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Gove Decision Leaves Real Estate Unsure About Policy On Carbon, Demolition And Development

Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove is being lobbied by the property sector to clarify the rules around retrofitting buildings.

The refusal of permission for Marks & Spencer’s plans to knock down its Oxford Street flagship and build a new one leaves the real estate industry unsure about whether UK sustainability regulation will prohibit demolition, an industry body said in the wake of the decision. 

Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove denied permission for M&S to knock down its 160K SF Oxford Street store and create a new scheme of more than 200K SF after Westminster Council had already granted planning consent. 

The amount of embodied carbon created by a new development was a crucial factor in the decision. Embodied carbon is created during the construction and development phase of a building’s life: in the manufacturing of cement, glass, steel and other building products, plus in the transportation of materials.

Operational carbon is emitted by things like lighting, heating and cooling while a building is in use. 

M&S said that it had explored all the options and that retrofitting or refurbishing the old, higgledy-piggledy premises meant that more carbon would be emitted during its operations than saved from not building. The company said constructing a new building was more sustainable and the old one was not worth saving. 

But Gove’s decision indicated he did not think M&S had done enough to prove that. 

“The Secretary of State also does not consider that there has been an appropriately thorough exploration of alternatives to demolition,” the decision said. “He does not consider that the applicant 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.”

The London Property Alliance said the decision created a lot of uncertainty for developers regarding regulation around demolition. 

“The intense debate around a single store underlines the significant challenges developers and investors face when making long term investment decisions to deliver sustainable economic and environmental growth,” the Alliance said in a statement. “This particular case demonstrates the lack of clarity and leadership nationally on the issue.

“Whilst the Secretary of State’s decision sends a political message, it does not provide the substantive planning policy guidance the property sector and local councils need to make finely balanced decisions around upgrading or demolishing poorly performing buildings.”

M&S said in its planning submission that if permission was refused, it would likely leave Oxford Street. Its chief executive, Stuart Machin, called the decision “pathetic.”

Bisnow’s Office Politics podcast explored the issues surrounding embodied carbon and development. You can listen to it here.