Development bosses at Sunderland City Council have outlined previous efforts to try and keep Marks & Spencer in the city centre, following news of its impending closure.

The retail giant has been pulling out of town and city centres in recent years and has now confirmed it is proposing to close its branch in Sunderland city centre.

It comes as the firm works to open a new 47,000 sq ft store at the Galleries Retail Park in Washington.

Bosses at M&S said the High Street West store would remain trading until the new Washington store was ready to open, with a previous announcement stating this was expected in Spring 2024.

At a meeting of Sunderland City Council’s cabinet of senior councillors this week, questions were raised about whether anything could be done to keep M&S in the city centre.

Peter McIntyre, the council’s executive director of city development, confirmed the council had been “in conversation” with M&S for the last five years about its Sunderland branch.

Despite support and the offer of several alternative city centre premises, councillors heard that none of the buildings fit the company’s “criteria”.

“We have been in conversation with M&S now for about five years on the city centre property,” Mr McIntyre told councillors.

“As everyone will have seen in the press, I think there’s been a structural change in how retail performs in city centres and an ongoing change in the business model by M&S which has finally got them back into the FTSE 100.

“Their specifications for new stores are very unlike the store that we have in Sunderland.

“Although they have hung on and hung on for a number of years trading that store, they did that mainly until they could get their new investment in Washington away.

“All members of staff in the [Sunderland] store will be offered places in that new store in Washington.

“They’re not against investing in Sunderland but we have tried offering up several sites in the city centre, none of which could fit their criteria”.

The comments were made at a meeting of Sunderland City Council’s cabinet at City Hall on January 18, 2024, the morning after the M&S closure announcement.

Mr McIntyre was responding to a question from councillor Paul Edgeworth, leader of the council’s opposition Liberal Democrat Group.

Cllr Edgeworth said the M&S closure news was a “bitter blow” to the city council’s ambition of “creating a stronger city centre”.

He told the meeting: “So many residents you speak to say they only come to town for the M&S and I think that is going to have a big knock-on effect on the viability of the city centre.

“Once it goes, and if you look at places like South Shields, that’s what happens there when the big anchor store has gone.

“So given that scrutiny committees were told recently that the council owns most of that part of High Street West and is looking to compulsory purchase some of the rest of the buildings, I just wondered if there is anything the council could do to try and convince M&S to stay and try and avoid some of that damage to the city centre.

“It seems like we’re happily offering help for new hospitality and leisure businesses to come to the city centre and that’s great.

“But if we own that particular stretch, why can’t we do something to save M&S because it will be much harder to try and get them back once they’re gone.”

Council officer Peter McIntyre said Sunderland City Council has supported and continues to support M&S to “keep the business in Sunderland”.

However, he told councillors the retail chain “would not be staying in the city centre”.

Mr Mcintyre added: “We’re currently working with them to look at if there are other places in the city where they would like to invest.

“The conversations with M&S are ongoing, but they have been very clear that the store in the city centre doesn’t fit with their future business profile.

“We have offered lots of support and continue to offer lots of support to keep the business in Sunderland but they won’t be staying in the city centre.”

In yesterday’s announcement, Philip Barker-Thomson, M&S regional manager, outlined the reasons for the M&S closure at High Street West, including “changing shopping habits”.

He said: “We appreciate that this will be disappointing news for some.

“Rotating our store estate involves closing some stores, but it also means investing in opening new stores, including our upcoming new, bigger M&S store nearby in the Galleries Retail Park in Washington.

“The new 47,000 sq ft store is part of a £13million investment by M&S in our stores in the North East and will offer local customers a wider range of M&S products than ever before across a new clothing & home department and a bigger foodhall.

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“Our priority now is to talk to our colleagues about what this announcement means for them.

“Should the proposals go ahead, we will offer them alternative roles with M&S wherever possible and there will be lots of roles available for colleagues in our new M&S Washington Galleries store.

“Under these proposals, the Sunderland store will also continue trading until the new Washington Galleries store is ready to open.”