This week the public inquiry into the proposed redevelopment of the Marks & Spencer store on Oxford Street kicked off, and the controversy over the plans is a sign of things to come. London, like all great cities, must continuously evolve but the rush to demolish and rebuild puts its historic character at risk and is a serious threat to the city achieving net-zero by 2050.
To recap, the saga began in November 2021 when, despite opposition from built environment and sustainability experts, Westminster City Council approved M&S’s plans to demolish its store near Marble Arch, which is housed in one of the West End’s striking art deco buildings.
M&S argued that the store was surplus to their requirements and the only way to transform it into a mix of offices and much smaller retail space was to knock it down and start again. Their argument, which was also accepted by The Mayor, was that the 90-year-old building could not be modernised and that the new building would be far more energy and carbon efficient over the long-term than the existing structure.
Enter Michael Gove. He was apparently not satisfied that demolition, which would emit 40,000 tonnes of carbon, was necessary and called in the plans for review.
Subsequently, campaigners of SAVE Britain’s Heritage launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise £20,000 for a legal battle over whether the building could be renovated for future use rather than demolished.
The two-week public inquiry could be helpful in providing a guide as to how the inevitable future arguments of retrofit v rebuild will be resolved. It is, however, a surprise to me that these plans have made it this far.
Those not involved in the sector may not appreciate that the built environment, that is all buildings, roads and other infrastructure, contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. Most of this is generated in the construction process: knocking down old buildings and replacing them with accounts for more than a 100 million tonnes of carbon per year.
Overlaying this is the need to preserve London’s historic buildings, with the city’s architecture fundamental to its global appeal. Historic England currently lists 425 buildings or structures in London at risk of being lost because of neglect or inappropriate development.
In this context, it is easy to see why the demolition of a prominent and longstanding building in central London has become a matter of national interest.
You would think that both national and local policy would be unequivocal in the need to avoid unnecessary demolition, but this case shows more clarity is needed. National policy takes time to change but, in the meantime, there is nothing stopping local authorities being more proactive in incentivising refurbishment over demolition, perhaps speeding up parts of the planning process or being more flexible on height and density if a developer chooses to renovate rather than demolish.
But regardless of policy, developers must prioritise the re-use of existing structures and embrace the circular economy now – and we know it is viable.
Buildings such as the one M&S wants to demolish are designed to last centuries with large floorplates and a simple grid layout making them adaptable for a number of different uses.
We have seen great examples retail buildings revitalised by adding extra floors above for offices or apartments, or ‘hollowing out’ the interior to create atriums or performance spaces.
Just down the road, Lendlease is set to comprehensively renovate the former Debenhams department store at 334 Oxford Street into a new retail and office complex. A short distance away, Grosvenor is repurposing Victoria’s historic ice factory, built in 1830, into a five-storey building comprising a mix of offices, shops and a rooftop restaurant, without having to tear the original building down.
Looking further afield, the regeneration of Battersea Power Station shows how the retention of a building’s fabric can work on a much larger scale, at the heart of new city district.
London’s unique character is created by its buildings, and the need for action on the climate crisis is growing ever more urgent. The adaptive re-use and re-purposing of existing buildings must be the first thought as we work to evolve urban places moving forward.
Michelle Ludik is Regional Leader of Conservation at architects HOK