Housing secretary Michael Gove’s decision on the pivotal M&S Oxford Street case is due any day, eagerly awaited by those on both sides of the argument.

Henrietta Billings

Henrietta Billings

The highly controversial plan by one of the UK’s favourite retailers to raze and rebuild its store has united heritage and climate change campaigners alike. It is at the centre of a raging debate over the future of our high streets and the climate crisis.

This case has focused attention on the wasteful demolition of perfectly good buildings and the need to reuse and retrofit our existing stock. The case raises important questions about how to do this for everyone’s benefit and keep alive the streets and buildings we care about.

If the secretary of state rules against the retailer’s proposal to demolish its handsome 1920s landmark, it will be a seismic moment that could change the course of the property industry. If instead he waves through M&S’s plans for a new 10-storey office block on the site – as Westminster council and the mayor of London did before Gove stepped in and called a public inquiry – it will be a huge, missed opportunity.

The built environment is responsible for around 40% of carbon emissions. More than 50,000 buildings a year are lost through demolition, and construction is far more carbon-intensive than refurbishment. This presents a powerful opportunity. Clearly, we would be foolish not to harness this potential.

Progressive developers are already recognising their responsibilities – and responding to the growing demand for characterful buildings that align with tenants’ environmental and social values.

As Jacob Loftus, chief executive of General Projects, which is converting the magnificent Heal’s building on Tottenham Court Road into enterprise space, told the M&S public inquiry: “It is clear now, given the state of the climate emergency, that retrofit must be the default for our industry, and demolition a last resort.”

Adam Higgins, co-founder of Capital & Centric, has said converting Manchester’s Crusader Mill into flats prioritising local people was one of its toughest projects – but that it had not put it off further mill conversions. He said: “I still think it’s worth it because we’re saving important parts of Manchester. Buildings like this, unless they get converted into a new use, eventually fall down and collapse. When you finish it, you create something that can almost never be replicated in a new build.”

Crusader has kickstarted the regeneration of Piccadilly East into one of the UK’s most up-and-coming neighbourhoods, and Capital & Centric is well positioned to reap the rewards. It has now turned its attention to neighbouring Neptune Mill, which it is converting into 22,000 sq ft of creative workspace.

Tyler Goodwin, chief executive of Seaforth Land, which is behind 500,000 sq ft of retrofit developments in central London, spoke at the M&S public inquiry in support of SAVE’s case for reuse. He urged politicians and planning authorities to use tax and policy to actively encourage retrofit.

“If we want to encourage more developers to embrace the additional risk, we must find ways to mitigate risk or improve the returns,” he said. “The more we facilitate the success of responsible developers and developments, the more capital will rush in to fill the need and the more responsible developers we will create.”

Demolition must be the last, rather than the first, resort. What’s clear is the liner needs to change course and Gove’s decision is a great opportunity to begin that process.

At SAVE, we have shown time and time again how with imagination and determination it is possible to reuse existing buildings without having to knock them down. The retrofit agenda represents a fantastic opportunity to unleash a new age of creativity that the UK’s talented developers, planners, designers and engineers are well equipped to embrace.

Henrietta Billings is director at SAVE Britain’s Heritage