M&S Oxford Street store plan opposed by author Bill Bryson and architects

M&S Oxford Street store plan opposed by author Bill Bryson and architects

Raze-and-rebuild proposal for London shop led to carbon footprint debate, with public inquiry looming

Marks & Spencer, near Marble Arch, Oxford Street, London, on December 15 2021

The author Bill Bryson and architects including the Stirling prize winner Steve Tompkins and Mark Hines, the project director for the remodelling of BBC Broadcasting House, have lined up to oppose plans to flatten Marks & Spencer’s store on London’s Oxford Street.

Bryson, who is best known for Notes from a Small Island and A Short History of Nearly Everything, has donated £500 to a fighting fund established by the campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage in the run-up to a public inquiry into the plan – under which M&S wants to build a new store and offices on the same site – ordered by the former communities secretary Michael Gove in June.

The scheme has become a poster child for the debate over a shift to retrofitting and refurbishing buildings rather than demolition and rebuilding, as part of efforts to cut the carbon footprint of development amid the climate crisis.

A report produced by the architect and net zero expert Simon Sturgis commissioned by Save argued that the M&S proposals were not compliant with the government’s net zero commitments or the Greater London Authority’s policy to prioritise retrofit.

However, M&S says its proposed new building would use less than a quarter of the energy of today’s structure, and the fabric of the existing site, known as the Arch, which is made up of three buildings of different ages with asbestos throughout, means that refurbishment is not a realistic option.

Stuart Machin, the co-chief executive of M&S, said: “Our investment will deliver far more than carbon reduction; it will be a better place for our customers to shop, a better place for our colleagues to work, and a better public realm for our community. Today and tomorrow.”

M&S looks likely to face considerable opposition to its plans as the crowdfunder, to cover Save’s legal costs in opposing M&S at the inquiry, which kicks off on 25 October, has a target of £20,000 and is approaching the halfway mark.

Bryson, who announced his retirement in 2020, told the Architects’ Journal, which first reported his involvement in the campaign: “I believe it would be a great shame to tear down the M&S building. I have no special knowledge or insights about the matter. I just wish to help stop a bit of foolishness.”

Tompkins, a co-founder of Architects Declare who led the recent redesign of the National Theatre in London, wrote in his letter opposing the scheme: “Number 458 Oxford Street is a handsome piece of urban architecture, made with high-quality durable materials. It is a successful component of the wider streetscape and a familiar London landmark. For these reasons, the building appears to be an entirely suitable candidate for deep retrofitting.”

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The list of opponents also includes Ian Ritchie Architects, which worked on the Louvre’s pyramid extension, and the sustainable design specialist Sarah Wigglesworth, as well as the Conservative MP Duncan Baker – who introduced a private member’s bill on embodied carbon earlier in the Commons earlier this year.

Wigglesworth said in her letter that demolishing and rebuilding the store would be a “climate crime” amid a planetary emergency “the like of which we have never experienced before”.

The demolition and replacement scheme led by the architecture firm Pilbrow & Partners, which would release almost 40,000 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, was approved by Westminster city council and the Greater London Authority led by the mayor, Sadiq Khan, but was then called in by Gove.