Home » What are the implications of Gove’s U-turn decision on M&S?

What are the implications of Gove’s U-turn decision on M&S?

Published: 24/08/2023

From a ‘short sighted act of self-sabotage’ to ‘an opportunity to do something extraordinary’ – Gove’s decision to reject Westminster Council’s approved plans to demolish M&S’ flagship store on Oxford Street has been met with mixed reactions from business figureheads, environmental campaigners and the construction industry. But one thing they can all agree on is that it’s a landmark decision with far-reaching consequences for the industry – we consider its potential impact.

It could set a precedent for more carbon assessments across the UK

Gove has been criticised for making the decision in the absence of any regulatory framework relating to a ‘retrofit first’ policy. Indeed, guidance on carbon reporting across the capital may still be in its infancy but it’s gaining momentum.   

Last year, Greater London Authority (GLA) outlined a range of climate mitigation policies within its London Plan for developers to follow. As of January this year, all planning applicants are required to conduct energy assessments – to demonstrate ‘carbon reduction remains an integral part of the design and whole life-cycle carbon assessments ‘to fully capture a development’s carbon impact’. The latter encourages a ‘retrofit first’ approach where ‘the reuse and refurbishment of existing buildings, structure and materials must be given serious consideration in any planning application.’ 

The GLA is one of the first local government bodies in the country to outline a regulatory framework for measuring and reporting carbon emissions.  And although the process is subject to ongoing assessment, it sets a precedent across the country, with several councils looking to build on what London learns – some already require carbon assessments but are yet to stipulate the thresholds for carbon emissions. It’s likely that these measures, coupled with Gove’s decision, will prompt more councils across the country to adopt similar approaches. This could result in a need for a national, unified framework that regulates the amount of embodied and operational carbon emissions that are permissible on each development.

It highlights the need for an agreed standard

However, before any national framework or policy can be put in place, there needs to be an agreed methodology – and clearer transparency across the industry – regarding the calculating and reporting of carbon emissions.   

Without this, policy makers and developers will continue to be at a loss as to whose method is verified and accurate. For example, while the RICS standard method calculates that carbon that is stored in the building during construction is re-emitted during its ‘end of life’ phase, other methods often omit different stages of the whole life cycle.   

The variation in methodology means that different calculators will arrive at different results. But it is these calculations that are integral to the embodied carbon versus operational carbon debate, which played such an important role in the M&S case.   

One of M&S’ main arguments for demolishing the building was that the reduction of operational carbon emissions, emitted in their new development, would eventually outweigh the embodied carbon created in its demolition – they calculated 11 years as the time it would take to achieve carbon payback. But SAVE Britain’s Heritage disputed these calculations, arguing that the demolition would release 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.  

It’s unclear how either party arrived at these calculations but it’s a valid and important argument that has to be factored into the debate. If similar cases are brought under review in the future, the industry needs to get much better at doing these sorts of calculations.  Once we have an industry-agreed methodology based on quality, verified data, amounts of embodied carbon and carbon payback will be easier to calculate and prove.

Could it spur on innovation in retrofitting or stifle contemporary design? 

From installing more energy-efficient methods of heating to ensuring a building fulfils government regulations, there are a variety of challenges that come with retrofitting older buildings. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, as their challenges will be as individual as the building itself.

The M&S building is a case in point. Aside from the ‘poor quality and asbestos-riddled interiors of the building’, which M&S cited as one of the big barriers to refurbishment, the storey height could be problematic – it’s potentially too high for a modern space but not high enough to insert intermediate floors between. 

 However, some campaigners have heralded the decision as an opportunity for developers to use ‘ingenious approaches’ to overcome these challenges, so it could be the breakthrough in innovation that the retrofitting industry needs. 

On the other side of the coin, it could also stifle innovation. Some critics have voiced concerns that our desire to preserve and repurpose ‘the old’ could hinder progress towards creating new, energy-efficient buildings that drive progress in cutting-edge technology.

Could it have a detrimental impact on business? 

Supporters of demolition cited the desperate need to revive Oxford Street and the surrounding area, which many people believe needs regenerating. Proponents of the scheme argued it would stimulate growth, bring in thousands of jobs and improve the public realm – aside from retail, there were also plans for the nine-storey mixed use development to house offices and a gym.   

However, Gove argued that the additional storeys of offices would be more apparent than the current site and have a ‘significantly detrimental impact on the setting of Selfridges’. The nearby department store is a heritage site that received listed building status in 2020.  

Although, in this context, Gove is referencing aesthetics, could the decision not to proceed have a detrimental impact on the area as a whole?

M&S claimed that they had already rejected 16 other viable options. With their original plans quashed, it remains to be seen whether planners will venture back to the drawing board or vacate the property. If the latter, the building may become yet another empty store on the premier shopping high street. And if this decision prompts similar U-turns, could we see an increase in derelict spaces across the capital’s high streets and beyond?  

Businesses and investors are already navigating enough uncertainty in an atmosphere of rising costs and super inflation. If similar decisions are made, without proper policy or regulation, the potential impact on businesses and communities also needs to be taken into consideration.

It highlights the need for more debate around how we categorise beauty and heritage

Throughout the campaign, heritage campaigners praised the 1930 art deco building – also known as Orchard House – for complementing Selfridges, describing the new building as ‘overbearing’ and likely to ‘overshadow’ the listed building, an argument that Gove agreed with.  

Interestingly, Orchard House was refused listed status in 2022. After following advice, given by Historic England, the government said: ‘it isn’t regarded as innovative nor of sufficient architectural quality’ to merit protection, especially given the ‘considerable loss of original fabric’. However, although the building wasn’t deemed special enough to keep, it appears that it was judged to be more in keeping with the character of nearby Selfridges.   

The fate of several other developments on the Southbank now also hang in the balance – a mixture of multi-storey offices and flats. These proposals have also attracted widespread criticism from residents and heritage campaigners with Historic England raising concerns about their impact on the setting and other historic sites. If we continue to give this much weight to aesthetics, we need to be careful that we don’t automatically reject architecture because it doesn’t immediately fit in with the heritage aesthetic we’ve become accustomed to, not least if it has the potential to be as equally cherished in 100 years.


The decision on Orchard House could be a watershed moment that propels a ‘retrofit first’ approach to the top of the agenda and into a proper national policy and framework. But for that to be achieved, a nationwide strategy needs to be implemented with enough investment and skilled labour in place, to deliver the high level of upgrades required for buildings like M&S’ flagship store.  

The industry also needs to be in agreement on the methodology used to measure carbon emissions with, ideally, the appropriate technology in place to calculate them. This will enable policy makers and developers to make better informed decisions amid the debates surrounding demolition and new build, while balancing the need to stimulate growth and regenerate deprived areas or buildings that have fallen into disrepair.  

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