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Retail parks stage their final drama

THE curtain goes up this week on one of the last acts in Britain's long-running, out-of-town shopping saga. The doors are opening at a pounds 200m complex on the fringe of deepest Cheshire - one of the biggest in recent years.

The ambitious edge-of-town development, which will create almost 2,000 new jobs, is likely to be one of the last of its kind. Planning permission for greenfield sites is increasingly difficult to win for environmental reasons, while the Government's road- building programme is, in effect, on ice.

Supermarket chains Marks and Spencer and Tesco, and home furnisher Allders have spent a total of pounds 75m on a shared site at Handforth, near affluent Wilmslow.

In a similar project just over a mile away in prosperous Cheadle, J Sainsbury has teamed up with the privately owned John Lewis, owner of the Waitrose food halls, in an estimated pounds 45m joint venture.

All the stores are situated next to the new A34 Handforth by-pass, which is also scheduled to open on Wednesday. The retailers contributed pounds 36m to the pounds 87m cost of building the road.

The level of co-operation does not end there. "We are complementary," says a spokeswoman for Sainsbury. "John Lewis is not selling food and we are not selling clothes." While Sainsbury will also sell petrol around the clock, the adjoining John Lewis department store is offering customers half a million lines to choose from - the widest range of goods and services of any shop outside London.

Although the bypass development is not in itself unique - M&S has five similar joint ventures in the south - the retailers have here tapped into a catchment area that is unashamedly upmarket. Dubbed the Knightsbridge of the north, Wilmslow even had the audacity to launch its own local credit card in the early 1980s - the first of its kind in the country. However, the scheme failed to catch on and was withdrawn after a couple of years.

But even Wilmslow's rude wealth looks rather wan when compared with the nearby village of Prestbury, which boasts more millionaires per square mile than any other place in Britain. Residents include Eric Cantona, Alex Higgins, Mike Yarwood and, no doubt, some of the latest lottery winners.

Retailers serving these leafy suburbs welcome the superstores' arrival because of the extra business they should bring to the area. "We are working with the new edge-of-town stores in order to create complementary speciality shopping," says Sue Bevan of the Wilmslow Business Group.

The development's effect on town-centre stores is likely to be less beneficial, especially after the recent law lords decision to overturn a court of appeal decision and give the go-ahead to a pounds 200m shopping complex on a 300-acre greenfield site at Dumplington, just off the M63 west of Manchester.