The battle begins to take the boredom out of Bracknell

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The Independent Online
It's grey, it's concrete and has a reputation for being soulless and dull. Yet the Berkshire town of Bracknell is the unlikely setting for a battle over who will build Britain's first big town centre shopping development since the tide turned against out-of-town superstores.

Covering more than 1 million square feet, the pounds 300m Bracknell mall will be one of the UK's largest shopping developments in one of the wealthiest regions of the country. More importantly, it is the biggest sign so far of a switch away from out-of-town developments which destroy city centre shops and threaten the Green Belt, which the Government has tried to halt.

The development is eagerly awaited by local people in the Berkshire new town, who have seen their purpose-built shopping centre decline as custom has moved to adjoining towns such as Reading.

Two rival investors submitted plans to redevelop the centre of Bracknell earlier this year, but when Allied London Properties realised the scale of Legal & General's scheme, it tried to go one better by unveiling a revised scheme.

Bracknell cannot support both schemes and at the moment Bracknell council is running with the L&G one. Allied General, which paid pounds 32m for the existing 300,000 sq ft Princess Square shopping centre in June, is on the offensive.

The locals do not care who builds the complex; all they know is that they want it soon, before the town "dies". "There are no big stores, no nothing," grumbled Alan Rolph, 38, a self-employed cleaner who has four children. "We need something or the town is going to die. There's nothing to bring people into it. If you want anything, you go to Reading or Slough. There's no C&A, no Marks and Sparks, no BHS. If you want to go round to shops for kids' clothes you're limited. Bentalls [the only department store] is expensive and you've got no choice."

Margaret Boucher, 59, tossed 2p into the grey-tiled wishing well in Princess Square. "I'm just wishing for general happiness," she said. "There's not much to be joyful about for people round here. If they got more shops - some decent shops - somewhere joyful, happy and light, it might just put a smile on their faces. It makes the chore of shopping a little easier.

"You couldn't do your Christmas shopping in Bracknell. It's shabby. Go to Milton Keynes and places like that and they've got wonderful shopping areas. There are a lot of people round here and they deserve something better."

At a glance, Bracknell doesn't look too badly off. It has its fair share of "All Enquiries: Strutt and Parker" posters slapped on boarded-up shops, but it also has its Topshop, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Boots and Principles. There's a WH Smith, Dixons, Sainsbury, Sketchley and Clarks.

The 100,000 residents would rather shop anywhere than Bracknell. Their biggest grumble is that there is only one department store in the town.

Gary Lovett, 29, a barman, shops there by necessity. He can't afford a car to go to nearby Camberley. "We need a Marks and Spencers in town," he said. "And it would be nice to have a Tesco's as well as a Sainsbury's because they are both fighting to get the better deals so you could go from one to the other."

Two New Zealanders had a different perspective. "Hanging around shopping malls is insane," remarked Colin Usherwood, 25, who has been working in the town for the past year. "What this place needs is night life. There's only one night club - Apres - and it's not even in Bracknell, it's in Binfield. There are no fast-food joints. Where the hell's the Kentucky Fried Chicken?"

His friend, Scotty Plummer, 25, agreed. "It's got no character," he said. "Bracknell should either be modernised or historic. It's neither. At the moment it's a grey area in between."

The council will consider Allied London's proposals this time next year. "Allied London felt that the L&G proposal was so big that it would affect their existing investment in town," explained Keith Watson, Bracknell Forest Borough Council's chief valuer. "In an ideal world we would like to get the two parties together and come up with a comprehensive plan."

But there is little chance of that; both parties are determined to jazz up the town single-handed. "Ours is more than a shopping mall," rejoined Michael Ingall, Allied London's property director. "L&G's retail is the same size as ours, but as far as I know they are not proposing the other uses. We'll have a theatre, a hotel, a multi-screen cinema and branded restaurants."

Mr Ingall claims that Allied London's development will be finished sooner than L&G's. "It is difficult to see how they (L&G) can open their shopping centre before 2008. We could be ready within three years."

Stephen Mundy, L&G's property director, said Allied London's plans to expand Princess Square were not a real threat. "We're not particularly worried about it. Leading experts have said that obviously our scheme should go forward," he said.

Some interesting Bracknell facts

1 The Met Office is in Bracknell.

2 Bracknell was a hunting ground for kings and queens living in Windsor Castle. It has 2,600 acres of woodland which is part of Windsor Forest.

3 Alexander Pope, the poet, lived in Bracknell.

4 Bricks for 10 Downing Street were made in Bracknell.

5 Bracknell's biggest tourist attraction is Coral Reef, an indoor leisure pool visited by 400,000 people each year.

6 Lady Bracknell has nothing to do with Bracknell. 7 The headquarters of Waitrose is in Bracknell.

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