6th June 2022

The Great Glow Up: how are the UK’s department stores going to look?


With Levelling Up, cities and urban landscapes are back in the public spotlight. The Queen’s Jubilee brings with it swathes of new heritage listings, and the appointment of townships to cities across the UK. Meanwhile, within city centres, we’ve seen big shifts in purchasing patterns from in-store to online. Even Oxford Street hasn’t fully recovered from lower shopper numbers since COVID, as announced in City AM, late May. This leaves us with very big buildings often in prominent high street locations that need a new use.

A glance at planning applications on Oxford St alone shows that John Lewis has permission to develop its upper floors for offices, while House of Fraser and the former Debenhams store are to undergo office-led mixed-use rejuvenations.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Marks & Spencer in Marble Arch has gone one step further – with proposals to demolish their entire site and construct a new office building with an M&S store at its base. It has made national news, being widely criticised on environmental grounds and has now been halted by UK Housing Secretary, Michael Gove, while London Mayor Sadiq Khan still wants to see the demolition through despite calls from major industry names.

Right now, the planning system does not have a clear presumption in favour of retention of existing buildings, except in some limited circumstances. Often demolition does not need consent. This leads to the M&S situation. What they are proposing may be appropriate, but there is nothing in the planning system which forces them to show why. So some people will inevitably criticise them.

The current situation where VAT is charged on refurbishment but not on new build is also scandalous and must be reversed. It is driving waste and is completely incompatible with a climate emergency.

Whichever side of the ‘M&S Store’ debate you’re on, we’re inclined to agree with Richard Steer’s latest piece in Building magazine “If you are going to change the way the workspace serves a mobile workforce rather than just replacing worn-out equipment, the building might as well be completely reconfigured inside and out and transformed into a modern, eco-efficient, workspace.”

Civic Engineers is currently working with PDP on 318 Oxford St, formally House of Fraser. It is a fundamentally sound building, so we rejected demolition in favour of refurbishment to mixed use and commercial.  The current M&S store on Oxford Street is somewhat different. It is a cobbled together mix of several different structures, and I suspect it doesn’t have the fundamental quality that 318 Oxford Street has. That’s not to say it can’t be re-used.

In our view buildings for redevelopment should be thoroughly appraised before a decision on demolition, refurbishment or remodelling is undertaken, with a presumption in favour of retaining as much as possible, consistent with giving the building a sustainable long-term future.

By sustainable we mean putting the building in a position where it won’t need change or demolition in a few years anyway. Of course a sustainable building must also be environmentally responsible.

Following this process, designers and clients can make quantified arguments in favour of partial or complete demolition if that is genuinely appropriate. Judgement based on evidence is needed, which is where structural engineers alongside other consultants are vital to help clients understand their options.

The planning system needs to embrace this approach, and force developers to justify any decision to demolish. Developers should demonstrate how their scheme responds to a hierarchy of questions:

  1. Can the building be re-used as is? If not why not?
  2. If not can some of it be re-used, maybe with some changes/partial demo. If not why not?
  3. If not what will come out of the areas of building demolished? Where can this be re-used within the project?
  4. If material can’t be reused in the project can it be re-used elsewhere?
  5. If not how is it going to be recycled?

Ultimately this is in developers interests as it is likely to lead to lower carbon solutions and lower risk of running into the sort of storm M&S has found itself in.

The Great Glow Up: how are the UK’s department stores going to look?