Sign of the times at Leigh Park shopping precinct

CLOSED Above and main picture, empty shops in the Greywell Shopping Centre and Park Parade in Leigh Park.  Picture: Malcolm Wells (113195-6031)
CLOSED Above and main picture, empty shops in the Greywell Shopping Centre and Park Parade in Leigh Park. Picture: Malcolm Wells (113195-6031)

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You’re never far away from a metal shutter or ‘for sale’ sign in Leigh Park’s shopping precinct.

In fact Park Parade is a sea of signage – and sadly only a trickle of shoppers.

There are signs, perhaps ironic ones, encouraging people to ‘shop local’ that have appeared on the colourful boards erected by the council to cover up empty shops.

There are plenty of shop signs too, but get a little closer and it’s obvious no-one’s at home and there’s nothing to buy - just a poster advertising a circus.

It’s a Thursday market day, but there are only a couple of stalls to attract shoppers.

Yet there are some other visitors in town – journalists and the television cameras.

The national media has descended after it was revealed that Leigh Park has more empty shops than any other place in Britain.

A report says 36.4 per cent of shops are empty – just beating Margate, in Kent, which has a vacancy rate of 36.1 per cent.

Other towns topping the list – compiled by retail analyst Local Data Company – include Blackpool and Stockport.

It’s a depressing statistic, but the truth of the matter is empty shops is not a new thing in Leigh Park.

There is a butcher’s shop that was empty for 23 years until it re-opened as a mobility scooter shop a few months ago.

The vacancy rate pre-dates the last recession and is a gradual decay that has nibbled away at Park Parade, once the beating heart of one of the largest council estates in Europe.

Shoppers reckon it’s a sad state of affairs.

Jamie Ferry, 34, from Leigh Park, says: ‘I think it’s rubbish. There’s nothing here.

‘We have loads of charity shops, but no clothes shops.’

Mary Fogwill, 74, remembers the heyday of the precinct when it was bustling with greengrocers, butchers and bakeries.

She says: ‘It’s a bit like a dead town. I have been here 50 years and we used to have every shop you needed.

‘I think it’s wrong, but there’s nothing here for people to drive to.’

The reason for the empty shops is clearly multi-faceted and can’t be fixed overnight.

Free parking at superstores such as nearby Asda and Tesco, combined with spiralling rents, have not exactly helped.

Many of the buildings have been run by London-based companies or even firms based in the Cayman Islands.

However, despite what this latest report may suggest, it’s not all doom and gloom.

With a population of almost 30,000 on the estate, property developer Mark Smith has already pumped in more than £500,000 to renovate four shops.

He is charging his tenants about £6,000-a-year in rent – a healthy reduction on the £9,000 being demanded by some other landlords.

Mark, 43, from Cosham, says: ‘I would not put in my own money if I thought it was going to go down any further.

‘We need local landlords who are willing to invest what is required and also have viable rents. You can’t expect these businesses to be as profitable as they were in the past.’

Mike Joines, who has owned Zoom Hairdressing in Park Parade for the past 10 years, has just helped to form Leigh Park Traders’ Association.

He says: ‘We have increased employment and capacity over the years. If you have the right business, you will survive and thrive in Leigh Park.’

It’s not fair to say councils haven’t done anything to help. Claire Hughes, economy and community manager for Havant Borough Council, says: ‘There is a tremendous amount of ongoing work by the council and local businesses to improve the current situation in Leigh Park – however there is no quick fix solution in today’s economic climate.’

Earlier this year Hampshire County Council pumped in £417,000 to make the streets look better and install new furniture.

But the impression from traders is that aesthetics is one thing, but getting people into the shopping centre is another – and good shops are needed for that.

Helen Bolton, 37, already has a pet food shop at nearby Greywell, but is taking a gamble and opening a new one in Park Parade. She is angry she has to pay £350 rates every month to the council, on top of her rent.

She says: ‘Before you even start it’s a huge amount of money to take that gamble and start a new business.’

Whether Leigh Park’s shopping centre can rise like a phoenix out of the ashes, only time will tell.

But Mark Smith says: ‘The only way is up.’

Better picture elsewhere

ALL shopping centres in the area have got some empty units - but they’ve not been hit nearly as hard as Leigh Park.

In Portsmouth’s Commercial Road, 13 units are unoccupied - that’s eight per cent of the 162 units in the city’s retail heart.

The figure is similar to that of Gosport’s town centre shopping area, where 19 units lie vacant – 10.4 per cent of the total.

Out of 407 possible units in Fareham town centre, 40 of them are unoccupied, just over 10 per cent.

In Havant nine per cent of the shopping units lie empty, while in Waterlooville the figure is the same. In Emsworth it’s just two per cent of the total.