As the flagship temant pulls out of Chorley’s Market Walk development, doubt has been thrown onto the future of the entire scheme.
Some people think the project should be halted altogther, and others blame the impact of the planned retail park at Cuerden for taking resources away from town centres.
The £12.9m Market Walk development was meant to rejuvente Chorley town centre, but last month fashion retailer TK Maxx pulled out of the scheme and now Marks & Spencer has announced that its planned food hall will now not happen.
Council leader Alistair Bradley said: “I can’t express how annoyed we are by the messing about we’ve had from Marks & Spencer but we are where we are and it throws up an opportunity for us to look again at the proposals and see where we go next.
“It’s incredibly frustrating but the investment that we’ve made is still relevant because we’ve been doing all the preparation work or improvements that would have had to have been made anyway to develop the shopping centre.
“Our understanding is that out of the dozens of new stores Marks & Spencer were due to open only a handful are now being progressed, which shows this is a national concern and not just one relating to Chorley.
“This is in part caused by unprecedented political events we’ve seen in the country this year, which creates a lot of uncertainty in the economy.
“It may be that they will still decide to come to Chorley but while they finish their review we don’t know exactly what their plans are.”
But with no flagship tennants, calls have been made to scrap the sceme altogether.
Coun Alan Cullens, leader of the Conservative group on Chorley Council, said: “We’ve said right from the start it should never have been started in the first place.
“We’ve now got a car park that’s got services – we’ve now got electricity and water to a car park.
“Let’s not go any further, let’s look at the whole scheme of the town centre, let’s look at these markets, let’s make the town look right and welcoming to people.”
He added: “On Tuesday at the corporate strategy meeting, we’re going to present an alternative strategy for the town centre.
“Stop it now – it doesn’t mean there’s not going to be something else, another way of doing it, or improving shopping.
“We’re changing as a town, we’re a commuter town as well. Why not have evening markets?
“The Flat Iron, that’s something that needs to be looked at. Today the Flat Iron is a car park. Does that work? If not, revert back.”
He said the proposed extension was now ‘in a very difficult place’ with just one main tenant, a cinema, signed up.
The council says the extension will go ahead – but there is likely to be a delay in starting the work.
Last month TK Maxx walked away from the scheme, leaving the proposed new building without its two key retailers.
M&S was expected to open a food hall in the extension.
The council said the firm had ‘reconsidered’ its decision after it announced a fall in sales for the first six months of the year,
Coun Cullens said: “Consistently the Conservative Group, for the last two years, has voted against progressing the scheme due to the volatility within the national retail sector.
“Throughout the project we have forced the ruling Labour group to adhere to a contracted percentage occupancy which would have ensured the project’s success. Without our rational approach we could now have ended up with a high cost development with empty retail units.
“Our proposals to improve our town and the excellent markets have consistently been rejected by the ruling Labour administration in favour of the Market Walk scheme which has now seen millions of pounds of tax payers’ money spent with little to show for it.
“We must now fully understand what the current position is with full disclosure of how much has already been spent and what our future commitments are.
“The council owes it to the residents of our borough to give them the full facts and to understand where their hard-earned money has gone.
“We in the group wholeheartedly agree that any decision made by Marks and Spencer is not a reflection on the town of Chorley but part of the changing nature of how people shop.
“Importantly in moving forward we need to ensure we work with local traders, market stall holders and businesses to create a thriving town centre and night time economy whilst considering the changing nature of the retail world. “
Coun Bradley said the council may now have to look at alternative plans - such as moving to a ‘solely leisure-based’ development with the cinema as a focal point”.
He said: “We still have several businesses that we are in discussions so this is a delay rather than the end of the extension plans.
“It’s a chance for us to reconsider the position in light of the national picture and ensure the development is the best it can be for our traders and residents.”
In the meantime the council will be looking to reopen some of the parking spaces that are currently fenced off on the Flat Iron car park.
It is also going to open Woodlands as an additional free park and ride location next week, which will provide more parking spaces in town in the run up to Christmas.