Trading Hell: A Stray Ferret investigation reveals how Harrogate shop workers routinely face threats, shoplifting and anti-social behaviour
Last updated Mar 28, 2024

Shocking levels of anti-social behaviour, drug-dealing, shoplifting and even threats to staff are all routine occurrences faced by many shop workers in Harrogate town centre, a Stray Ferret investigation has revealed. 

Even though Harrogate is widely viewed as one of the finest shopping towns in the North, our investigation pieced together a picture of “scary” back alleys where shop workers fear to go, and high streets that shoppers have started to avoid. 

We surveyed 50 businesses in the town centre and spoke to many retailers at length. We found a deep sense of frustration among traders, most of whom feel not nearly enough is being done to make our shopping streets the safe and pleasant places they should be. 

What’s more, while some traders had shocking stories to tell, only a handful were willing to be quoted by name. Most preferred to remain anonymous for fear of becoming a target. 

In a series of articles running through this week, we’ll be examining the problems that make life difficult for town-centre businesses, finding out what’s being done to tackle them, looking at whether it’s working, and asking if there may be a better approach.

Our Trading Hell survey covered almost all the businesses on Oxford Street, Cambridge Street, Cambridge Road, Market Place and the Victoria Shopping Centre, as well as parts of Beulah Street and James Street. 

The vast majority of businesses polled (96%) said that anti-social behaviour is a problem – only two said it isn’t – and 52% said it’s a major problem. 

Graphic showing responses to the question 'How much of a problem for your business is anti-social behaviour?'. 'It's a major problem' - 52% 'It's a problem, but not major' - 26% 'It's a minor problem' - 18% 'It's not a problem' - 4%

Other behaviours considered to be a problem included shoplifting (78%), street-drinking (74%), threats to staff (70%), rough sleeping (70%), begging (68%) and drug misuse (66%). 

Shockingly, 20% of town-centre businesses face threats to staff at least once a week. 

One trader told the Stray Ferret: 

“I’ve been working here for 18 months and it’s been a shocker. This place has become lawless in the town centre.”

 Graphic showing that 20% of Harrogate town centre businesses see threats to staff as a major problem.


Our survey showed that nowhere is immune to the problems, but there are hotspots, and the “hottest” spot is centred on the intersection of Oxford Street and Cambridge Road – the area between McDonalds, Wesley Chapel and the Halifax bank. 

One shop owner said: 

“There are often groups drinking around the doorway, which discourages customers, and hanging around under shelter, shouting and swearing in the street. It makes for an unpleasant environment.” 

Nearby, Ian Hall, store manager of Games Crusade on Oxford Street, recounted a disturbing incident when he had to physically keep two men apart. He said: 

“Two gentlemen came chasing through the street and the first one bolted through our door and ran to the back of the shop. He looked really scared. The second one was shouting and swearing at him, calling him all sorts of names, and wanted to knock seven bells out of him.

“I stood in the doorway and told him he couldn’t come in and eventually he calmed down and left. If he had come in, I think they’d probably have started fighting in the shop, knocking things over and destroying stock. Anything could have happened.”

But the problems are by no means confined to adults. One trader told us he had to be particularly vigilant against theft in the late afternoon, when school pupils “flooded” into the town centre.

Two years ago, two Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) were seriously injured in an attack by three schoolgirls in McDonalds. One of the officers suffered a suspected broken nose and the other later left the service, partly as a result of the incident. One of the girls narrowly avoided a custodial sentence.

Graphic showing that 74% of Harrogate town centre businesses see street drinking as a problem.

Alcohol wasn’t a factor in that case, but it does appears to be a common feature of much of the town centre’s anti-social behaviour and is believed to have played a part in an incident on Oxford Street last May, when a man admitted to pulling the wing off a pigeon. 

A common view among traders is that the problems are showing no signs of getting any better. On the contrary, one said: 

“It’s got much worse in the last two to three years. You can smell weed on the street, there’s drug-dealing in front of our door, and I’ve even had to call an ambulance for somebody.” 

