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Wednesday, March 10, 1999 Published at 20:56 GMT


Shopping showdown

Bluewater took three years to build

The largest shopping centre in Britain opens on Tuesday 16 March - just 10 minutes away from a rival complex.

The Bluewater retail park, near Dartford in Kent, claims to be the largest shopping and leisure centre in Europe - bigger than the nearby Lakeside Centre in Thurrock, Essex.

The BBC's George Eykyn: "It's a staggeringly large development"
Stretching across more than 240 acres, Bluewater took £300m and three years to build.

It contains three malls, which will offer more than 320 stores and nearly 40 bars and restaurants.

[ image: The design is based on the oast-houses of Kent]
The design is based on the oast-houses of Kent
There are 13,000 car spaces, and many millions of pounds have been spent improving roads in the nearby area.

It is designed to attract 30 million shoppers a year from all over the south-east.

In particular, Bluewater's managers want to compete with the West End of London.

Last development

Bluewater will have an aspirational slant. It will contain not only John Lewis, House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer, but also other upmarket outlets such as Japanese homestore Muji, the King's Road footwear shop LK Bennett, and cosmetics outlet Space NK.

Bluewater's "guests" - as it calls its customers - will be able to eat in a five-star restaurant operated by Hediard, the Paris equivalent of Fortnum and Mason.

Bluewater will be the last major out-of-town shopping centre in England - one or two more are still expected in Scotland.

Some out-of-town developments are still in the pipeline - proposed before the government changed the rules - but may never be built.

[ image: An example of urban regeneration or one centre too far?]
An example of urban regeneration or one centre too far?
Despite environmentalists' and town centre traders' objections, the developers say the complex - built on a disused quarry - is an example of urban regeneration.

"This is a completely different kind of development," said Bluewater Project Manager Kate Meyrick. "We have thriving houses here.

Kate Meyrick tells the BBC's George Eykyn about the benefits of Bluewater
"It's a destination for people in the local area and an employment point.

"The international railway station will be no more than 5km from here, and a new housing and community will complement the regeneration programme," she said.

'Hell on earth'

But John Alexander, of the Keep Sunday Special Campaign, said the place would be "hell on earth".

John Alexander: "This little part of England could be hell on Earth"
"This particular spot, where Lakeside is only 15 minutes away, is going to be like Twickenham or Wembley on international day," he said.

Lakeside is relaxed about the new competition. It says that the Dartford river crossing, with its £1 toll, will act as a pyschological barrier to protect Lakeside's catchment area north of the Thames.

In the longer term, the 13 million people living within a one-hour drive of both centres should ensure that neither becomes like the "ghost malls" seen when neighbouring rivals slug it out in the United States.

Green-belt restrictions prevent development along much of the rest of the M25 corridor, so if local shoppers do not want to trek into London, they will have to choose between one of the two malls.

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