PRESS RELEASE: SAVE salutes M&S decision as ‘watershed moment’ that links the benefits of carbon reduction and heritage for the first time

M&S Oxford Street [Credit: Matthew Andrews for SAVE Britain's Heritage]
M&S Oxford Street [Credit: Matthew Andrews for SAVE Britain's Heritage]


Secretary of State cites heritage, design and sustainability issues in landmark ruling

24th July 2023 

SAVE Britain’s Heritage applauds the Secretary of State for his landmark decision rejecting Marks & Spencer’s proposal to knock down and replace its flagship building on Oxford Street. 

Thursday’s decision by Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove is a significant victory for SAVE and all those who care about the carbon cost of the construction industry and re-purposing historic buildings.  

Henrietta Billings, director of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, said: “This decision from the Secretary of State marks a watershed moment for the planning and construction industry. It is the first time a planning inquiry has had sustainability and heritage as its joint focus. It challenges our laissez faire attitude to demolition and loss as simply being necessary for economic growth, and invites us to consider the townscape and environmental consequences. In the increasingly urgent ‘retrofit’ debate the judgement will stand as an example of how decisions relating to the built environment must be consistent with the reality of the climate emergency.”

November's public inquiry saw SAVE's tiny crowdfunded team go head to head with M&S. 

The inquiry heard that M&S’s proposals would have released 40,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere immediately because of all the steel and concrete required for the new building. However efficient this proposed new building would have been, retrofitting the existing buildings to contemporary standards would have a much smaller carbon cost – as well as being cheaper, quicker and less damaging for Oxford Street.

On sustainability, Michael Gove’s ruling, which overturned the recommendation of the planning inspector, stated: “The Secretary of State… notes that there was no dispute that the proposals would demolish and remove structurally sound buildings for a new larger development or that redevelopment would involve much greater embodied carbon than refurbishment.”  He found this approach to be contrary to policy in the National Policy Planning Framework (NPPF).

He added: “The Secretary of State does not consider there has been an appropriately thorough exploration of the alternatives to demolition. He does not consider that the applicant [M&S] has demonstrated that refurbishment would not be deliverable or viable and nor has the applicant satisfied the Secretary of State that options for retaining the buildings have been fully explored, or that there is compelling justification for demolition and rebuilding.”

On heritage, the report states: “The Secretary of State has concluded that although Orchard House did not meet the listing criteria at the time it was considered for listing in 2021, it has significant value in its own right and in its context. He has attached substantial weight to its loss.” (para 203) This is highly significant for an unlisted building, outside a conservation area. He found that the proposals conflicted with the NPPF and development plan policies on conservation of heritage assets.

On public benefits, the Secretary of State that the proposed public benefits of the scheme did not outweigh the harm to heritage assets.

The importance of embodied carbon impacts when weighing up planning decisions is widely expected to increase. Following a report by the House of Commons' Environmental Audit Committee, the government has already pledged to review the NPPF to ensure it contributes to climate change mitigation which includes a review of incentives for retrofit and the role of circular economy statements.

And, according to law firm Pinsent Masons, one of the 27 priority recommendations of the Climate Change Committee’s report in June 2023 was to “review and update the NPPF to ensure net zero outcomes are consistently prioritised through the planning system, making clear that these would work in conjunction with, rather than being over-ridden by other outcomes such as development viability.”

SAVE’s campaign, supported by Will Hurst, managing editor of the Architect’s Journal, net zero expert Simon Sturgis and many leading architects, engineers, urbanists, planners and heritage and environmental campaigners, put carbon firmly at the heart of the debate about knocking down buildings or re-using them.

The campaign captured the public’s imagination and we were overwhelmed by the support we received – which helped us secure £20,000 towards our public inquiry legal fees – and the national press coverage our campaign attracted. The timing of this decision in line with public sentiment could not have come at a better time.


Key moments in SAVE's campaign

In January 2022 we commissioned a report by leading carbon expert Simon Sturgis which demonstrated how M&S’s proposals to demolish the buildings and build a 10-story office block with two levels of carbon-hungry basements were not compliant with the government’s legally binding net zero commitments or the Greater London Authority’s policy to prioritise retrofit of existing buildings.

In April 2022, SAVE published a report, Departing Stores: Emporia at Risk, examining the challenges and future opportunities for reusing department stores, including Orchard House.

