The decision by the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Michael Gove, to refuse planning permission for the redevelopment of the Marks and Spencer site in Oxford Street has sparked mixed reactions from various stakeholders. The development has been the subject of heated debate over the past 12 months.
It may also have wider impacts on schemes under development.
The proposal, which was submitted by the property developer Reef Group, involved demolishing the existing building and replacing it with a mixed-use scheme comprising retail, office, hotel and residential units. The scheme also included a new public square and a pedestrian link to Tottenham Court Road station.
In his decision letter, Michael Gove acknowledged that both re-development and refurbishment have advantages and disadvantages in terms of environmental impact. He stated that "the principle of reducing carbon impact of development proposals should not trump all other matters" and that "each case must be considered on its own merits". However, he concluded that in this case, the harm to heritage assets and the adverse carbon consequences outweighed the public benefits of the re-development. He also noted that there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate why planning permission for demolition and re-development should be granted against the alternative of retaining and refurbishing existing premises.
The Secretary of States decision went against the recommendations of the planning inspector, Westminster Council and the Greater London Authority, who had all approved the project. The main reasons for the refusal were the harm to heritage assets and the significant embodied carbon emissions that would result from the re-development compared to any alternative retention and refurbishment option.
The proposed redevelopment has sparked a debate on the environmental impact of re-development versus refurbishment. The environmental concerns centred on Embodied Carbon.
Embodied carbon is the amount of greenhouse gas emissions associated with the construction and maintenance of a building, including the extraction, manufacture, transport and installation of materials, as well as the disposal or reuse of materials at the end of the building's life. Embodied carbon is different from operational carbon, which is the emissions from the energy use of a building during its lifetime.
The decision was welcomed by some heritage groups and local residents, who had campaigned against the redevelopment on the grounds that it would destroy the historic character of Oxford Street and create an overbearing and out-of-scale development. They argued that the Marks and Spencer building, which dates back to 1938, is an iconic landmark and a fine example of Art Deco architecture. They also expressed concerns about the impact of the redevelopment on traffic, air quality and noise levels.
However, the decision was criticised by some business groups and politicians, who had supported the redevelopment as a way of revitalising Oxford Street and boosting its economy. They argued that the Marks and Spencer building is outdated and unsuitable for modern retail needs, and that the redevelopment would create thousands of jobs, attract more visitors and enhance the public realm. They also claimed that the decision would send a negative signal to investors and developers, who are needed to help Oxford Street recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of online shopping.
The Reef Group, the developers of the site said that it was "extremely disappointed" by the decision and that it would consider its options, including a possible legal challenge. The company said that it had worked closely with Westminster City Council and other stakeholders to design a high-quality scheme that would deliver significant benefits for Oxford Street and London. The company also said that it had offered to increase the amount of affordable housing from 9% to 35% of the residential units, in line with the Mayor of London's policy.
Westminster City Council said that it was "surprised and dismayed" by the decision and that it would seek clarification from the Secretary of State on his reasoning. The council said that it had followed a rigorous planning process and that it had balanced the need to protect heritage assets with the need to support economic recovery and growth. The council also said that it had secured a number of planning obligations from the developer, including contributions to transport infrastructure, public realm improvements and community facilities.
It will be interesting to see is the reasons used to turn down the application notably the arguments about embodied carbon are considered in future applications. As an example the St Mary’s (Debenhams) Development in Guildford might have failed to gain approval if the reasons used by Michael Gove in the Oxford Street Case were applied.
See a brief description of the proposed scheme.
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