THE proposed closures of the Darlington and Stockton branches of Marks & Spencer must be terrible news for the 120 people who work there, many of whom have become familiar faces behind their tills over the years.

It is also worrying news for those who value their town centres. The deathknell for the Darlington branch was probably sounded when the company lodged an application to build a food hall at West Park, surrounded by oodles of free parking on the edge of town.

What other deathknells have been sounded by the granting of permission for the Scotch Corner Designer Village, which developers boast will be the “fifth largest retail outlet in the country”? It will be full of posh shops, restaurants and children’s fun activities. For those who enjoy such things, it will be retail as a day-out destination in a way that a town centre, with its steps, empty units and its inconvenient car parks, can never be.

Previous generations of shoppers loved browsing big department stores: Darlington had Bainbridge Barkers and Doggarts; it had Debenhams, BHS and C&A. If M&S follows suit, just Binns will remain.

Town centres have to adapt. There are lots of ways, from niche independent stores to characterful cafes in curious yards.

M&S will leave empty a run of departmental stores largely built in the 1930s, a golden retail era, and designed in white brick, like Binns, to mimic the look of the king of department stores: Selfridges in London’s Oxford Street.

This run was occupied by long-fled names like Burtons, Woolworths, Mothercare and BHS.

Perhaps now is the time for this generation to accept that the 1930s are gone and we don’t want these once glamorous buildings half-occupied by charity shops and bookmakers. We can’t preserve them as they are, but can we convert them? That whole run, from Crown Street up to the ringroad, could it be turned into imaginative, stylish apartments so the residents could support the niche independents and the characterful cafes on the streets below?

It might save a couple of cherished fields on the peripheries of our villages if we could.

THE loss of M&S is going to cause a national pant crisis. I always buy from their “Cool & Fresh” range – as opposed to the “Hot & Clammy” products which I guess are only available in stores bigger than Darlington – and have never felt the need to look at anyone else’s briefs.

I have no idea where to turn in my pant predicament.

In 2008, Jeremy Paxman took on the chief executive of M&S, then Sir Stuart Rose, alleging that M&S “pants no longer provide adequate support”. The response from the public was overwhelming supportive of Paxman which, he said, “revealed widespread gusset anxiety”.

Now, I fear, there might be underwear uproar or even unrest. Not just among men – in a stumbling TV interview this week, the current chief executive Steve Rowe claimed that 36 per cent of women bought their brassieres from M&S.

It just goes to show how retailing changes: it is bizarre that M&S started out as a penny bazaar offering all things to all men but should end up as the pant panjandrum.