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When the first street traders began selling their wares on Oxford Street in the late 1800s, few could have imagined how Europe’s most important shopping street would change over the next 150 years.

Since its origins as a trading thoroughfare, Oxford Street has continuously evolved to adapt to changes in the way people shop. 

In the early twentieth century, street traders gave way to drapers and cobblers, who were followed first by small and then much larger stores, including our own Marks & Spencer’s store, which has been on West Oxford Street since the 1930s. 

The continuity of Oxford Street is down to the local council, businesses and the community who have always worked hard to find innovative solutions, meaning that London’s most famous shopping street has not only survived, but thrived.

The impact of the pandemic on the area has, however, been acute. Footfall in the West End of London collapsed as customers fundamentally changed how they shopped - choosing online shopping, home delivery and out of town retail parks instead of traditional high streets. Tourists, once travel restrictions ended, have continued to travel to designer discount outlets in ever greater numbers; not helped by the end of tax-free shopping. 

So, once again, Oxford Street needs to innovate to ensure it doesn’t become a mish mash of poor, idle shopping space longing to be restored to its former glory, but instead remains the bustling, busy and vibrant street we all want it to be. Westminster Council recognise this and are working to unite partners behind their plans, with our bid to modernise our Marble Arch store an example of looking towards the future.

M&S is already in the midst of a far-reaching transformation programme to re-shape our business for the modern, digital era, enabling us to compete with online and discount retailers. This is made more challenging by an old existing store estate in parts, and modernising our stores, including Marble Arch, to be fit for the future is at the heart of our transformation. 

We are big believers in stores and online working together, and we want to have the best technology to support in-store and online shopping, with our operations – from the buildings to the products – positively contributing to the environment.

That’s why we have submitted plans to help us achieve that. 

We started by looking very closely at options for refurbishing the existing store but it quickly became clear that redevelopment was the only viable way forward to re-imagine a store that will be fit for purpose and fit for the future.

The current site is made up of three separate buildings with poor-quality structures and asbestos challenges, which although completely safe, make it impossible to develop without rebuilding.  The existing store is a confusing warren of dense structures and misaligned floors, which is not the environment in which the modern customer wants to shop, and the “backstage” area where our colleagues work is of a poor standard and impossible to modernise.

Historic England agreed that none of the existing buildings are of listable quality and their exclusion from the Conservation Areas that surround the site is a testament to their low design quality.

So we developed proposals to create a landmark mixed-use building with modern retail space and prime office space that will ensure M&S remains trading on west Oxford Street for the long term future.

The Marble Arch design is creative, enterprising and the culmination of over two years’ collaboration with Westminster City Council, the Greater London Authority and the local business and resident community. There is a great deal of local support for our proposals as their aim is not only to transform the store but to regenerate the West End of Oxford Street. While other retailers are downsizing or have gone completely M&S is proposing the only retailer led renewal project and investment into the area in a generation.

I know there are critics who argue that knocking down a building in the heart of London creates an unnecessary carbon footprint, but we have always been prepared to face this head-on.

We asked leading independent environmental consultants to make a detailed assessment of the carbon impact across the whole lifecycle of the proposed new building. 

They concluded that it offered significant sustainability advantages over a refurbishment because over the long term, the modern lower-carbon building will more than offset any emissions from the redevelopment.

Much like buying an electric car – although there is an initial impact in its manufacture - the long term benefits far outweigh those of a petrol vehicle.

The new building will be amongst the top 10% best performing buildings in London and use less than a quarter of the energy required by the existing buildings, which already exceed the government’s targets for carbon reduction. 

We strongly believe the replacement of the three existing buildings is the right response to the climate emergency, providing a better overall carbon footprint within 17 years and sustainability benefits for the next hundred years beyond.

M&S has been trading in West Oxford Street for over 90 years and, with the support of our colleagues, the local community and Westminster Council, we are confident that what we are proposing means M&S will continue to trade at Marble Arch for the next 90 years and beyond. Without rebuilding the site, the sustainability of our presence in West Oxford Street in its broadest sense is unnecessarily in jeopardy.