New London Architecture

Five Minutes With... Fred Pilbrow

Monday 21 August 2023

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Fred Pilbrow

Senior Founding Partner
Pilbrow & Partners

David Taylor catches up with Fred Pilbrow in the aftermath of Michael Gove’s M&S decision, to chew over the finer detail for the ‘gas guzzler’ building’s alternative – and hear that the saga may not all be over, just yet.

David Taylor  
Hi, Fred. How are you? 
 
Fred Pilbrow  
David, I'm well, and thanks for the invitation to partake in your five minutes with...!
 
David Taylor  
Well, thank you for agreeing to! I thought we could usefully just chat about M&S. We're in the aftermath of the decision - perhaps you could just bring us up to speed about where we are now with the whole saga?
 
Fred Pilbrow  
Well, we got the Secretary of State Michael Gove's decision at the beginning of August, and for me, it was both disappointing and concerning. Disappointing because we've worked hard for over four years to find a viable route for M&S to retain a presence on Oxford Street, and to address a site that today has profound public realm shortcomings. Concerning, because we've gone through three planning hurdles, we secured support from Westminster as a local authority; that was support that was ratified by the London mayor, and we learned when Mr. Gove published his decision that the Inspector, a senior and experienced Inspector, had also supported our scheme. So, we've passed three tests, only to have Michael Gove come to a different view. The process is, as it is; I think M&S are carefully considering their position and next steps. But at a personal level, I'm concerned that an inspector who was in the room, and who heard all the evidence, carefully weighed it, and carefully adjudged it, that that his conclusions were overruled by someone who wasn't in the room and didn't have the benefit of that detailed cross-examination. And I guess more broadly, if there's to be a public inquiry with all the cost and expense and delay that that incurs, it seems to me of pretty grave concern that the Inspector's conclusions can simply be set aside. So that leaves me concerned with a planning process that seems broken. And I feel Oxford Street can ill afford the uncertainty and further delay that will be occasioned by Gove's decision. M&S have been clear. If they can't renew their store, they will close it and they will leave, and Oxford Street, which is in dire trouble, I think can't afford that. 
 
David Taylor
So: two immediate questions from that. Firstly, what do you think Gove was thinking here? I mean, Stuart Machin, the CEO of M&S, called it a short-sighted act of self-sabotage, and he called it a chilling decision. Other people have suggested it was a political decision. What was the message do you think Gove was trying to put out there by this decision? And secondly, what is your gut feeling about what will happen next on Oxford Street?
Fred Pilbrow
I think the inquiry engaged two areas of principle debate: Heritage and Sustainability. Now, on heritage, Gove came to the view that one of the three buildings on the site, Orchard House made a very significant positive contribution to the setting of Selfridges and to surrounding conservation areas. And he felt that the public benefits that would accrue from the development proposals didn't outweigh that harm. That's very different from the inspector's view. And I guess if you look objectively, we have an unlisted building, outside a conservation area. SAVE, who were our opponents at the inquiry, sought to get the building listed and Historic England said no. There have been numerous reviews of conservation area boundaries; conservation areas surround the site from three sides, and at no time have the buildings been included. And I think that gives you in my view, an objective measure of the heritage value of Orchard House. And of course, I believe it's important that it's also weighed in the context of two absolutely dire neighbouring buildings. And all three of them have a very negative effect on the quality of the public realm. If you go round, the site and the back of the site, you're in a low, dark undercroft on Orchard Street and you're in a service dominated environment at the back of the site. And it's unacceptable in the context of the centre of London. So, I think the quality of Orchard House is given weight by Gove that certainly isn't evident in the heritage designation of the building. I think it's also worth adding that whatever the building's original design, merit - and opinions are divided on that - what is unquestioned is the degree of change and alteration. Nothing of the interior of the building, except one staircase, which SAVE themselves suggested would be removed. The base of the building has all been scraped away when they did the road widening in the 70s; all the decorative carving with one exception has been removed, a decorative balcony has been removed.

So, there's very little of the original building that survived unaltered. But nevertheless, Gove attached a very high level of significance to that. And I guess if you ask the question, what does this decision mean I suppose one has to say it must reset the heritage framework. That if something which is unlisted and unlistable, and outside a conservation area can be accorded that degree of weight, then yeah, presumably, it will inform other decisions. Now, the other and I think more important consequence is the discussion around sustainability. And I think we've always taken the view, retrofit first, but not retrofit only. And our experience, doing some great projects like the Kensington building, and I took the Inspector around the Kensington Building, which just won the BCO retrofit of the year for the project. And I said that we love retrofitting buildings, and we're good at it. But you do need to be mindful of the quality of the building that you start with. And in Marble Arch, we start with three buildings; each of them is compromised in terms of their column layouts and their floor to ceiling heights and their core positions. But there are also problems that get worse in aggregate; when you put the three misaligned grids together, they feel even more chaotic, and you only have to go into the existing store to see the poor quality of this space. So: three separate buildings, each of which are problematic, do not lend themselves, in our view, to successful refurbishment. Well, at the inquiry SAVE tabled their proposal, Simon Sturgis said this is what we would do. And what Simon suggested was remove all of the nine cores and remove much of the structure. And in my experience, having done the Kensington building, that's many things, but low carbon, it is not. So, the Kensington Building is around 700 kilograms of carbon. And there I think we removed 11% of the structure. So, I'm very sceptical that SAVE scheme, which removes 26% of the structure would be lower than that. And that, for me, rather simplistic view, that retrofit is always going to be lower carbon, than new build - and by the way, the new build at Marble Arch is 651 kilograms of carbon. I think that doesn't hold good.

