M&S wins court challenge to Gove’s block on razing of Oxford Street store

Marks & Spencer has claimed victory after Michael Gove’s decision to block a controversial plan to raze and redevelop its main store on London’s Oxford Street was ruled to be unlawful.

The levelling up secretary refused permission to redevelop the site near Marble Arch in the West End in July last year, in a win for campaigners concerned about the carbon footprint of the plan.

In August, M&S mounted a legal challenge to that decision and in a high court ruling on Friday morning the judge sided with the retailer.

The M&S operations director, Sacha Berendji, said thejudgment couldn’t be clearer”.

The court has agreed with our arguments on five out of the six counts we brought forward and ruled that the secretary of state’s decision to block the redevelopment of our Marble Arch store was unlawful,” he added.

He said Gove’s intervention – which was contrary to the recommendation from inspectors to approve the plans – had caused a “long, unnecessary and costly delay to the only retail-led regeneration on Oxford Street which would deliver one of London’s greenest buildings, create thousands of new jobs and rejuvenate the capital’s premier shopping district”.

Berendji said the ball was back in Gove’s court and the minister now had the “power to unlock the wide-ranging benefits of this significant investment” and “send a clear message to UK and global business that the government supports sustainable growth and the regeneration of our towns and cities”.

When Gove, who can appeal against the ruling, blocked the plan last year he said he had done so partly because it would “fail to support the transition to a low-carbon future, and would overall fail to encourage the reuse of existing resources, including the conversion of existing buildings”.

At the time, Berendji said Gove had “wrongly interpreted and applied planning policy to justify his rejection of our scheme on grounds of heritage and environmental concerns”.

After a hearing last month, the high court judge Mrs Justice Lieven ruled that Gove had misapplied planning policy. She said he had also failed to give adequate reasons why blocking the plan would not cause wider harm to London’s West End, despite M&S having stated it would leave the site if it could not redevelop the store. She dismissed a sixth point related to heritage issues.

A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “We acknowledge the judgment and are considering our next steps..”

Henrietta Billings, the director of the charity Save Britain’s Heritage, which campaigned against M&S’s plan, said the scheme still lacked planning consent six years after its launch, but might have achieved it if it had pursued a less environmentally damaging retrofit scheme.

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“This case has focused widespread public attention on the wasteful knock-it-down-and-build-again process that has dominated our construction sector for the last 100 years. We need a fresh positive approach to reusing historic buildings and saving precious resources. We also urgently need robust national planning policy on retrofit that aligns with the UK government’s law on net zero targets.”

The row over the fate of the store, one of two that M&S has on Oxford Street, has been a cause célèbre in recent years in the battle over the carbon footprint of redevelopment projects during the climate crisis and the fate of Britain’s struggling high streets.

Gove ordered a public inquiry in June 2022 into the plan to demolish and rebuild the 1929 art deco building, with prize-winning architects, academics, heritage campaigners and the author Bill Bryson voicing opposition to the retailer’s plans, claiming the project would release 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.

While the planning inspector recommended the project should go ahead, Gove chose to disagree with that decision.

In recent years Oxford Street has lost its lustre because of the growing number of empty stores while troublesome candy and souvenir shops had moved in. However, recent figures suggest its fortunes have begun to improve, and the proportion of vacant shops is down by 40%.

Dee Corsi, the chief executive of New West End Company, the trade body that represents businesses on Oxford Street, said it was a “just result” with the M&S overhaul likely to be a key part of the street’s future growth story.

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