M&S’ Oxford Street proposal is just a generic office block masquerading as a department store

Marks & Spencer building on Oxford Street on 11th April 2022 in London (In Pictures via Getty Images)
Marks & Spencer building on Oxford Street on 11th April 2022 in London (In Pictures via Getty Images)

The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has pushed his decision on M&S Oxford Street back to July. This will give him more time to reflect on the huge benefits of refurbishment over M&S’s plan for demolition.

M&S have denigrated the existing group of buildings at Marble Arch because they want to demolish their flagship store and replace it with a new “white box” office building. M&S like to present themselves as the voice of Oxford Street retail, yet are actually planning to shrink their shop from 34,837 sq m to 13,653 sq m.

Their proposal is essentially a generic office block masquerading as a department store. And they’ve threatened to leave if they don’t get their way.

The London public has seen through this, with overwhelming support for the campaign for refurbishment, led by SAVE Britain’s Heritage. Retaining and upgrading the buildings can be exciting and imaginative and, most importantly, can rejuvenate the area and reverse the “run-down” aspects resulting from M&S’s lack of investment.

A quality refurb can offer many benefits: improved public realm, an energy-efficient heritage building with high-quality shopping and even some characterful office space. All this without releasing a massive carbon bomb into the atmosphere.

As others have noted, Oxford Street is beginning to blossom again with the arrival of the Elizabeth line. HMV and Ikea are among the brands opening stores here. This is not the moment to replace a key retail building with an office block.

CoStar Analytics says UK office vacancies have jumped 65% in three years. They report that occupiers “demand modern, more eco-friendly bases to help them attract and retain staff in a competitive jobs market, but also to help them meet their net-zero goals”.

They describe a “flight to quality”. Do not assume this automatically equals “new-build”.

Cluttons’ Q1 2023 London Office Report confirms this, adding: “ESG considerations are playing a role in decision-making as companies, and their clients and investors, are becoming increasingly aware of their own carbon footprint and operations.”

Someone who has solved this conundrum is Tyler Goodwin of Seaforth Land. He recently showed me two very exciting refurbishment projects that are highly carbon efficient and will be great places to work.

One is in Bleeding Heart Yard, near Hatton Garden, with Swiss bank Julius Baer as tenant, and the other is Space House, the circular 1960s Siefert tower on the eastern edge of Covent Garden.

These two old buildings, both now with top environmental performance, show what imaginative refurbishment can achieve.

Compare this ingenious approach with the M&S proposal for Oxford Street. This relies on total demolition, a three-storey basement hole to be dug and lined with concrete (highly carbon-intensive) and the disposal of the vast amount of waste produced.

When completed the building will already have emitted 40,000 tonnes of CO2. As M&S’s advisers Arup show, the new building would need a major refurbishment within 35 years.

The M&S plan neither meets today’s environmental concerns nor solves the working from home problem, and it contributes no more to the public realm and economic rejuvenation of Oxford Street than can be achieved by the sort of exciting refurbishments I have described above. M&S’s proposal is a traditional white box office building that is also a white elephant.

What we need are new solutions for a post-Covid, climate crisis world. I hope the Secretary of State chooses the approach that restores Oxford Street and imporantly addresses the issues of the 21st century.

⬤ Simon Sturgis is founder of carbon consultancy Targeting Zero and Carbon adviser to SAVE Britain’s Heritage