Boris Johnson infamously gave his thoughts on what he thought of business, something that would not generally be appropriate to the decent minds of the British property sector, but let’s just say ‘eff it’. Some Tory ministers sought to smooth over the matter but for many, rightly, it was a case of many a true word said in jest.

Clive Black

Clive Black

Alas, while the language may be better these days, the actions of the government do not provide much of a basis for higher confidence of the reality. Indeed, quite what the Conservative Party stands for from an enterprise and broader business perspective when measured in terms of actions makes it difficult to assert that its underlying view, patronage aside, has changed much.

The regulatory burden in the UK does not seem to have improved since the Tories came to power in isolation in 2015, and certainly not since Brexit happened. Regardless of what one thinks of Brexit, it does provide an opportunity for agility where appropriate.

Alas, the government, despite the self-confidence and potential assertiveness that a substantial albeit declining Commons majority should provide, has managed to concoct the worst of both worlds – losing any benefits from EU membership and not having the strategic mindset, competence or capability to think above old paradigms and be a truly Global Britain (which should, of course, include the EU).

PW040823_M&S flagship_shutterstock_2304760783_cred Sir Endipity

Source: shutterstock / Sir Endipity

Turned down: M&S invested substantial sums in plans blocked by Gove

Amid this somewhat depressing high-level context came the decision by Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up and purportedly a grown-up in a cabinet that has too often been a bit of an affront to a kindergarten, to single-handedly refuse the development plan for Marks & Spencer’s Marble Arch store.

Now, when it comes to reputation for decency and doing the right thing, few businesses will outscore good old M&S. It has consistently been an upright, proper and most certainly rules-based organisation.

‘Utterly pathetic’

Accordingly, for its chief executive Stuart Machin to label Gove “anti-business” while eviscerating the decision-making process around the plans to redevelop an old, asbestos-ridden, non-listed building on Oxford Street was quite remarkable.

That decision merits some further consideration because M&S rightly states it should and would have a chilling impact across the development, construction and building trade in the UK. While it is right that views against the development of any building must be properly considered, Marble Arch won the approval of Westminster City Council, the Greater London Authority and an independently appointed planning inspector.

Acting in good faith, M&S has outlaid a considerable sum going through the process and in the absence of disapprovals along the way had every right to anticipate a smooth transition to demolition commencing. Gove chose to personally call in the project and then turn it down, noting that the completed store on a wider Oxford Street that is ageing and full of tat and overpriced confectionery stores would have been one of the most sustainable in the whole of London. “Nuts” is just about the kindest way of calling it; Machin bit his tongue and said “utterly pathetic”.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak should have been made aware of and shown concern about Gove’s decision because it is unfair on M&S and yet another signal to investors as to why they should not invest in Britain. The Tories, from the buffoon Johnson who was somewhat lacking in dealing with the truths to the crazy Truss-Kwarteng show, have combined to de-rate the country.

Indeed, Sunak should have asked Gove if due process had been followed with the Marble Arch project and, in the absence otherwise, told his minister it was only right and proper to approve the scheme and that his personal whims should not come into the matter.

And the practical outcome on the ground? M&S is putting the future of Marble Arch under review, which could mean closure, the loss of jobs, the opportunity cost of redevelopment and the emergence of a dilapidated building that will become even less visually appealing than it is today. The west end of Oxford Street as it continues to decay should now, perhaps, be called ‘Govesville’. At a macro and micro level, the decision-making process and outcome are a disaster.

Gove should hang his head in shame. He does not care about the modernisation of London’s once-prime shopping street or, frankly, British business. Are there grounds to believe that Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves et al will be equally anti-business?

Note: Shore Capital Markets acts as a broker to M&S albeit had no involvement in the Marble Arch redevelopment.

Dr Clive Black is vice-chairman of Shore Capital Markets