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Marks & Spencer has sparked a public row with Michael Gove, accusing the Conservative cabinet minister of “political grandstanding” after he ordered a public inquiry into its plan to demolish and rebuild its flagship Oxford Street store in London.
The retailer said it was “bewildered and disappointed” at “Michael Gove’s baseless decision”, which came after the scheme was granted permission to the displeasure of campaigners, who claimed the project would release 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.
The M&S property director, Sacha Berendji, said the secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities “appears to prefer a proliferation of stores hawking counterfeit goods to a gold-standard retail-led regeneration of the nation’s favourite high street”.
He said: “For a government purportedly focused on the levelling up agenda, calling in this significant investment in one of our most iconic shopping locations will have a chilling affect for regeneration programmes across the country.”
A spokesperson for Gove’s department instantly hit back, accusing M&S of “a disappointing and misleading” statement and insisting it was “right that a project of such significance should be considered by the independent Planning Inspectorate and ministers”.
“Call-in decisions are made in line with established policy,” they said.
Either Gove or a junior minister will decide on the future of the project after the planning inspector reports back in a few months’ time.
One campaigner criticised the retailer’s “intemperate response”, saying it had gone into “horns out and shout” mode. “They and their advisers have profoundly misread the direction of travel in the public debate on sustainability and placemaking,” said Nicholas Boys Smith, director of the Create Streets thinktank and a government urbanism adviser.
Westminster city council, which fell to Labour at the local elections after the outgoing Tory administration granted M&S permission to tear down the 90-year-old store near Marble Arch, said it was pleased with Gove’s move.
“The council is serious about reducing the environmental impact of new development by emphasising the benefits of retrofitting over demolition,” said Cllr Geoff Barraclough, cabinet member for planning and economic development. “The M&S proposal has major implications in sustainability terms.”
M&S claims that in the long term the more energy-efficient new building “will more than offset any emissions from the redevelopment”. It said the building “cannot be modernised through refitting as it is three separate buildings containing asbestos”.
Gove has tasked an inspector with determining if the scheme is consistent with national planning policy, citing its potential impact on the historic environment and asking them to consider “any other matters the Inspector considers relevant”. National policy requires planning to “support the transition to a low carbon future … [and] shape places in ways that contribute to radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions”.
In November 2021, Gove rejected plans for a viewing tower in the City of London designed by Lord Foster, complaining about the “highly unsustainable concept of using vast quantities of reinforced concrete”.
The London mayor, Sadiq Khan, decided not to intervene over the M&S application, considering that it was in line with the capital’s planning strategy.
The campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage and magazine Architects’ Journal organised a letter to Gove, signed by several leading architects, which argued that the existing building should be retrofitted rather than demolished.
It described it as “a development which is environmentally wasteful, destroys an elegant and important interwar building and … negatively affects Oxford Street”.
Architects including Julia Barfield, the co-designer of the London Eye, and Robert Adam, a favourite architect of Prince Charles, signed the letter, which said: “We should be adapting the building, not destroying it.”
Berendji said: “An independent assessment of the building’s carbon impact across its whole lifecycle concluded that the new-build offered significant sustainability advantages over a refurbishment and, on completion, will be among the top 10% performing buildings in London.”