Now, what I said at the inquiry was, we've gone through a process on the EDGE building, which we're on site with, at London Bridge, and we reduce the embodied carbon, from the stage 2 design to the stage 4, the construction design, and we reduced it by 20%. And we've done that by working with the industry – working with, for example, in that case, its Base who are our main contractors. And we've said we will target a similar reduction on Marble Arch. And I think that there is ample scope for us to get to, or exceed, that 20% reduction. So, my personal view, David, is that we are highly likely to be delivering a lower carbon outcome, lower embodied carbon outcome with the new build, than certainly with the sort of retrofit that Mr. Sturgis was urging. And of course, the problem with the Sturgis scheme is it leaves unaddressed all of the fundamental problems of the existing buildings. So: it doesn't sort out the floor levels. It doesn't sort out the structural grid. It doesn't sort out the public realm. It doesn't get rid of, for example, the arcade along Orchard Street that is so poor for pedestrians today. So, it leaves unaddressed this problem. And in the view of the consultants who gave evidence at the inquiry, it's not likely to be viable because if the quality of space is so poor, and yet the cost to deliver it so high, broadly speaking, you'll be left with the existing building. Now, someone might say: "Well, hey, but that's the best outcome of all, you know, the best building is the one you don't build". Well, all I can say is the operational carbon of the existing buildings is three times that of the new building. So, it's an absolute gas guzzler. And having it sitting there, if it's occupied is to have something that is woefully under-fulfilling the potential of the site and, you know, bad for Oxford Street. It's more candy stores. It's more dereliction. It's more decay.  Well, I agree with Stuart Machin.  I think it's a chilling decision, and it’ll have a chilling effect on Oxford Street.
 
David Taylor  
Yeah - he said, ‘towns and cities up and down the country will feel the full effects of this chilling decision with decaying buildings and brownfield sites now destined to remain empty as developers retreat, which is quite a sort of drastic picture’. Do you think the ramifications will be that strong across London and across the rest of the UK?
 
Fred Pilbrow  
I don't know whether the decision will be challenged. Obviously from a personal level, I very much hope it will be. I personally believe that for us to get to net zero, the foundation of that is compact, efficiency, it is well served by public transport. And that takes us all the way back to you know, Richard Rogers, and his Cities for a Small Planet. I mean, we've got to live where we have great public transport. Well, I'm sorry, this site is sitting right on top of the Elizabeth Line, I didn't want the embodied carbon to create the Elizabeth Line was, but we must make full use of the site. You know, and this is unusual. I think 78% of Westminster is conservation area so there aren't that many sites that you can, you know, properly intensify in the way that we've proposed. And it's important to know on that, David, that the massing of the building was suggested to us by Westminster. So, they gave us an envelope, and they said, design within that envelope, which we've done. So, we're making proper use of a well-connected site. It's about 61,000 square meters. And to give you some sense of the shortfall, Mr. Sturgis' scheme, which extends the buildings to the maximum that the structure will allow, delivers only three quarters of that figure. So that's probably 1400 jobs that you don't deliver. Because you say I want to do a retrofit. That's profound. I mean, where do those 1400 jobs go? Certainly, if there in a less well-located position, they're going to be associated with very high transportation carbon consequences.
 
David Taylor  
One last question. How has it been for you, personally, this whole experience and process? Do you feel as if you've been sort of cast as the bad guy here? And how easy or difficult has it been to get your points across in this noise?
 
Fred Pilbrow  
Look, I think if this project is a provocation to better, that's to say more rigorous and clearer analysis, then it will have served a function. I think what we're coming out of is an initial rather naive or simplistic view - retrofit always good, new build always bad. I think we're going to get beyond that. And I think there will be a demand. If you look, for example, at the Corporation of London, they commissioned Hilson Moran to give guidance on how they want to assess different development options. And they say, and it's a format we now use, show us the alternatives. What's a light refurbishment? What's the heavy cut and carve? What's a new build? And show us the consequences in terms of embodied carbon, in terms of operational carbon, in terms of whole life carbon, and also assess the quality of the product you're delivering. Because if in the end, the space is highly compromised, it won't let, and it won't be viable to deliver. So, I hope a consequence of this debate will be that we move to that environment where things are tested rigorously.
 
David Taylor  
And do you think this one is not over yet?
 
Fred Pilbrow  
I hope it's not over yet. But that's a decision that lies with M&S. I mean, I think you'll be aware that Mr. Gove made a decision against another inspector's recommendation on a housing project that Berkeley are doing down in Kent. Berkeley have challenged on that. And interestingly, Mr. Gove has sought to JR his own decision. Well, um (laughs), I think it's a ‘watch this space’, David, bluntly.
 
David Taylor  
Well, I know you're not the bad guy. So good luck with it and all your other work, and thanks for talking to me about this difficult subject.
 
Fred Pilbrow  
That's an absolute pleasure. Thank you very much for the opportunity. 
 
David Taylor  
No worries, see you soon. Bye


David Taylor

Editor, NLQ and New London Weekly

Fred Pilbrow

Senior Founding Partner
Pilbrow & Partners



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