New pounds 320m mall hits snags

PEEL Holdings, the property company, has suffered a huge setback following news that it is struggling to fill its giant shopping centre development outside Manchester. Peel, which also owns Liverpool airport, is spending over pounds 320m on the out-of-town Trafford Centre, which will open its doors to the public in six weeks' time.

The future of the company rests on the success of the 1 million sq ft scheme, which is anchored by Selfridges' first store outside London and is billed as the first of a new generation of mega-malls.

Alan Carter, property analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston, said there would be "adverse reaction" to the news that the centre is not fully let. Peel, whose shares currently trade at pounds 6.50, is the only property company not to have suffered a sharp fall in its share price over the last two months as concerns grow over the danger of recession. Analysts say the high price is based on the expected success of the centre.

Peel's latest centre plans show that 14 key units out of a total of 240 are still available, 29 lettings are still in solicitors' hands and 10 are "under negotiation".

Only last week, Peel issued marketing material claiming that: "All units are either let, in solicitors' hands or under negotiation."

The company has also failed to attract the high-fashion retailers that it claimed would ensure the centre's success, and has cut rents at the scheme by nearly half in a last-ditch effort to let the remaining units. "A year ago they were turning away tenants at pounds 350 Zone A and now they're going back to them at pounds 150 Zone A," said Mr Carter.

After persuading Selfridges to anchor the scheme, Peel had hoped to fill the adjacent shops with high-fashion stores. But five top retailers which Peel says are negotiating to take key units next to Selfridges - DKNY, Woodhouse, Jaeger Man, Russell & Bromley and Hobbs - deny they are taking space.

The centre's managing director, Mike Butterworth, denied that Peel was overstating the amount of interest in the scheme and claimed that the retailers named on the plans would still take the space. "We will get them. If we don't get them in time for the opening we will open with vacant units," he said.

Mr Butterworth said that more lettings have been completed since the plans were sent out two weeks ago. But he conceded that at least 10 will be vacant when the centre opens.