Muirhouse shops pack up as precinct becomes A ghost town

Mohammed Ali  stands where housing once stood next to the shopping centre
Mohammed Ali stands where housing once stood next to the shopping centre
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In its heyday it was the place to be – the heart of the community with busy shops and a bustling atmosphere.

It has been a long time since businesses at Muirhouse Shopping Centre experienced such a boom, but now they fear their days in the complex may be numbered altogether, arguing the demolition of hundreds of homes in the area has transformed the precinct into a “ghost town”.

The empty shopping centre

The empty shopping centre

Shop owners have spoken of how increasingly deserted streets have led to a dramatic fall in earnings – with many claiming they are struggling to pay their rent.

Some veteran retailers, who have spent a lifetime trading in the community, are now on the brink of closure with others admitting they face court action to reclaim rent arrears totalling tens of thousands of pounds.

But it is not recession-hit customers collectively tightening their belts that has led to the decline in fortunes, traders claim, but a flawed regeneration plan that has seen swathes of homes razed to the ground with promised redevelopment taking years to achieve.

In 2007, the Evening News told how local traders feared for the future following the bulldozing of 300 homes to make way for a replacement Craigroyston High School. Since then another 600 properties have been demolished which is said to have sounded the death knell for businesses at the Pennywell Road centre.

Butcher Brian Burke, who owns The Pork Sausage in the shopping complex, will throw in the towel tomorrow after more than 30 years trading in the area. He said the downturn in trade he has suffered coincided exactly with the launch of the council’s masterplan to demolish and redevelop neighbouring run-down estates.

“I’ve been hung out to dry but that’s the way it goes,” he said. “Supermarkets have been here all the time and that’s not caused any problems to us, the problem has been shutting Muirhouse and knocking all the houses down. We can’t survive because our customers don’t live here any more. I have been here 33 years and we were not making millions but had enough to make a living. Everyone got paid but now we’re in a position where suppliers can’t get paid or anything. I’ve tried to keep it going as long as I could but it just hasn’t worked.

“This is my livelihood and it’s terrible I have to close. That’s me finished now and I’m nearly 60 years old – where am I going to get a job after working here for myself for 30-odd years?”

Asked if there was any possibility of a lifeline, Mr Burke replied: “I think the council now realise they have done wrong but that’s no good to me.”

Yards away from the butcher’s, inside the run-down shopping arcade, is El Mexicano newsagents which has had Mohammed Ali at the helm for the last 25 years.

The shopkeeper has seen several thefts and petty crimes in his time and last month saw off an axe-wielding yob who attempted to rob him. But with spiralling debts, Mr Ali’s fate is bleak.

Today he will learn if he can continue to trade at Muirhouse Shopping Centre following a court appearance to pay a huge bill for rent arrears.

But, he said, business has been so poor that he would gladly give it up.

“The last four years I’ve been hardly surviving,” he said. “It used to be busy here all the time and I would employ three or four people in the shop, in the afternoon now it’s just me.

“I buy stuff and much of it goes out of date because I have so few customers.

“I have to go to court over my rent arrears and there’s a chance I could lose the shop. I’m losing about £500 each week at the moment.”

Across the arcade at Ba Ba’s Cave, an outlet selling everything from hardware to cleaning supplies, Tahir Ali, 47, said his shop was barely keeping afloat.

“Having looked at my options on a daily basis I don’t know if I can last another six months here,” he said. “We just can’t survive like this. We are doing extra work for less profit and the council has done little to help us at all. They have bought and demolished and behaved like vandals. If they had done it in sections, rebuilding as they went, it would have been better.”

Martin Galasso, 35, right, a chef at the nearby Gerry’s Takeaway on Pennywell Road, said: “We have taken a big drop in business since they started demolishing all the homes around here.

“From when I started six years ago until now, there’s a big difference. Pennywell has virtually disappeared. It’s been terrible because they have not planned this properly and knocked down properties and are rehousing people outwith the area.”

Local councillor Cammy Day said widespread demolition in the area should have been postponed until residents could be rehomed in new developments. And he said officials would privately acknowledge their error.

“The authority made a big mistake, they should have carried out demolition and development alongside each other,” he said.

“The Muirhouse community is not the Muirhouse community any more. Some of the officers at the council would acknowledge that the process was flawed. I have asked the council for a reduction in business rates and a reduction in rent.”

A council spokesman said: “We sympathise with any business that has experienced a drop in trade and we will continue to work proactively with all the stakeholders in Muirhouse to manage this period of transformation. This regeneration will result in the creation of up to 670 new homes, investment to the shopping centre, new facilities and a greatly improved environment.”

The waiting game

HUNDREDS of homes were demolished in 2007 to clear a site for the replacement Craigroyston High School while two years later hundreds more were bulldozed – with no new houses yet built.

As part of the council’s 21st Century Homes for Edinburgh programme, a masterplan for around 470 properties in Pennywell and Muirhouse has been completed in consultation with residents.

These plans show new houses, streets and parks on the former school site and near the new school.

Consultation should start at the beginning of 2012. Many of the previous residents have been relocated elsewhere.