The mall that ate Manchester

Everything about the Trafford Centre is on an epic scale. With three miles of shops, it cost pounds 600m and expects 30 million visitors a year. But it will also devastate thousands of small traders and shops in 27 towns. And the AA is already warning commuters to avoid the area. Forever. Welcome to the pleasure dome
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After 90 years in business Selfridges had decided to open a second store - outside London. Despite the recent success of Harvey Nichols in Leeds city centre, they plumped for a pounds 600m out-of-town shopping mall, the Trafford Centre in Greater Manchester. But so far the launch has not gone quite to plan. All Selfridges needed was an opening party designed to create a splash in the media. A well known local man-about-town - and no stranger to the tabloids - Simply Red's Mick Hucknall, was invited as star guest. In no uncertain terms, he told them to bugger off. This did not provide the kind of headlines Selfridges had had in mind.

Hucknall, it transpires, is no fan of out-of-town shopping: "invariably a planning error". He fears for the future of the city-centre mall - where he has interests in a bar and a hotel. "A city centre is about the buzz of people and great buildings; the Trafford Centre is about the supremacy of Mammon and bad taste," he said.

Speaking from her London office, Selfridges' marketing manager, Nicola Lloyd, declared that she was not responsible for the hiccup. Selfridges had not invited Hucknall to the party in the first place. Somebody was causing mischief, spinning a non-existent story to their own advantage. She asked: if during my travels I happened upon those responsible, could I let her know?

The battle lines have been drawn. In the blue corner, Peel Holdings, multi-million-pound development company, owner of "The Mall". In the red corner, a rag-tag band of small traders from across the North-west, united in fear of bankruptcy. Harsh words are their regular currency. Do not believe the public proclamations of peace. The market economy takes no prisoners. It's time to put up or shut up.

No one really knows how much business The Mall will swipe from surrounding towns when it opens on 10 September. Five-and-a-half million people live within 45 minutes' drive - congestion allowing. The management expect 30 million visitors a year to spend pounds 13bn in its three miles of shops. An impact study commissioned by local towns calculates that the initial "deflection rates" will be as high as 27 per cent for nearby Altrincham and Stockport. Even so-called "boom towns" as far away as Warrington and Wigan will see a fall in business of more than 20 per cent, the report warns. A spokesman for Peel Holdings dismissed the figures. "The Mall will bring in shoppers from as far away as Birmingham and Newcastle, which can only be good news. The Mall and local towns will prosper together."

In any economic climate the spectre of a 27 per cent downturn is devastating. At the moment, on the edge of a possible recession, it's simply unworkable. The small traders have banded together to form a unique consortium covering 27 towns. They've pooled their resources and have a budget of pounds 1.5m to spend on promotion and advertising. This being the Nineties, they've also enlisted the services of a public relations firm.

The campaign has all the hallmarks of the Buy British crusade of the Sixties: sure, go and have a peek, but when you're done gawping, remember your local town centre. Remember that home is where the heart is. Town centres are the life blood of the community. Dependable souls running independent shops, restaurants and pubs are what make Britain what it is.

Cynics laugh. It's a head-to-head affair of David and Goliath proportions - and David, it seems, has misplaced his sling. The Mall specialises in designer names and is aimed at the upper end of the market. Shell suits are not welcomed; this is a place to see and be seen - a place to preen, to show off your Sunday best. The positioning appeals to the North-west's new cosmopolitan air and - more important - to its ever-increasing disposable income. It is so appealing, in fact, that The Mall's value has already increased by pounds 150m - and that's before a single item has been sold.

Inside The Mall there is impressive attention to detail. As I tour the split-level walkways my eye is directed to the "real" gold leaf atop pillars, to the frescos hand-finished by art students, to a two-ton bronze cast of New Orleans jazz musicians "especially commissioned by the Chairman", to the "real" trees and ivy, the marble-finished toilets, the glass central dome "bigger even than St Paul's".

The Mall is certainly flash: big, brash and truly American in its style and dimensions. But no attention to detail will transform it into anything other than a shopping centre. To get waylaid by gold leaf and frescos is to ignore its true genius: the food hall.

