Fashion powerhouse Next is jumping ship to Friars Square, casting doubt on whether Hale Leys can keep up with its shopping centre rival.
The new two-storey anchor store will open its doors in the spring and the vacant unit at Hale Leys will be filled by Choice – a discount fashion retailer, partly owned by Next.
The announcement follows River Island’s similar move to the Friars Square centre, which has enjoyed a renaissance in the last couple of years with the opening of the likes of H&M, Office, Topshop, Metro Bank, The Entertainer and Rush Fitness gym.
Lib Dem leader at Aylesbury Vale District Council, Steven Lambert, thinks ‘tired’ Hale Leys - owned by AVDC and Aylesbury Vale Estates - is nothing more than a walkway.
He said: “Nobody really goes there. They just use it as a walkway. And the hike in parking charges is ridiculous. It’s stifling investment.
“Aylesbury doesn’t have much to offer anymore. We are fleecing shoppers – it’s not on.
“It suggests there is something wrong with the business model for Hale Leys, that it is being marketed wrong or being managed wrong.”
However, Graham Cole, chairman of Aylesbury Vale Estates, said his centre – which is still home to the likes of Boots, The Works bookshop, Poundworld, Clarks, BrightHouse and Toys UK, remains ‘by far the busiest retail pitch’ in town with a footfall of ‘four million a year’.
He described Friars Square as a ‘bunching together of mid-market fashion shops’.
He said: “The ease of parking and the pivotal location between High Street and Market Square assist in maintaining the usefulness of Hale Leys.
“Next were attracted to Friars Square as they wanted to be closer to their direct competitors.
“The owners of Friars Square (Rockspring) assembled a very attractive financial package to Next to assist in their move.”
AVDC leader Neil Blake wants to make sure Hale Leys shoppers get the stores they want.
He said: “It’s not just a question of filling the shops. We have to bear in mind what people want.
“The latest market research called for smaller, specialist shops. If we can encourage that, it would give people more reasons to come to Aylesbury.
“We are always looking at ways to improve the town and Hale Leys will feature in that.
“Hale Leys is a very important link between the Waterside area and the High Street. It’s a natural walkway.”
Andy Margieson, manager of Friars Sqaure, thinks the renaissance of his centre will benefit Hale Leys.
He said: “People think it’s just poaching from Peter to pay Paul but Next were approaching the end of their lease and were looking to move out of town.
“What’s good for one is good for the footfall of the town. Hale Leys will benefit if the right deals come up.
“It’s not like we are competing centres.
“It was just about keeping Next in the town and at the end of the day, Friars Square is a business.
“It has to look after itself.”
Aylesbury Vale Estates (AVE), a joint venture company set up by Aylesbury Vale District Council (AVDC) and a consortium of investors co-ordinated by Guildhouse UK, bought Hale Leys in 2012.
At the time a council spokesman said it was spending £4 million on the deal through a loan.
A joint statement by AVE and AVDC said, released in September 2012, said: ‘AVE, with significant financial backing from AVDC, has purchased the freehold of the 95,000 sq ft centre, which occupies a key location in the heart of the town centre linking Market Square to the High Street, opposite Marks & Spencer, from Warner Estate. The 20-shop centre is home to large Boots and Next stores as well as a range of other retailers.
“AVE’s acquisition of Hale Leys marks the start of a new era for the centre with refurbishment and redecoration planned as well as improvements to the tenant mix. The key location of Hale Leys – adjacent to the major development site on the north side of Exchange Street – means that it has a vital role to play in redeveloping the town centre.
“The AVDC’s on-going programme of work will ensure that town’s whole offer, including the existing Friars Square shopping centre and the new Aylesbury Waterside Theatre, works together to make Aylesbury a destination of choice across the catchment.”