Plans to demolish a flagship M&S store come as Oxford St is “failing” within the retail sector, the supermarket’s lawyer told a landmark public inquiry this morning.
M&S is embroiled in a battle with heritage campaigners over plans to raze its Art Deco store in the West End, with ambitions to create a new 10-storey building, with office spaces.
A public inquiry is now examining the plan’s contribution to local heritage, sustainability and potential to improve the shopping destination.
Oxford St has recently suffered from the closure of household names and received criticism for a slew of US-themed candy stores that have been accused of tax dodging.
Oxford St is facing the “worst retail environment in 50 years,” and the loss of M&S from the location would result in the area’s international standing being “terminally harmed,” Russell Harris KC, M&S’s barrister said on Tuesday.
There could be “powerful consequences” of the retailer not being able to meet the needs of the area and it was a “commercial fact” that M&S may leave the location, “not at all a threat,” he said.
The retailer could not be made to trade in a “sub-optimal” location in a “democratic world,” Harris added.
M&S has claimed a refurbishment of the building for office purposes “would simply not be deliverable” or economical, as the current 1920s’ store is blighted by asbestos.
A refurbishment – as opposed to a demolition – would generate minimal income that “would not come anywhere close to paying for itself,” Harris said.
“The existing store is a confusing warren of dense structures and misaligned floors, which is not the environment in which the modern customer wants to shop,” the supermarket has said previously.
Selfridges has backed plans for the neighbouring M&S site, although campaigners have said the proposals “unacceptably harm” the significance of the iconic Grade II* listed department store.
The unique features of the Selfridges building mean that it is “not ever likely to be challenged,” Harris added.
Campaigners cited environmental concerns with the new plans and have also accused M&S of attempting to destroy “an elegant and important interwar building.”
On Tuesday, charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage said the proposals represent a detrimental impact on the significance of heritage assets, including nearby Orchard House, and on the UK’s transition to a zero carbon economy.
M&S should “seriously and creatively” consider a refurbishment of the site, arguing a “comprehensive retro-fit” would avoid the carbon emissions of a demolition and rebuild, lawyer Matthew Fraser said.
Fraser dubbed the M&S’ comments to the secretary of state regarding leaving the site as nonconstructive and not befitting of a retailer committed to the “future success of Oxford St.”
Organised by SAVE Britain’s Heritage and the Architects’ Journal, signatories of a letter in May said the proposals would “unnecessarily pump nearly 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.”
Architects – including London Eye designer Julia Barfield and Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud – had called on Gove to launch a public inquiry.
A demolition would involve carbon emissions that were “released immediately because of the vast quantity of raw materials required such as steel and concrete,” the letter said, versus a “slow release of carbon from existing buildings.”
Planning inspector David Nicholson is overseeing the inquiry, after refusing to green light plans for a 305-metre Tulip tower in the capital.
Approval has been clinched from the Westminster City Council and the Greater London Authority however the government said it would postpone the progress of the plans until it could look into them.
The public inquiry is set to run for two weeks and will later hear from members of the public.