With the campaign rapidly gaining national attention and press coverage, in May 2022 we published an open letter signed by leading architects, engineers and historians calling on the government to call in the scheme for examination at a public inquiry.

Working with the Twentieth Century Society, we also launched a petition calling on M&S bosses to rethink their plans, which was signed by more than 6,000 people.

In July 2022 SAVE launched a crowdfunder for our legal fees at the public inquiry which was backed by more than 400 people and raised more than £20,000.

We were the lead party opposing M&S at the two-week public inquiry in autumn 2022. We were represented by Matthew Fraser of Landmark Chambers, along with our expert witnesses: Dr Julie Godefroy, a whole-life carbon and sustainability consultant; Simon Sturgis, an expert in embodied carbon; and Alec Forshaw, a writer, planner and former head of conservation at Islington Council.

As part of the inquiry several high-profile figures gave evidence in person and in writing. These included Kristin Scott Thomas, Griff Rhys Jones and Julia Barfield, architect of the London Eye.

In March 2023 we invited Simon Sturgis to deliver our annual lecture, Architecture and Climate Crisis: How the past can save the future, to a sell-out crowd at the Royal Academy.


Reaction to the Secretary of State’s decision

Griff Rhys Jones, who spoke at the public inquiry in support of SAVE’s case: 

“This is a very sensible and sound decision. A handsome, usable building will continue to adorn Oxford Street. It will be recycled. It represents an ecological victory. What great news.” 

Duncan Baker MP, who brought the Carbon Emissions (Buildings) Bill to Parliament:

“SAVE Britain's Heritage has successfully brought attention to the value of heritage preservation and the significance of making environmentally conscious choices in architectural and development decisions. The organisation's campaign has left a lasting impact on the industry and society at large, further solidifying its role as a leading advocate for conservation and sustainable development. I fully support the Secretary of State’s decision.”

Alec Forshaw, SAVE’s expert witness on heritage:  

“It is very encouraging that the Secretary of State has given proper weight to the importance of protecting heritage assets, both designated and undesignated, and found that the harm caused by the demolition of Orchard House and the negative impact of the new building is not out-weighed by the public benefits claimed by the applicant.  

“It shows that buildings of heritage value that are not statutorily listed and which might lie outside a conservation area are still worth fighting for, particularly when allied with sustainability reasons for retention.” 

Simon Sturgis, SAVE’s expert witness on embodied carbon:  

“Congratulations to Michael Gove for a very important and influential decision. This shows that the government is serious about the climate crisis and understands that real change is needed if we are to achieve net zero by 2050. We must now progress with nationwide guidance on planning and building regulations (eg Part Z) to support this decision and deliver carbon reductions across the entire built environment industry.” 

Julie Godefroy, SAVE’s expert witness on whole life carbon:

“This case has really helped to bring in focus the importance of balanced and transparent whole life carbon assessments, and the need to appraise opportunities to retain and improve our existing stock. Like Simon, I hope this is a step towards nationwide guidance and regulations, and more consistent decisions for low carbon outcomes.” 

Steve Tompkins, founder, Haworth Tompkins Architects and Stirling Prize winner: 

“We can’t afford to carry on demolishing decent, solid buildings when there are feasible alternatives. I hope this decision points to a wider realisation by government that our whole industry needs to prioritise low carbon retrofitting to drive down construction emissions, particularly in this pivotal decade. If so, removing VAT on refurbishment would drive that change overnight by making the right choice more viable for building owners.”  

Michelle Ludik, regional leader of heritage and adaptive reuse, HOK Architects:

“Congratulations on all SAVE’s hard work in fighting this landmark case. It is absolutely a milestone in changing minds and turning heads about the climate impact of demolition of existing buildings and of course a victory for the importance of retaining heritage in our built environment.”

Simon Henley, founder Henley Halebrown Architects

“Michael Gove’s decision to back the retention and adaptive reuse of the M&S Oxford Street store instead of a new building is good for the environment and good for the place Oxford Street. His decision protects both embodied carbon and embodied memory. Congratulations to SAVE, Simon Sturgis, Will Hurst and everybody else involved in the campaign to save these buildings. The creative opportunities for reuse are huge. This is an interesting and exciting moment.”




1/ For more information, images and interview requests contact Elizabeth Hopkirk: / 020 7253 3500.

2/ Find the SoS’s decision and his planning inspector’s recommendation (and their accompanying reports here.

3/ For further information see our report, The Battle for M&S Oxford Street, and our website.