CASTLEPOINT – you either love it or you hate it. Fans love the free parking, extended opening hours and large, spacious shops. Critics hate the Castle Lane traffic, the time it can take to get out and the effect it has had on the town centre. And then, of course, there’s that car park.

But whatever your view, as Castlepoint celebrates its fifth birthday (Monday October 27), it is now hard to imagine Bournemouth without it.

The arguments over whether the shopping park would be good or bad for the town began almost two decades ago.

Back in the early 1990s, most people agreed the run-down Hampshire Centre needed to be replaced but plans for a major out-of-town shopping development were unpopular.

The council succeeded in opposing the scheme at a public inquiry but reluctantly surrendered the fight after legal experts warned that fighting the plans could cost £1 million.

Then in 1998, a new planning application re-ignited the debate all over again.

The proposed shopping centre with 3,000 free parking spaces was designed to compete with West Quay and Hedge End but many councillors feared it would also hit the town centre.

Then council leader Douglas Eyre led the opposition, labelling the plans “a disaster” for the local economy. He still believes his objections were right. And he has never visited the place he tried to stop.

“My arguments were that the infrastructure was not there to support it and that it would take trade away from the town centre,” he said. “It was billed as an out-of-town shopping centre but it wasn’t far enough out of town.”

But some critics have been won round. Former councillor Jim Courtney originally feared Castle Lane wouldn’t be able to cope with the increased traffic but is now a regular visitor to the centre.

“I think it’s been a success,” he said.

“It’s well used and it’s very popular – I like it now and I think most local residents do too.”

Castlepoint cost around £69 million to build and once completed its value was estimated at £220 million.

It boasts the largest branches of Next, Marks and Spencer and B&Q in the region and brought the concept of regular late-night shopping to Bournemouth.

In five years, around 50 million visitors have shopped at the centre. And, while some shops have changed hands, the centre has not lost a single retailer – to the disappointment of those waiting for a vacancy.

Centre manager Peter Matthews believes Castlepoint has been successful because it is “the convenient high street on the edge of town”.

He admits they have worked hard to make their mark in the local community. He points to their fundraising for the local War Memorial Homes and the Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance, their strong relationship with Bournemouth’s chamber of trade and the disability forum they set up in response to a customer’s request. “Shopping centres can be faceless but I don’t think Castlepoint is,” he said.

“We’ve become very active, very involved in all sorts of things.”

The Castlepoint factor is said to be responsible for a 15 per cent deflection in trade from the town centre and is also partly blamed for a drop in car parking income.

Bournemouth councillor Anne Rey, who as mayor of Bournemouth formally opened Castlepoint, believes the council needs to help the town centre by offering discounted parking for residents.

“At Castlepoint, you can stay there for four hours without paying – that’s a big attraction and it’s where Castlepoint has got the edge over the town centre, where car parking is very expensive,” she said.

“We’re five years on and the town centre has never really risen to the challenge.” But Jeff Bray, a senior lecturer in retail management at Bournemouth University, believes the town centre’s demise has been greatly exaggerated.

“The presence of Castlepoint makes Bournemouth a more attractive shopping centre.

“To a certain degree, it adds to the people coming into the area.”

He said the town centre had successfully introduced new initiatives like craft and Christmas markets, which Castlepoint cannot offer.

“That’s really how the traditional town centre will prosper, by making it more enjoyable to shop there.

“And over the last five years, consumer spending has grown, which proves that both the town centre and Castlepoint can co-exist.”

But despite Castlepoint’s success, there has always been one blot on the landscape – that car park.

In November 2005, problems with falling chunks of concrete forced the closure of Castlepoint at the busiest time of the year. The centre did not fully reopen until the New Year.

“That was the worst day in my life since being at Castlepoint,” said Mr Matthews.

“I walked in to Castlepoint on December 1, having been there until 2am, to see the place closed.

“It was Christmas. There was no jingle bells, no lights... nothing.

“We were staggered when a couple of weeks later we opened five units and people came flooding back. People missed us.” No surprise, then, that he says his greatest wish is for “a car park that works”.

Negotiations have proved more complex and time-consuming than anticipated and there is no official word on when the massive task of rebuilding the car park will begin.

But 2009 has previously been mentioned and there have been tentative signs of progress lately, sparking hope that the longed-for permanent solution may be on the horizon.

When the car park is eventually rectified, there is the possibility of expanding Castlepoint by opening up more lower level units. Permissions were applied for in 2005 but put on hold when the car park problems became apparent.

So Castlepoint’s future will be both difficult and exciting.

“The next five years will be fantastic,” said Mr Matthews. “Yes, the rebuild will be difficult and painful but I relish the challenge.

“We will get through it and be better for it afterwards.”