a deep retrofit or that retention was “fully explore”.

The charity’s barrister, Matthew Fraser of Landmark Chambers, told the inquiry that M&S had only tested light refurbishment options that were “straw men bound to fail”.

“For all that is known from this evidence, M&S could have instructed [architect] Pilbrow and Partners to design a scheme that simply maximises commercial value,” he said.

M&S insists its lead architect, Fred Pilbrow, had considered 16 alternative proposals for the site and presented an updated sustainability assessment to the inquiry which claimed the scheme would deliver a carbon payback in 11 years.

Representing the retailer, Russell Harris KC, claimed in his closing remarks that his opponents were not “asserting that there actually is another, better way of achieving these or substantially similar benefits either through refurbishment”, only that “there might be”.

The retailer also claimed that a deep retrofit refurbishment would require significant demolition, including modifying the façade and removing the 1930s staircase – both of which Save has argued should be protected.

Fraser added: “The significant heritage impacts, not outweighed by public benefits, would alone warrant a refusal of planning permission.

“But there is another very substantial harm and policy conflict arising from this scheme, which concerns the effect of the proposals on the UK’s transition to a zero-carbon economy.

“It is not an understatement to say that the survival of the human race is at stake if we do not all play our part in addressing the climate emergency.”

The inquiry has seen high-profile celebrities and architects, including Griff Rhys Jones, Sarah Wigglesworth and Nicholas Boys Smith, come out behind Save, while prominent retailers including Selfridges, which has a store on Oxford Street, and Ikea, which is set to turn the former Top Shop flagship at Oxford Circus into a new store, have backed the M&S proposals.