The M&S Oxford Street redevelopment saga has become something of a basket case. Swish new architectural grandeur in place of the outdated impractical stonework of the last century, all in a world of increasing environmental awareness over the impact of large scale demolitions.
When Marks and Spencer unveiled a vision for its flagship Marble Arch store back in 2020, including plans to tear down the three building complex, it declared retrofit as not an option.
The planning proposal went on to raise a number questions across a broad spectrum of fields, from the viability of the 1930s Art Deco Orchard House, the loss of shopping amenity for the local community during the construction and the 40,000 tons of carbon estimated to be pumped into the air by the demolition.
Its fate now lies in the hands of a certain Michael Gove, who will have recently seen the outcome of the public enquiry last Autumn appear in his in tray.
On November 23 2021, the first in what was to be a long line of “decisions” was made on floor 18 of Westminster City Council’s HQ on Victoria Street, SW1.
There was this feeling of awe across the room of what was on the table; a sense that such a bold plan championed by a leading retailer and one of the nation’s most recognisable brands couldn’t be rejected.
Councillor Robert Rigby, the then Chair of the planning committee for major applications, perfectly encapsulated the mood in his summing up: “It’s Marks and Spencers. We have to encourage it.”
At that point it was known that the decision to green light Oxford Street’s most ambitious scheme would not be for the council, with lobbying from green and heritage groups such as SAVE successful in getting the application called in to Sadiq Khan’s office.
The Westminster panel’s sole dissenter would be Labour’s Geoff Barraclough, now Cabinet Member for Planning. He remarked on the proposed building’s sheer size and lack of architectural merit.
In line with many other contemporary redevelopments, M&S went down the tried and tested “New London Vernacular” route. The name given to the now familiar architectural style borne out of the 2008 financial crisis, characterised with flat facades and large vertical windows which critics have compared to cookie cutters.
The M&S scheme itself bears striking similarity to the less publicised but still huge Portman Estate development of 19-35 Baker Street just up the road, a £150 million project currently slated for completion in 2025.
But this didn’t stop the council approving the scheme by 5 votes to 1. In fact the only concern raised at committee stage was the prevention of crime in the proposed ungated 10,000 sq ft of public realm created by the development, dubbed St Michael’s Place (after the brand’s first clothing line) by M&S bosses. That, and the use of decorative hoardings on the building site.
The Mayor of London’s office further rubber-stamped the M&S Oxford Street redevelopment in March 2022, ruling that the scheme’s benefits, including increased commercial floor space and new public realm outweighed the ‘harm’ caused by the demolition of a non-listed heritage asset.
Gove’s decision to press pause on the planning process would mark the start of the ongoing standoff between the department store and the government, with M&S accusing the Levelling Up Secretary of political grandstanding and favouring pop up candy and souvenir stores over a regeneration project led by a ‘gold standard retailer’.
Central government involvement has seen the stakes raised and the issue placed at the heart of a wider public debate around the advantages of retrofitting over rebuilding.
Submissions from architectural and environmental experts were invited as part of the eight day public enquiry last October, during which M&S threatened to leave the premises were the scheme rejected, while picking up support from a number of other high profile brands including neighbouring Thai owned Selfridges and furniture giant Ikea, which is set to open in the former TopShop store near Oxford Circus later this year.
Leading the opposition to ripping down the existing structure is SAVE’s Simon Sturgis who last month branded the plan as a ’20th century mindset’ to demolish functional buildings while ignoring government Net Zero targets.
Writing in Building Design, he said: “The government’s Net Zero commitments in 2019 and 2021 had no apparent impact on the design of the building. This is why in my view the M&S scheme is fundamentally a 20th Century rather than a more subtle and imaginative 21st Century proposal.”
He concluded: “M&S’s new build proposal therefore is fundamentally retrogressive and will be seen as such for years to come.”
Whichever way Gove bends, his choice promises to not just significantly affect the future of Oxford Street, but set a national precedent for the regeneration of heritage buildings.