SOUTHAMPTON'S movers and shakers gathered yesterday to look at the way forward for the city as it faces the challenges of the 21st century.

The opening of the £295 million WestQuay Shopping Centre in Southampton is viewed as the catalyst for change and representatives from business and retail were keen to analyse how the city should now move forward.

The Southampton City Centre Conference 2000 event attracted major names from the public, private and voluntary sectors. Its main themes were access to the city and the future role of public transport, as well as the revamp of major sites such as the waterfront, with visions of a development such as Darling Harbour in Sydney, Australia.

While the mood was generally positive, there were heated discussions over the future of East Street and in particular that old chestnut about Christmas lighting.

Labour council leader June Bridle invited the assembled group to look at the major issues facing Southampton and called for the conference to be the starting point for a city-wide debate.

"I believe personally that Southampton is a vibrant city and the leading city on the South Coast of England. We need a detailed dialogue and we need to debate what changes are needed, and it is important that everybody has an input for that debate to have any credibility at all," she said.

The main concern was that unless the city addressed its public transport links Southampton would become more and more difficult to traverse by car.

Councillor John Arnold, who holds the economic development portfolio, was scathing over current relationships with bus operators in the city in the aftermath of the First Southampton upset - when bus routes were cut without prior consultation with the council.

"We shuddered when it was suggested that we should work more closely with the bus operators. It is a two-way process and there are quite severe difficulties. We do struggle to have a relationship with them," he said.

Part of the move to make South-ampton a more vibrant city has been to encourage more people to live in the centre. Pat Feighery, managing director of Linden Homes, said his company was behind several major housing developments in the city.

"We have built 300 apartments and homes in Southampton city centre," he said. "And the trend now is towards more people buying our properties with buy-to-rent mortgages."

Simon Neilson, of Neilson Holt, gave an overview of the city and said many companies were now looking seriously at moving here but Southampton must address the challenges.

He said: "The overall impression I glean from those I talk to is that Southampton is regarded as something of a lost opportunity, a bridesmaid rather than the bride, but perhaps WestQuay is the turning point.

"Certainly there are grounds for optimism but there are also difficulties to be faced, not least being our ability to manage the upheaval caused by the shopping centre itself."

Mike Heath, president of the Southampton and Fareham Chamber of Commerce, said: "A conference like this is an important way of bringing the key players together .

"We've raised a number of issues that are of concern to different groups in the city, and now we've started the debate, hopefully we can address those concerns."