A NEW national retail index of shopping centres has confirmed Newcastle's position as the top retail destination in the region.

The city remains the 19th top retail destination in the country, with no change in its position from 2001.

Sunderland has seen the most dramatic rise up the Experian "Top of the Shops" rankings, up 23 positions to 54 from 77 last year.

That rise was boosted by the success of The Bridges shopping centre, which, according to figures for the last quarter of 2001, saw 500,000 people do their shopping there every week.

A £40m extension, which opened in September 2000, brought the number of units there to more than 100, including a flagship Debenhams, Gap and H&M. It now totals 515,000sq ft, with 960 car parking spaces.

The Bridges manager, Phil Steele said: "The Retail Ranking Index shows how strong Sunderland is as a retail destination and builds on a very successful Christmas for traders in the town centre and a corresponding increase in footfall.

"The coming year is full of opportunities for the city with the arrival of Metro Rail in April, and we expect to see Sunderland's position continue to strengthen over the next 12 months."

Meanwhile, the Gates-head MetroCentre rose two places from 42nd in 2001 to 40th this year.

Regional shopping centres dropping down the table included Middlesbrough, down 12, from 36th in 2001 to 48th this year.

York also suffered, falling from 16th place to 22nd.

Experian gave every retail location in the UK a "vitality" index score, based on a number of performance indicators, such as size of the centre, floorspace, the number of major multiple retailers and the number of quality retailers.

Topping the shopping experience national league table was London's West End, followed by Glasgow, Leeds, Nottingham and Chester.

Experian's retail ranking is produced in collaboration with the British Council of Shopping Centres.