PLANS for a major shopping development are now “in doubt,” according to a Didcot councillor.

Department store Debenhams pulled out of talks to become the anchor store for a £125m redevelopment of Didcot’s Orchard shopping centre.

But South Oxfordshire District Council has not yet given up hope of attracting an anchor store for the major revamp, which was first announced in 2011.

Phase two was first expected to open in 2014, but centre owner Hammerson delayed the start because of the economic downturn.

Traders have been waiting for a planning application to be submitted to SODC for the extension, which would create dozens of new shops, town centre houses, and an extension to Sainsbury’s.

The scheme, which could create hundreds of new jobs, has been repeatedly delayed, and the council is now working for a viable alternative, in case the revamp cannot go ahead as first planned.

Gavin Walton, spokesman for South Oxfordshire District Council, said the council remained in negotiations regarding an anchor store, and added that Marks and Spencer was “still working with the council”.

He said: “We are not looking to Debenhams to anchor the development, but they may well take a smaller store.

“Given the lengthy negotiations regarding the anchor store the council is working up an alternative, viable scheme and will have this ready as a potential backstop which would allow us to submit a planning application in early 2015.”

Town councillor Margaret Davies said: “Now that SODC has issued this statement you have to say Orchard Centre phase two is really in doubt, and there’s a threat of it not happening.

“We all appreciate the need for commercial confidentiality, but the public wants to know what is happening and this has dragged on for far too long.

“Even if the scheme does go ahead in some shape the shops would not open until about 2018 which is a shame because Didcot’s a growth town.”

Mrs Davies urged SODC leaders to keep talking to major retailers to encourage them to come to Didcot.

She added: “The district council says it is now working up an alternative scheme, but it needs to come up with some real options.

“Parts of Lower Broadway are looking quite derelict and that won’t change while the uncertainty continues.”

Glyn Hall, vice-president of Didcot Chamber of Commerce, said: “The Orchard Centre as it stands works well.

“Didcot would welcome M&S but we have to make sure the town could cope with the extra traffic this would generate.”

Earlier this year it emerged that SODC was setting aside more capital funding in preparation for the revamp going ahead.

SODC said it would invest £4.8m in 2016/17 and £700,000 in 2017/18 to support it.

And to help regenerate Didcot town centre, £3.2m could be spent in 2016/17 and £700,000 in 2017/18.

Funding for the Orchard Centre and town centre redevelopment would depend on receipt of the New Homes Bonus, money local authorities receive from the Government when new homes are built.

The £50m first phase of the Orchard Centre opened in 2005, including the Cornerstone Arts Centre, Cineworld cinema, and dozens of new shops.

Nick Jones, a spokesman for GL Hearn, acting on behalf of Hammerson, said Hammerson would not comment.

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