A neighbourhood shopping centre plagued by drug users, jeering shoplifters and the threat of knives has become a no-go area.

Shoppers at Hilldene in Harold Hill are afraid to visit their local stores for basic goods and are now going elsewhere, the Romford Recorder has heard.

One community group representative said it was "unsuitable" for older people and a resident said shopkeepers have been intimidated with threats of knives.

The Recorder contacted numerous shops in the area, including the Co-op and Sainsbury's, but managers did not want to comment.

"Shop managers seem scared to speak up", said Khuram Ali, a boxing coach who has lived in Harold Hill for four years. "They said they have been followed on the buses before and knives have been shown to them.

"I don't want to go shopping [there] anymore," he added. "Lots of people said they don't want to go there [locally] now."

Khuram said that the area has become a playground for drug addicts and thieves, an environment in which he is uncomfortable to raise his two children, 11 and 13, as a single parent.

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Romford Recorder: Iceland and The Co-op in Hilldene have also been targeted, a resident saidIceland and The Co-op in Hilldene have also been targeted, a resident said (Image: Google)Simon Ford, chair of the Harold Hill Shop Association, a group aimed at tackling social problems in the area, said Hilldene was unpleasant for older people.

"It's a very uncomfortable area to be shopping in and it's just not a nice environment to be in - especially if you're elderly and frail," he said.

Simon, who has worked for 31 years in the area and currently at Thep's Barbers, said shoplifting and assaults on staff have become more common.

Homelessness is another big issue, says Simon, whose group has been working with Havering Council and the Metropolitan Police to resolve the problems.

"There seem to be a lot more people begging and sleeping rough in the Harold Hill shopping area," he said. "It's noticeably increased since Covid times."

Jan Sargent, Gooshays Safer Neighbourhood vice chair, said people are experiencing levels of crime they have never seen before. 

"There are regular reports of staff being threatened and jeered while thieves brazenly walk into stores, fill very large bags and literally clear the shelves of goods," she said.

"This has made shoppers, shopkeepers and staff feeling very intimidated and frightened."

Jan mentioned she has a WhatsApp group for shopkeepers, created in 2018, which includes the local police team.

The newly-formed Shop Association, of which Simon is chair, was also set up to combat the problems.

East Area Police said it plans to launch an initiative and Simon confirmed a meeting was scheduled with law enforcement next Monday (October 9).

Inspector Charlie Routley, part of Harold Hill's police team, said: “We are aware of recent reports of shoplifting and anti-social behaviour in Harold Hill and understand how worrying and frustrating this is for local business owners and residents."

Insp. Routley added that police will attend a shop owners association meet in October and is looking to punishing persistent offenders with criminal behavioural orders that would incur prison time or a fine.

But Khuram, who now shops in Romford town centre instead, said he is exposed to crime every day and immediate action is needed.

He said he was keen to get a community movement going, claiming the police have done nothing to tackle the problems so far.

"The police don't bother," he said. "They just do not want to do their job.

"I'm a single parent just trying to get through life," he added. "It's hard living [as] whichever way we go, something wrong is happening."

"My children should not be exposed to this," he added. "There's meetings going on but no action.

"There's essentially drug addicts running a menace and that's not the way for society to be."

A Havering Council spokesperson acknowledged it was a worrying situation for people in the area.

Enforcement teams are working with the police and Ray Morgon, the council leader, visited Hilldene recently and will hold further conversations with businesses, the spokesperson added.

To report crime and remain anonymous, contact the independent charity Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.