Michael Gove’s decision last week to throw out plans to redevelop the M&S flagship building on Oxford Street must have been particularly galling for the retailer, given that the secretary of state seems to have prioritised protecting the visual impact of the Selfridges store next door.

Lem Bingley

Lem Bingley, editor

Never mind that the owners of Selfridges, Thailand’s Central Group and Australian firm Signa Holding, publicly backed the M&S plan for demolition and redevelopment. Gove determined that the setting of the grade II*-listed Selfridges building would suffer if M&S were to plonk a taller and more imposing block beside it.

Gove gave more weight to this heritage harm than the planning inspector, and went on to decide that M&S hadn’t given due reverence to its more upmarket neighbour. Detriment to the listed building, he decided, meant the application also contravened the London Plan and the Westminster City Plan, which both contain policies about design reflecting the heritage of the setting.

In turn, this meant the application fell foul of the 2004 Planning Act, which requires adherence to local plans unless there’s a compelling reason to decide otherwise. It was on this contravention that the application was refused.

The decision letter said: “Given the significance of Selfridges […] the secretary of state considers that the harm to designated heritage assets in this case carries very great weight. He does not agree with the inspector’s assessment that the harm […] carries only moderate weight.”

This was the clinching reason given for booting out M&S’s proposal – never mind what you may have read about embodied carbon emissions from sending in the bulldozers, or piling in with new steel and concrete. Gove assessed the net zero argument as having only moderate weight, in part because the scheme’s Section 106 agreement demanded hefty annual payments to Westminster’s carbon offsetting scheme.

The 13-page formal letter setting out Gove’s rationale is convoluted and hard to read and references half a dozen other documents, but there are some clear flags for developers that fear getting tangled in the same reels of red tape.

Most significantly, Gove did not believe M&S when it said it had fully considered refurbishment schemes. He pondered this question from both the heritage and carbon emissions angles and found “the applicant’s evidence much less persuasive” than the inspector had deemed it, and so was “not persuaded that it is safe to draw the same conclusion reached by the inspector, namely that ‘there is no viable and deliverable alternative’” that would have preserved the existing heritage.

He added that “exploration of alternatives to demolition” had not been “appropriately thorough”. In particular, he noted that there “was little conclusive evidence” that M&S had properly discussed refurbishment with either Westminster City Council or the Greater London Authority.

The lesson: if you’re intent on knocking something down in a conservation area, or in the vicinity of a listed building, you’d better not skimp on considering the retrofit alternative. Exploration of the options has to be real, and not just a smokescreen in support of the wrecking ball.

Of course, given the state of the climate, that really ought to be firmly front of mind in any case.