AFTER months of speculation and despite a petition signed by 6,000 people urging them to stay in a town centre, Marks & Spencer will move to an out-of-town complex by the end of the year.

The firm has confirmed it will leave Bishop Auckland Town Centre and open a Simply Food Store, incoporating a 50-seater cafe, at St Helen Auckland.

It is a blow to campaigners in the town centre, who fear the effect the shop’s closure will have after 80 years trading, although a spokeswoman for the chain said no jobs would be lost.

The store has applied for planning permission to erect signs on one of eight units being built by Metric Properties.

A spokesman for M&S said the Newgate Street store will remain open until the new shop is completed, which is expected to be in November.

Sam Zair, county councillor for the town centre, said: “It is terrible news and what we feared – we do not want another empty shop in the town centre.

“Marks & Spencer has served the community well, but they must realise that the community has done the same for them.”

Boots, which next month will celebrate its 100th anniversary of trading in the town centre, has also asked for permission to open in one of the new units, although a spokeswoman said the town centre store would remain as well.

Costa Coffee has received permission to erect signs outside one of the two smaller units at the front of the site.

Pets At Home has also submitted an application to Durham County Council and its plan shows units occupied by shops including Next, Brantano, JD Sports and Carphone Warehouse.

Mark Stirling, retail director for Metric, confirmed the plan, but said the latter two shops are not yet finalised.

Rob Yorke, county councillor for West Auckland , said the shops will benefit the whole Bishop Auckland area. He believes M&S would have closed in the centre anyway.

He also said plans for a six-screen cinema with restaurants in St Helen Auckland were imminent.

He said: “We have to stop this ‘them and us’ mentality and realise that all this development is great for Bishop Auckland as a whole.

“Metric have put their money where their mouth is and are bringing in household names, most of which are new to the area.”