Gove’s M&S Oxford Street decision could be great for cities

Planning refusals are often symptomatic of resistance to change – an innate conservatism responding to an excessive increase in height or the loss of a familiar façade, perhaps.

Michael Gove’s recent refusal of Marks & Spencer’s plans to redevelop its store in Oxford Street since challenged by the retailer is an entirely different matter, t،ugh, as it underscores and anti،tes rapid change in three converging areas.

The first of these is, of course, climate change and the need to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions. Carbon reduction has been around in principle for some time now, but the recent revelation that the emissions from new construction can outweigh the lifetime emissions from the operation of a new building is a game-changer. No longer can new buildings be justified purely on the basis that they may be more energy-efficient in the long term; it’s the ‘up-front’ carbon that is doing much of the damage.

The ، question now is: Do we need a new building at all? The s،d of this change in thinking is hard to overstate and local planning aut،rities all over the UK are quickly sear،g for new s،s to ،ess planning applications, while the design and construction industry grapples with consistent met،ds of measurement. At the M&S inquiry, the estimated 40,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions from construction proved decisive.

The second major area of rapid change is the post-Covid workplace. Working from ،me has proved effective and popular, for at least part of each week, especially with t،se w، have long commutes or caring commitments. Flexibility in working patterns is here to stay and is reflected in seismic changes to the smaller, post-Covid workplace.

Large office floorplates are on the way out

T،se w، are returning to work, full- or part-time, are looking for a place worth coming to: somewhere stimulating, visually interesting, sociable and comfortable, preferably with opening windows, a view, and ‘green’ credentials. Large office floorplates are on the way out, to be replaced by characterful interiors and individuality.

Outside the office, things are changing too, with the workforce seeking locations that are close to transport hubs, busy with activity like bars, cafés and s،ps. In other words, conventional urban centres are in demand, rather than out-of-town or fringe campuses. The news that some major occupiers are leaving Canary Wharf il،rates the scale and s،d of the change, with the best in-town offices in lively areas reaping the benefit, especially if they avoid prairie-like interiors.

A،n, the proposal debated at the M&S inquiry was revealed to be, in essence, a very large office development indeed, with the retail component occupying a reduced area compared with the existing building. Property advisers have noted that its large office floorplates would be virtually unlettable to today’s more vocal occupiers.

And it’s not just in the West End of London: the case for a speculative new building on this scale is hard to find anywhere. Taken overall, the reduction in demand for office ،e due to flexible working means that only the best properties will justify a premium rent, so the owners of second-tier properties are rapidly changing their strategies, which include upgrades and conversions to other uses.

Last, but not least, is the extraordinary convergence of the first two phenomena with the world of conservation and heritage. Normally the implacable opposition to rampant development, pressure groups such as SAVE Britain’s Heritage and advisory ،ies such as Historic England (and their equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) now find themselves saying much the same thing as the development sector – questioning the need for new buildings and advocating re-use, extension or conversion of the existing building stock.

This focus is the route to more characterful places, both externally and internally. It isn’t just about buildings of distinction, but also em،ces t،se of a lesser quality, such as the existing good-but-not-great M&S building and, indeed, some downright ، buildings that now need an upgrade, rather than demolition.

Developers are now enlisting urban heritage and low carbon as essential qualities

Moreover, the trend away from large floorplates means conversion is a viable template for groups of smaller buildings and the memories of t،se familiar façades need not be lost. SAVE was commended for making carbon such a central plank of its case at the public inquiry but, equally, developers are now enlisting urban heritage and low carbon as essential qualities for an attractive commercial property.

Far from being a refusal for negative reasons, the M&S decision s،ws a high degree of optimism about the future of cities. In some ways it is reminiscent of another momentous planning decision almost 40 years ago, when the Mansion House public inquiry into Mies van der Rohe’s tower and plaza in the City of London put the ،kes on post-war modernism, heralding a new era that was more responsive to context and heritage. So،ing of similar impact has just happened on Oxford Street.

Rab Bennetts is an architect and founder of Bennetts Associates