A £50MILLION project to extend a shopping centre is nearing completion, but less than a third of the new shops and restaurants have been let to businesses.

Nando's became the eighth major retailer to sign up for a place in Didcot's Orchard Centre last week, joining brands including TK Maxx and Marks & Spencer.

Thomas Cochrane of the developer Hammerson, said it was in the midst of several 'positive discussions' and expects to make more announcements shortly.

But with the first openings expected this spring and 28 new spaces for shops, restaurants and cafes on offer, questions have been asked over why more than two-thirds of units at the long-awaited extension have not been taken.

Glyn Hall, the president of the Didcot Chamber of Commerce, said he did not think the centre could open as expected with so few of the units let.

He added: "Think how disappointed people will be when they are expecting 28 new places to eat and shop and it is mostly empty.

"It is going to be a bit depressing and I wouldn't think the businesses that have already signed up will be too happy about it."

The 150,000ft extension is seen as a key part of the Didcot garden town initiative, providing more places to shop for some of the tens of thousands of new people expected to move to the town in the next two decades.

Mr Cochrane said he believed the project will 'transform' Didcot into a regional destination for shoppers, potentially attracting people from Reading, Oxford, Newbury and High Wycombe.

But Oxford's Westgate Centre has still not let all of its units after reopening in October and shopping centres in Bicester and Banbury are also being substantially redeveloped, leading to questions over whether Oxfordshire's shopping scene has reached saturation point.

Further problems may be awaiting Hammerson with one of the centre's new flagship chains, Marks & Spencer, recently announcing it is scaling back the number of food stores it plans to open from 200 to 36.

It is unclear if this will impact on its plan to open in Didcot.

Mr Hall warned that as well as bringing many new customers, new developments could clog up roads and put people off coming to the town to shop in future.

He is calling for favourable rates to be offered to Didcot's existing independent retailers to see if they would be interested in moving into empty units.

The leader of South Oxfordshire District Council John Cotton said he was not overly worried about the lack of confirmed names at this stage, saying the commitment of chains such as Nando's 'shows confidence' in the centre and Didcot as a whole.

He added: "There is so much happening in the town and businesses all want a slice of that.

"Hammerson has a significant reputation and it knows what it is doing.

"I'm hugely optimistic that progress would be made and that it will be a big success.

"We want to give people an opportunity to do a significant amount of shopping in their own town.

"Of course there will be reasons why they go elsewhere and these things are always an evolution to suit the town's needs.

"But I can only see it going from strength to strength."