As we all know, Marks & Spencer’s flagship Marble Arch store is at the centre of a long-running planning dispute, but it also happens to be slap bang in the middle of the City of Westminster.

Lem Bingley

Lem Bingley, PW editor

Coincidentally, these two attributes aligned last week. Even as secretary of state Michael Gove’s decision to block M&S’s development was tossed back up into the air by the High Court, Westminster council was finalising draft updates to its City Plan that might have very swiftly settled the case – had they been adopted just a few years earlier.

Alas, they weren’t in play at the time and so the bitter M&S case rumbles on. But the new policies and wording chosen by Westminster could easily be seen as a handy ‘lessons learned’ summary of the arguments raised during the dispute.

Westminster had originally approved M&S’s demolish-and-rebuild plan, but that was back in November 2021. London mayor Sadiq Khan in turn approved the scheme in April 2022, immediately before Gove ordered a pause. The secretary of state went on to call in the scheme for a public inquiry, before finally refusing permission in July 2023.

On 1 March, the High Court effectively shredded Gove’s refusal letter, with the judge concluding he had simply imagined a presumption in favour of retrofitting, having found nothing of the sort in adopted policies for the area (p18).

That presumption will exist in Westminster if the new proposals go through, following consultations starting next week, although they won’t apply retrospectively to M&S.

Nobody wants to become the next test case, so developers will welcome clarity

It is not just perceptions about sustainability that have shifted since Westminster initially approved demolition. Labour took the council from the Tories in May 2022, and is now poised to put its stamp on the City Plan.

Nobody wants to become the next test case, so developers active in Westminster will welcome clarity, even if they don’t like the actual wording.

The current adopted Westminster plan has relatively little to say on retrofitting, beyond a note that “proposals for substantial demolition and reconstruction should be fully justified on the basis of whole-life carbon impact, resource and energy use”. The new version inserts a lengthy section addressing the points dragged into the light by the M&S case.

Among many other new rules it states: “Where whole-life carbon assessments are relied upon to justify demolition and construction of a new building, these must follow the most up-to-date RICS methodology and the mayor of London’s Whole Life Carbon London Plan Guidance and be presented as an appraisal of the construction options for reuse, refurbishment, retrofit, deep retrofit and demolition.”

Any new-build application will have to include a “meaningful and honest comparison” of all the different options.

The policy acknowledges that new buildings can offer real benefits, including “new public infrastructure, the provision of affordable workspace, significant uplifts in jobs, affordable housing and estate regeneration”. But applications must show why these positives can’t be delivered by retrofitting.

On the upside, “proposals involving responsible retrofitting, which result in energy, performance and climate adaptation upgrades, will be supported in principle”.

If that last pledge can be taken as seriously as the many new hurdles, that in itself would be a result.