REBUILDING work on Castlepoint's crumbling car park will not start until next year, the Daily Echo can reveal.

And the major scheme, involving the removal of about 50,000 tonnes of concrete, could result in traders having to close for a second time.

David Paine, speaking on behalf of the Castlepoint Limited Partnership, told the Daily Echo on Wednesday: "There will be no start on the car park rebuild this year.

"But I would like to think that work will get under way in the early part of 2008.

"It is very complex and we are continuing to work with Kier, the design and building contractors, to find a way through it.

"We are moving forward but need to come up with a technical solution to deal with the challenge of managing the centre while a phased rebuild of the car park takes place.

"Then there will be a consultation period and talks with the local authority before we can move forward."

Mr Paine added: "We will be trying to minimise the disruption caused by the rebuild work, ensuring it takes place over the least possible time, in the most cost-effective way.

"But the car park is the size of seven football pitches and we can't guarantee there won't be any store closures. There will have to be compromises."

Mr Paine said nine retailers had now settled their compensation claims for damages caused by the car park closures and eventual shutdown of the shopping centre for several weeks in December 2005. These include Hargreaves (Sports), Boots, Arcadia, Weymouth-based New Look, Stylo Barratts and TK Maxx.

Most of the shopping centre traders are seeking damages, with two currently pursuing claims through the courts.

Mr Paine said: "Our dialogue continues with tenants and, while there may appear to be long periods of silence, there is an enormous amount of work being done to settle valid claims."

He paid tribute to the centre's "remarkably loyal" shoppers who had returned to the centre "in droves" following the closure.

"Our numbers are slightly up since prior to the shutdown with 95,000 cars and between 10 and 11 million shoppers using Castlepoint each year."

Forty legal advisers and 10 engineers are currently involved in on-going discussions between interested parties.

Mr Paine said: "We share tenants' and customers' frustrations that the car park issue hasn't been resolved but the problem is not of our making.

"It was closed for health and safety reasons.

"Although it's being held up by props, it is safe and monitored daily, with adjustments made when necessary. We are open to criticism because the rebuild is not happening quick enough. But all we can do is try to come up with the best solution."