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Marks & Spencer has become the target of a row over plans to demolish its flagship London store, as fears rise over the death of Britain's high street heritage architecture.
Since plans to redevelop its Marble Arch site were voted through on Tuesday night, opposition from heritage charities and architecture aficionados has been brewing against the 137-year-old retail institution.
The Oxford Street complex, home to the 1930s Orchard House building, is expected to make way for the more modern branch in line with M&S’ latest transformation efforts under chief executive Steve Rowe. It will also lead to a 10-storey site being erected further down the road.
But campaigners fear shops up and down the country, with historic and architectural significance, could suffer a similar fate and be replaced with “ugly spreadsheet architecture”.
Other buildings heritage crusaders are seeking to save include a former House of Fraser in Birmingham, a Co-op store in Hull and Debenhams stores in Staines and Taunton.
Meanwhile, Oxford Street could become less enticing to visitors amid a swathe of high profile retreats and redesigns by fellow major retailers.
The M&S decision “doesn’t tick any boxes. You can make the case for knocking down a building if you’re creating more homes or space for activities. The case for losing it is weak, it’s a shame it wasn’t listed”, says Nicholas Boys Smith, the founder of Create Streets, a social enterprise.
“It is a rather lovely building and a really interesting example of inter-war architecture, which is being pulled down left, right and centre.”
Under its plans, the retailer will occupy two and a half floors rather than the five currently used, with office space filling the upper floors. The new space is not due to be completed until 2027.
Geoff Barraclough, shadow cabinet member for business and planning - and the only councillor of six who voted against the scheme - believes Orchard House complements the Grade II Selfridges building nearby.
“The new building is the reverse: it's overbearing and overshadows Selfridges, and it's very large,” he told other councillors during the vote, according to Architects’ Journal.
Critics have also lambasted M&S’ sustainability credentials. It will be responsible for 39,500 tonnes of carbon while building the new version, according to the chain’s own assessment, which would require 2.4m trees to offset.
M&S claims that 90pc of materials from the existing site will be reused in the construction of the new building, and once finished will have a higher sustainability rating than the current one.
“It’s not a glib thing that we’re saying,” says one source.
The company was a trailblazer in 2015 when it pledged to become ‘the world’s most sustainable business’ and has since reiterated its commitment to the environment as the climate crisis intensifies.
Sacha Berendji, group property and store development director, has said the move will “positively contribute to our net zero targets over the long term with strong sustainability credentials, which is another step forward in the transformation of our store estate to be fit for the future”.
It is understood it will take about 16 years for the building to make up for the initial damage to the environment.
“That’s great news for the 2040s but no use tackling the climate emergency today,” argues MP Barraclough.
Create Streets’ Boys Smith, who is also a chair of the advisory board of Government-backed Office for Place, which fights to maintain good-looking buildings, adds: “They will replace it with ugly spreadsheet buildings, completely repetitive, with no complexity, no coherence, no texture.
“It’s not the type of building which people respond warmly to. It doesn’t say to me, ‘Oxford Street’. It could be anywhere from Singapore to San Francisco.
“Oxford Street is less good and less of a place without it. We’re wasting [the equivalent of] millions of trees in the process.”
Department stores' dire straits
A last-minute application was made by campaigners to save the complex, but it was quashed this week following advice by Historic England not to list the Orchard House.
The heritage agency said the building was “not regarded as innovative nor of sufficient architectural quality” to be exempt, and it had suffered “a considerable loss of original fabric”.
A Historic England spokesperson said: “After carefully considering the architectural and historic interest of the building, and consulting with the applicant, local planning authority and owner, we recommended ... that the building should not be listed, and the secretary of state agreed.”
It is understood that Mayor of London Sadiq Khan could still intervene on the planning application and progress could be stifled.
Still, M&S remains committed to the future of Oxford Street for the long term – at a time of great upheaval for the busy shopping road.
Last week House of Fraser was evicted from its flagship store after 142 years for the landlord to redevelop the building following a long-term decline in visitor numbers.
Nearby Debenhams also shut after the chain went bust a year ago, while Fraser’s neighbour John Lewis is seeking to convert several floors into offices.
Jace Tyrrell, chief executive of New West End which represents 600 retailers in the area, says he supports M&S’s renovation.
“Oxford Street can’t continue with the same level of retail, we must have mixed-use spaces: offices, leisure, retail. We won’t have a future unless there is mixed use.
“This is an operator taking its future into its own hands, it's not a landlord, which is what we want.
“We need new stock on that street and high quality buildings. The East End has had investment, that department store stretch needs the most attention.”
Writing for the Architects Journal, Fred Pilbrow of Pilbrow & Partners which is leading M&S’s project, said while it had “looked carefully at the potential refurbishment of the three separate buildings on the site, unfortunately their configuration precluded delivering the quality of retail space required by M&S”.
Westminster Council’s chairman of planning Robert Rigby said: “Our planning policies now reflect our strong commitment to sustainability and the emphasis on refurbishment wherever possible rather than demolition.
“The council is committed to transforming the Oxford Street district, and the new M&S store will play an important role in ensuring Oxford Street remains a vibrant attraction for shoppers.”
Other shopkeepers may want to keep a close eye on future redevelopments, as the trend for repurposing high street space grows and a new era for retail unfolds.