Michael Gove shuts down Marks & Spencer’s Marble Arch demolition plans over carbon catastrophe

Oxford Circus

Michael Gove shuts down Marks & Spencer’s Marble Arch demolition plans over carbon catastrophe

M&S has filed a High Court appeal against Secretary Gove who rejected the department store's plans in July to demolish its 1929 building on Oxford Street for a new structure. (Constantin Iosif/Shutterstock)

Michael Gove, preservationist. The longtime Conservative Party politician; Brexiteer; current Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; and oftenmocked, controversial, dance fiend former prime ministerial contender has delivered a blow to Marks & Spencer (M&S). In a ruling preventing the department store’s planned Oxford Street demolition, Gove has dashed the company’s hopes of jump-starting an Oxford Street renaissance. 

The so-called Marble Arch location on London’s declining shopping street has been a source of complaint for the department store, who sought to demolish the building in favor of a state-of-the-art, ground-up replacement. M&S cites a 30 percent drop-off in foot traffic on the street, along with a larger perception of decline of the shopping district, as motive for an overhaul. The brand asks: “How do we restore Oxford Street to become a source of national pride again – the symbol of all that is great about UK retail?” 

New storefront space would have welcomed shoppers in through an outdoor plaza. (Courtesy M&S)

M&S has pitted a fight with environmentalists and preservationists over its belief that the building cannot be retrofitted. The company believes that the 1929 buildings (the store and two neighboring structures) face immense structural challenges, and that asbestos removal would be difficult, though even concedes itself that it can be done safely. M&S then pursued designs for a ground-up building, which they claim would “rank among the top 1% of sustainability performance in London,” have a fraction of the current store’s operational energy, be built with 95 percent recyclable materials, and be carbon-positive after 11 years. Ideas included a smaller store and the addition of offices and a gym in two, ten-story buildings. While holding-down a well-known retail location, the existing buildings are not historically protected. 

M&S’ plans were approved by Westminster City Council and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, ostensibly green-lighting the project on a municipal level, before Gove stepped in. The Secretary of State called in a review of the plans in June 2022, followed by a public inquiry in October 2022. Gove was concerned by reports that the demolition would be a carbon catastrophe; a letter circulated by Save Britain’s Heritage and the Architect’s Journal cited a report that showed the demolition “would pump nearly 40,000 tonnes of C02 into the atmosphere.” They argued that a retrofit could provide the same level of operational efficiency of a new building without wasting additional carbon emissions in the demolition process. 

Gove’s review had to take into account recommendations from Planning Inspector David Nicholson—known for tanking Norman Foster’s Tulip project—an embodied carbon–conscious decision maker. Nicholson recommended that M&S’ plans proceed, which led Gove himself to shut the project down against Nicholson’s recommendations. 

The report prepared by Gove’s Ministry shows disagreement with Nicholson’s opinion that the new project would not significantly alter the neighborhood, in particular “the settings of the Stratford Place, Mayfair and Portman Estate,” and overshadow Selfridge’s 1909, Grade II–listed London flagship. Nicholson did not view these contextual alterations as significant enough to warrant halting the project, “carrying only moderate weight, whereas Gove saw the matter as “significant.” Gove also held that while previously being rejected for a historical listing, the location has historical significance and contributes to the character of Selfridges.

M&S’ proposed design hoped to revamp a section of Oxford Street. (Courtesy M&S)

Environmentally, the Ministry considered a lower-carbon construction model under a decarbonized grid if construction were to be delayed, but ultimately relied on the fact that the National Planning Policy Framework holds “strong presumption in favour of repurposing and reusing buildings.” Given that the building is structurally sound, and in a highly accessible location, the Ministry did not see enough reason for demolition in the context of embodied carbon costs and conflict with national policy aims. Gove argued that the proposed plans are “clearly not net-zero carbon.”

M&S proposed to address the development’s carbon costs through carbon offsets, which the London Plan has provision for. However, and in an interesting point of challenge given Gove’s larger politics, held that “it has not been demonstrated that the carbon reductions would fully offset the embodied carbon arising from this proposal.” Scrutiny over carbon offset plans contributed to the justification for M&S’ demolition downfall. 

Low-carbon crusader Micheal Gove (Chris McAndrew/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0)

Demolition plans also raised concerns over circularity for Gove. Gove held that it “had not been demonstrated” that the materials in the existing buildings had met the end of their life cycles. 

The Ministry acknowledged that there would be public benefits “to employment and regeneration through improved retail and office floorspace, as well as benefits in terms of permeability and connectivity, safety and shopping experience and the public realm.” However, the Ministry felt that M&S did not give its investigation of a refurbishment a fair chance, and was not persuaded that the perceived public benefits of the project could only be achieved via demolition.  

M&S CEO Stuart Machin commented “It is utterly pathetic,” in response to Gove’s decision, going on to say that “M&S is now left with no choice but to review its future position on Oxford Street on the whim of one man,” a threat the company also made when Gove initially called in the plans. Machin criticized Gove for disregarding Nicholson’s findings, and citing high vacancy on “what should be our nation’s premier shopping street,” adding that there are 17 ongoing demolitions in Westminster (including four on Oxford Street). M&S defended its exploration of 16 alternative options for the site and estimated 2,000 jobs generated from the project, but ultimately falls back on the stained shopping state of Oxford Street to justify its commercial property calamity. 

Regardless of motivations behind why Gove clearly does not like the project in any iteration, this sets an important precedent for embodied carbon serving as a failpoint for proposed development. Furthermore, the scrutiny over carbon offsets sets a precedent for Ministerial action against companies looking for an easy write-off for carbon costs (the economics of which had led to comical and counterproductive arbitrage scenarios). Gove has delivered a strong-armed decision against M&S, primarily justified through carbon concerns, setting an example state entities should take careful note of. 

M&S has six weeks to file an application to challenge the decision.