News of The Mall's three miles of shops caused open rebellion among husbands and boyfriends within 45 minutes' drive. The prospect of being dragged around by the missus, screaming kids in tow, put the fear of God into their hearts. Bank holidays would never be the same again.

So The Mall is being marketed as an entertainment and leisure Mecca.As well as poaching some of their top staff, Peel Holdings have learnt some invaluable lessons from Sheffield's out-of-town Meadow Hall. To compete for attention they must offer something unique, something that makes the trip worthwhile.

The food hall is a gargantuan tribute to the Las Vegas casino Caesars Palace, where the ceilings of a fantasy Italian piazza turn from dawn to dusk every 20 minutes. While the missus shops till she drops, husbands and boyfriends can sit in the Ye Olde Arms and gaze at 28,000 "stars" twinkling in the "sky".

As well as all the obvious fast-food joints, the food hall boasts "proper" restaurants and bars in different round-the-world themed areas. There's also a 20-screen multiplex cinema, a bowling alley, an pounds 8m indoor sports complex, and a hotel licensed until 3am. The management hope it will draw as many night-time revellers as it does shoppers. How can the surrounding towns possibly compete?

Well, all may not be lost. A gag currently doing the rounds is that the bumper cars in The Mall's leisure centre will be travelling faster than the traffic on the M60 and M63. The AA has already started issuing warnings to commuters and haulage companies: avoid the area like the plague - for ever.

The Mall pre-dates not only the Government's Transport White Paper, but also the last four years of "new" thinking about out-of-town shopping. There was no public transport provision attached to the development, and the expected chaos is not going to establish a loyal customer base - something of which the management are acutely aware. There will be provision for 120 buses a day, they say. But sitting in your car on the motorway is bad enough; sitting on a crowded bus is out of the question. Not even the most hardened shopaholic is going to be happy about wasting valuable leisure time sucking in exhaust fumes - not when they can simply go to town.

Yet Manchester has a burgeoning public transport infrastructure. Though they are hardly a new concept, its trams are the toast of Brussels - which helped to fund them. The are clean, fast, efficient and profitable, and Mancunians love them. So where's the tram to The Mall? Well that depends on whom you ask.

Peel Holdings say that they've put pounds 23m on the table. Raising the remainder of the pounds 69m required for the project will be child's play. Surely any operating company worth their salt can see that it'll be profitable? With six additional stops, it will also revitalise a depressed area. The Passenger Transport Executive is dragging its feet because of a bad case of sour grapes, they add. The Mall has been 14 years in the making. After a severely drawn-out planning enquiry - second only to that of Heathrow's Terminal 5 - the Secretary of State finally approved the project, only to have the opposing local authorities challenge the legal validity of his decision. It went all the way to the House of Lords, and the opposition are still bitter.

Not so, says the Passenger Transport Executive. For starters, there's only pounds 3m already on the table. The other pounds 20m is subject to approval for another Peel Holdings shopping complex. To attempt to turn a judicial matter into a political one is tantamount to corruption. Rochdale and Eccles have been waiting for more than a decade. These lines will add more than pounds 100m to the local economy - public money well spent. If the missing private investment is child's play, where is it?

Given the amount of money it has already made - and is going to make - why can't Peel Holdings stump up? By the way, it owns the land through which the trams will travel, and will make even more money if it opens. The ball's in its court.

Only someone with John Prescott's weight is going to be able to step into this impasse and bang some heads together. In the meantime The Mall is doing the North-west the world of good. It's given councillors, businessmen and town centre managers the kick up the pants that they've deserved for years. It's stopped the bickering and forced 20 years' worth of planning out of the back room and on to the drawing-board.

Revamp or die. With a deadline of 2002, when the region is due to host the Commonwealth Games, new building projects are zipping upwards. Perversely, the IRA bomb that ripped the heart out of Manchester city centre has given the development plans an even stronger focus.

The skyline is dramatically changing, and the Mick Hucknalls of this world are already benefiting from investments in new enterprises.