M&S challenges Gove’s Oxford St decision in High Court

In November Marks & Spencer (M&S) received permission to proceed with a legal challenge against Gove’s decision to block the controversial demolition of its flagship Oxford Street store, which dates back to 1929.

The communities secretary refused the plan last July, citing both heritage and design concerns over Pilbrow & Partners’ 10-storey replacement scheme – as well as its embodied carbon impact.

Campaign group SAVE Britain’s Heritage said the landmark ruling had drawn ‘wide attention to the fast-changing and highly technical science behind a building’s whole-life carbon cost’.

But M&S is challenging the ruling on procedural grounds.

During the two-day hearing (13-14 February) the retailer will have to prove to the High Court not that the government’s decision was wrong but rather that it made an error in its decision-making.

M&S chief executive Stuart Machin previously described Gove’s decision as ‘unfathomable’, saying it was ‘bewildering’ that M&S was ‘again having to go through this after two years of support and approvals’.

He added: ‘We have been clear from the very start that the refurbishment of the existing store was not possible, so this is only the first step in the lengthy process of overturning the government’s senseless decision to reject our Marble Arch proposal – the only retail-led regeneration on Oxford Street.’

SAVE Britain’s Heritage, backed by a large group of architects, engineers, environmentalists and architectural historians, maintains that M&S’s proposal is ‘both damaging and unnecessary’ and that most of the retailer’s aims could be achieved through a comprehensive retrofit.

Henrietta Billings, director of SAVE, said: ‘We believe the secretary of state made the right decision. SAVE will be in court to support him and to maintain our position.

‘The M&S Oxford Street case captured the public’s imagination and attracted widespread media interest. It put carbon firmly at the heart of the debate and challenged the UK’s disposable attitude to buildings.

‘It was the first time a planning inquiry had sustainability and heritage as its joint focus – two fundamentally important issues that go hand in hand and are mutually reinforcing.’

Gove overruled his planning inspector by rejecting the contentious redevelopment proposals last summer. 

Setting out his decision for refusal, Gove said the 10-storey replacement scheme conflicted with policies on heritage and design.

He also specifically highlighted the embodied carbon impact and waste involved in the plan, something raised extensively by the AJ’s RetroFirst campaign and by SAVE Britain’s Heritage at the public inquiry into the proposal.

Although the Pilbrow plans had been approved by both Westminster City Council and London mayor Sadiq Khan, the application was called in by Gove in June 2022.

In his decision letter, Gove said he disagreed with M&S’s argument that there was no viable and deliverable alternative to demolition, arguing that the project was not compatible with the transition to a low-carbon future and the need to reuse existing buildings and materials.

The new build would have released around 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere in terms of the immediate impact.

The letter said: ‘The secretary of state is not persuaded that it is safe to draw the same conclusion reached by the inspector, namely that “there is no viable and deliverable alternative” … which leads to the inspector’s overall conclusion that “there is unlikely to be a meaningful refurbishment of the buildings”.’

It went on: ‘He does not consider that the applicant has demonstrated that refurbishment would not be deliverable or viable and nor has the applicant satisfied the secretary of state that options for retaining the buildings have been fully explored, or that there is compelling justification for demolition and rebuilding.’

M&S previously vowed to abandon the flagship superstore if its Pilbrow & Partners-designed redevelopment plans were rejected.

M&S has been contacted ahead of the hearing.


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