Heritage group says warning is not the “attitude of a retailer dedicated to sustainability” on first day of public inquiry into controversial Pilbrow & Partners plans

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Save Britain’s Heritage has criticised Marks and Spencer’s warning that it will leave its flagship Oxford Street store if its controversial plans to demolish and rebuild the site are blocked, saying it is not the “attitude of a retailer dedicated to sustainability”.

The campaign group’s lawyer said M&S had dismissed the option of refurbishing the 1930 Art Deco building to such an extent that they “have made a threat to the secretary of state to leave…altogether if they do not get their way.”

Matthew Fraser’s comments came on the first day of a public inquiry into the retailer’s Pilbrow & Partners-designed proposals to replace the store with a 10-storey office block.

The plans have whipped up a backlash within the built environment sector and beyond over the loss of the existing building and the much greater carbon impact which detractors expect the scheme will have compared to a refurbishment of the existing site.

London mayor Sadiq Khan approved the scheme last year before then-communities secretary Michael Gove, since reappointed to the role this evening by new prime minister Rishi Sunak, called in the plans following a campaign led by Save Britain’s Heritage to rescue the building.

Save was then granted main party status at the inquiry, which is being overseen by the planning inspector and will continue for the next two weeks, with the result expected to be highly influential for the future of demolish and rebuild projects.

Fraser told the inquiry today that the construction of the new scheme would emit nearly 40,000 metric tons of carbon, equivalent to driving a car further than distance to the sun.

He said the plans also appeared to contradict government policies on achieving net zero and a series of London Plan policies on avoiding demolition.

But M&S’ lawyer Russell Harris KC said that the notion the scheme was a test case for how future demolish and rebuild projects would be treated by planners was “nonsense”.

“It is no such thing,” he told the inquiry. “The decision to be made by the secretary of state [Gove] is a planning decision.”

“There is nothing in national nor London Plan policy which requires refurbishment of a site in preference to redevelopment.”

Harris said the scheme was essential for the western end of Oxford Street to continue to act as a significant commercial centre following the loss of other major department store occupiers on the shopping strip including Debenhams and House of Fraser.

And he said the western end of the street, where the store is located, already had an unmistakable “smell” of decline that would “accelerate dramatically” if M&S left the site.

“The west end of Oxford Street is in decline. That decline is obvious and palpable. Go there, it has a smell. A tangible, unmistakable expression of decline. It is a failing centre,” he said.

The inquiry also heard from several third party witnesses, including London Eye architect Julia Barfield, who described the project as “throwing a huge carbon bomb unnecessarily into the atmosphere”.

“I think we can all agree this morning that we are in a planetary emergency. Westminster council, the Greater London Authority and the UK government have all declared,” she said. 

“What I think is at issue at this public inquiry in 2022 is – are we acting as if there is an emergency?”

Barfield, who is managing director of Marks Barfield Architects and one of the founders of environmental campaign group Architects Declare, said that “everything needs to change’’ given the scale of the climate crisis.

“As architects, I believe that we also have a higher responsibility to the planet as well as to our clients – as do clients, by the way.

“It is disappointing that one of the country’s best-loved retailers appears not to be taking a lead on climate.”

The government’s housing tsar Nicholas Boys Smith said in April that the escalating row over the scheme went “right to the heart” of discussions about sustainability and described the case for pulling down the building as “gossamer thin at best”.

Gove will ultimately determine whether the plans can proceed, based on the advice of the planning inspector who presides over the public inquiry.