A COUNCIL has vowed to do everything it can to keep a department store in a town centre after its owner hinted at store closures.

Darlington Borough Council leader Heather Scott said House of Fraser was a "key part" of the town centre as she insisted the authority will work with the owners of the building and Sports Direct to keep the store open.

The assurance comes after House of Fraser owner Mike Ashley said on Friday he "regretted" rescuing the troubled department store last year, adding its problems were "nothing short of terminal" and "if we had the gift of hindsight we might have made a different decision in August 2018".

A spokesperson for Sports Direct added they would be "continuing to review the longer-term portfolio and would expect the number of retained stores to reduce in the next 12 months."

Insiders are understood to be "in the dark" about Mr Ashley's plans for the Darlington store, but before Friday's announcement, they believed House of Fraser had "no plans" to close despite the initial agreement coming to an end.

Shares in Sports Direct plunged to a new eight-year low yesterday as investors reacted to the farcical scenes on Friday when Mr Ashley's company delayed its results until nearly an hour after the stock market closed.

In early trading, shares dropped by as much as 19 per cent, before recovering to be down nine per cent.

Cllr Heather Scott, leader of Darlington Borough Council, said: “We are very keen to see House of Fraser stay in Darlington – it is a key part of the town centre shopping experience.

"We will do all we can to work with the owners of the building and Sports Direct, to keep House of Fraser in Darlington, so it can be an important part of our new Town Centre Strategy.

"We are aware that the owners of the building have put the property on the market, as is their right as investors.”

Independent retail analyst Nick Bubb said: "The admission that the self-inflicted problems of House of Fraser are probably 'terminal' and that it makes it impossible to provide any earnings growth target this year was unsettling, as was the news that brand relationships with Nike and Adidas have deteriorated again."

Mr Ashley said it would be a “bumpy ride” for House of Fraser in the short term, and compared the business to a broken-down car, with some stores still loss-making despite paying no rent.

Last August, Darlington Borough Council secured a deal with bosses at House of Fraser and the owners of the Binns building on High Row to keep the store open for the next 12 to 18 months.

The owners of the building have since put the site up for sale as a "safety net".

Darlington MP Jenny Chapman said last week it was "deeply concerning" to see the building up for sale, and said it was "critical" the council did everything it could to keep the "anchor" store open.

She added: "It is critical for the future of the town centre - last time the council did everything they could and I urge them to do the same this time.

House of Fraser also has a store in Middlesbrough.