x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Trinity of hope, faith and confidence

Land Securities will not say anything about its latest shopping centre's first month of trading until it has published its annual results next Wednesday.

Land Securities will not say anything about its latest shopping centre's first month of trading until it has published its annual results next Wednesday.

However, the buzz around the development, the only sizeable new shopping centre to open in the United Kingdom for more than a year, has been considerable.

And Trinity Leeds appears to embody all the trends that are influencing shopping centre design in the UK, one of the most mature markets in the world for malls.

A fifth of the space is taken up with restaurants and cafes, there's an art-house cinema opening, the centre has free Wi-Fi so you can browse online or use Google's Shopper app as you shop and it is brimming with international brands, both British and American.

Far from being positioned in a greenfield site, the £378 million (Dh2.15bn) "centre" is actually a redevelopment of an existing downtown area. Its name comes from the adjacent Holy Trinity church.

It opened with 90 per cent of its units let and a further 5 per cent under consideration. Its success, its owners say, is that it offers space of a quality and style that has not yet been available in Leeds.

Victoria's Secret, a US lingerie retailer, will open its first UK store outside London in one of the huge new double-height units.

"Victoria's Secret wouldn't have come without those units. But we are not reinventing a city that had problems here, we are making a strong city even stronger," says Ashley Blake, the director of retail portfolio management. Land Securities notes that increasingly retailers want to go where there is proven success. One of Land's next proposed redevelopments is likely to be in the university town of Oxford, in central England, which has poor shopping facilities for a city full of students, tourists, international visitors and a large middle-class population.

"Lots of retailers want to be there but there isn't space for them to expand. Land Securities and the other big shopping centre developers don't bother with struggling high streets or towns in decline. That is because most successful retailers focus on strong locations with dense populations," Mr Blake says.

"We are seeing people looking to redevelop and reinvest in strong locations, rather than in weaker locations."

And they can only do that if the retailers sign up to schemes in advance, sometimes three to four years before opening.

"If you can't pre-let a new shopping centre, the risk you are taking on is enormous. We didn't start work on Trinity until it hit 40 per cent pre-let but you can only do that in good locations. In poor locations no one can take the risk that it will only be part-empty."

Neither Land Securities, nor Hammerson, nor rivals Westfield will touch what Mr Blake calls "the stuff in the middle" - the middle-ranking centres and high streets.

"That's where the market needs the smaller developers but at the moment they haven't got the funding."

And when the cycle recovers?

"We mustn't make the mistake of the 1980s where we just bunged more shopping centres into smaller towns.

"These towns, like Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire and Bury, outside Manchester, are really suffering now," says Mr Blake.