UP TO £3m is to be set aside by council leaders to speed up the expansion of Didcot’s Orchard shopping centre.

Dozens of new shops, town centre houses and an extension to Sainsbury’s, announced in 2011, were meant to be finished this year.

But the downturn in the economy put the plans on hold and developer Hammerson has not yet submitted a planning application.

Now, Ann Ducker, leader of South Oxfordshire District Council, says between £2m and £3m of capital funding will be set aside to help speed up the extension to the shopping centre, which opened in 2005.

She said: “The delay with phase two of the Orchard Centre has been very frustrating but council officers are maintaining a dialogue with Hammerson all the time.

“In next month’s budget meeting we plan to include £2m to £3m of capital funding and hope this will be a way of encouraging and reassuring the developers that we are committed to this scheme.

“This is what other councils do when they are regenerating sites. We can’t say yet precisely what the money would be spent on.”

The £50m first phase of the Orchard Centre included the Cornerstone Arts Centre, Cineworld cinema, and dozens of new shops.

Mrs Ducker added: “The economy is improving and I think the climate is now right for a planning application to be submitted. I hope that will happen before the end of 2014.”

Some of the capital funding could be used to help with the relocation of firms from Lower Broadway, where the shopping centre extension will be built.

Didcot Chamber of Commerce member Jeanette Howse said: “The economy is picking up and the Orchard Centre is doing well.

“Hopefully a planning application for phase two will happen soon.”

No one from Hammerson was available for comment.