Retail giant refused approval for flagship store demolition

The National Federation of Demolition Contractors (NFDC) has weighed in on the UK Government’s decision to prevent the demolition of a major shopping outlet situated on London’s Oxford Street, saying the decision reveals “a total misunderstanding and implicit bias against demolition”.

Marks and Spencer's flagship store on London's Oxford Street, near Marble Arch Marks and Spencer’s flagship store on London’s Oxford Street, near Marble Arch. (PHOTO: Vuk Valcic / SOPA Images/Sipa US via Reuters Connect)

A project to demolish and redevelop the multi-storey ‘Marble Arch’ department store, which is owned by retail giant Marks & Spencer (M&S), had previously been given approval from both Westminster Council and the Greater London Authority (City Hall) more than a year ago.

However, shortly afterwards, the application was referred to the UK’s Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Committees, Michael Gove, who intervened and issued a block on the project preventing it from moving forward.

Expert David Nicholson RIBA IHBC was than appointed by the government to carry out an investigation into the proposed project and its impacts. Following the completion of Nicholson’s 110-page report, which was in favour of the works, Gove recently issued a refusal of the planning consent based on a number of grounds.

Despite agreeing that the demolition and redevelopment of the site would bring a number of benefits to the area and “that the proposal is in accordance with some elements of the development plan heritage policies”, Gove says the proposal “would in part fail to support the transition to a low carbon future, and would overall fail to encourage the reuse of existing resources, including the conversion of existing buildings”.

In his decision letter, the Secretary of State also said the proposal from M&S had not thoroughly explored the alternatives to demolition and that it had failed to prove that “refurbishment would not be deliverable or viable”.

Without fully exploring the options for retaining the existing buildings, Gove ultimately found that there was no “compelling justification for demolition and rebuilding”.

Giving further insight on the matter, the NFDC said: “The conversations surrounding this decision have revealed a total misunderstanding and implicit bias against demolition as a modern, highly skilled practice for enabling growth.

“A structure that was never designed to be energy efficient should be treated with as much caution as a house built on sand. Given the very fabric of a building needs to be changed, it is important to understand that a full-scale refurbishment can be just as carbon intensive as demolition.

“Let’s be clear. Demolition is tightly regulated, carefully planned, and considered. It should never be viewed as the unsustainable option by default.”

Gove further queried the “sustainability credentials of the new building”, saying that project proposal had not demonstrated that the carbon reductions would fully offset the embodied carbon arising from this proposal.

He also cited the building’s heritage as playing an important part in the decision to refuse planning approval, saying that its historical value carried significant weight.

While Marks & Spencer’s flagship Marble Arch store is not listed as a protected heritage site, Gove said “this does not mean that it is without significance or merit, both on its own terms as a non-designated heritage asset and in terms of its contribution to the streetscape”, and the setting of other nearby retailers, such as Selfridges.

Describing the decision as “a short-sighted act of self-sabotage by the Secretary of State”, Marks & Spencer said: “It is particularly galling given there are currently 17 approved and proceeding demolitions in Westminster and four on Oxford Street alone, making it unfathomable why M&S’s proposal to redevelop an aged and labyrinthian site that has been twice denied listed status has been singled out for refusal.”

The retail giant added: “The suggestion the decision is on the grounds of sustainability is nonsensical. With retrofit not an option – despite us reviewing sixteen different options – our proposed building would have ranked in the top 1% of the entire city’s most sustainable buildings.

According to the NFDC, “What may now follow, without any guarantee of success, is an expensive and lengthy retrofit of three poor-quality, asbestos-riddled buildings dating from the 1920s, whose very design and fabrication fail to pay heed to the principles of net-zero.”

The association added: “Demolition and retrofit should be considered fairly and on their own merits, so that informed decisions can be made for future developments. Committing solely to one or the other ignores the fact that they both work towards the same goal.

“Both are necessary if we are to push towards a more circular economy that delivers on both sustainability and growth.”

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