LAKESIDE is synonymous with Essex. It has become a go-to destination for shopping, largely at the expense of our high streets.

But is the tide now turning against huge, out-of-town shopping centres?

Intu, Lakeside’s parent company has tumbled into administration after crunch talks with its lenders failed. This leaves the future very uncertain for Lakeside, which opened in 1990.

The shopping centre owner said it had applied to appoint administrators from KPMG, after warning it was on the verge of collapse.

Intu insists its shopping centres, including Lakeside, will continue to trade for the time being despite its insolvency.

But there are questions over whether a £168million expansion of Lakeside will go ahead. The proposals have now been approved by councillors despite the vast financial threat overshadowing the shopping centre.

The outline planning application was unanimously approved by Thurrock councillors, making way for a new multi-storey car park, three storey department store and up to 40 new shops.

Councillors were enthusiastic about the benefits the expansion could bring to south Essex but failed to address whether Intu will actually be able to go ahead with the ambitious scheme in light of severe financial troubles.

During Thurrock’s planning committee meeting on Thursday, a statement from Intu Properties was read out which focussed optimistically on the future of Lakeside but failed to address the financial issues of its owner.

It said: “As you are aware our most recent focus has been on the delivery of our £175million leisure scheme and we want to continue to position Intu Lakeside for the future, building on the success of that leisure scheme.”

The statement added that Intu “firmly believes” Lakeside will continue to be a success despite “current challenges”.

The council’s planning committee also ignored the issue, with Labour councillor Gerard Rice speaking enthusiastically about how the expansion could be “shovel-ready” – a term used by the Government to encourage rapid development to help the economy recover.

Mr Rice said: “The Prime Minister did say recently he is looking for shovel ready projects and obviously that means to get it going as soon as possible.

“We all know that employment in our economy is a scarce resource and we can see unemployment going up.

“Anything that can fill those gaps quickly would be welcomed.”

A council planning officer said planning documents indicate work could happen over the next four to five years.

But when the Local Democracy Reporting Service asked Intu if the planned expansion will actually be possible in light of the company’s financial problems, it declined to comment.

Under the plans approved by councillors, part of the Debenhams store will be demolished and a new multi-storey car park will be built, along with a “town square”. To the north of the centre will be a new street-style shopping area, while the existing bus station will be knocked down and replaced with a three-storey department store.

The existing Debenhams store will then be converted to accommodate several new shops.

To make up for the loss of the bus station, a new and modern replacement will be built at the opposite side of the shopping centre, close to the footbridge that connects to Chafford Hundred Station.

In total, it is expected to create around 3,700 jobs when temporary construction work is combined with the new jobs in retail and other services.

Following the meeting, John Kent, leader of Thurrock’s Labour group said: “Lakeside is a big local employer. Hopefully the threat of immediate closure can be averted.

“Lakeside has been a shopping destination for hundreds of thousands of people, not only Thurrock folk, but from far and wide since it opened in 1990.

“My thoughts are with the people working at Lakeside and their families plunged into uncertainty, who risk losing their jobs in an increasingly weakened pandemic economy.

“These jobs are vitally important to the wellbeing of Thurrock’s economy.”