Lost business 

While these problems are not pleasant for shoppers and passers-by, for businesses they translate into lost trade and, for some smaller traders, damage to livelihoods.  

One Oxford Street retailer said: 

My shop windows were smashed more than once, and it cost me a lot of money to replace them.” 

Graphic showing that 74% of Harrogate town centre businesses have lost revenue due to the problems they face trading.

Others complained of casual shoplifting. Games Crusade’s Ian Hall said: 

“We get drunk people coming into the shop and trying to walk out with stock. It’s not underhand – it’s in full view. I just take it off them and that tends to be the end of it. But you have to have your wits about you all the time.” 

Across the town centre, nearly three in every four businesses (74%) said they had lost trade as a result of some or all of these behaviours. Among Oxford Street retailers, the figure was 100%, and many are convinced that footfall is down as a result.

The manager of one shop said: 

Anti-social behaviour and street-drinking discourage the general public from visiting this part of town.” 

Paul Rawlinson, who has two businesses on Oxford Street, Baltzersen’s and Bakeri Baltzersen, said: 

“Oxford Steet has become a much less desirable place to walk down as a result of these behaviours. It’s more pronounced during the summer, when rough sleeping is a more comfortable option than it is in winter.” 

Back streets 

Although the main streets of the town centre are where activities such as street drinking and anti-social behaviour are most visible, the back alleys are where other things happen for the most part unseen. 

Last year, a woman was seriously sexually assaulted in an alley to the rear of Clarks shoe shop in Market Place. That alley was finally closed off by a new gate after three years of lobbying, but other backstreets are still used for illegal activities. 

One shop worker on Cambridge Street told us: 

“Staff feel unsafe going out the back of the store because of large groups of kids smoking weed and shouting abuse to intimidate us. It’s quite scary. Also, drunks use our property and we find needles and glass bottles lying around.”

During our investigation, we discovered down one back alley abandoned prescription drugs, discarded clothing, clusters of clothes hangers – presumably dumped by shoplifters – and even a notebook containing obscene sexual content.

What’s being done…

One body that has tried to do something about the town centre’s problems is Harrogate BID (business improvement district). It would like to see a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) put in place banning certain behaviours, such as persistent begging and street drinking, from the town centre. But according to the national guidelines, these can only be applied if crime levels are above a certain benchmark, which Harrogate doesn’t reach.

BID manager Matthew Chapman said: 

“The statistics showed that the number of crimes is very low in the town centre. 

“While on the face of it this seems like good news, the stats just didn’t match up with what we were hearing from BID members.

“Shop owners and staff were telling us they were regularly seeing relatively minor crime, but the police figures just didn’t reflect this.” 

So two years ago, the BID launched a campaign to encourage town-centre businesses to report crime. For three months it promoted its Report a Crime initiative, telling traders to report every crime, no matter how minor. But bizarrely, crime figures over that period went down, so the PSPO is still a goal rather than a reality and the BID is still lobbying for it. We’ll be speaking to Matthew Chapman about the PSPO and the BID’s efforts to tackle these issues in Friday’s feature.

…and what’s not 

Several traders told the Stray Ferret that they had stopped reporting low-value thefts because they did not believe the police would do anything about them. Worse still, we uncovered a widespread belief that the problems plaguing the town centre are simply not being adequately addressed. When asked how well the issues are being tackled by the authorities, 38% said ‘badly’ and 32% – almost one in three – thought the problems weren’t being tackled at all.

Graphic showing that town-centre businesses blame the police more than any other organisation for the problems they face.

Two in every five traders (40%) blamed the police for failing to tackle the issues, many of them complaining that the police response to reports of theft is slow and ineffective. A report released last week by His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services following its inspection of North Yorkshire Police only rated the force “adequate” at investigating crime and responding to the public, although this assessment was better than last year, when it received the notice “requires improvement” in both areas.

One town-centre jeweller said his shop had been burgled last summer when thieves stole £60,000 worth of stock, but claimed the police response was inept and late. He said:

“It took the police 12 hours to respond to my initial 999 call, and when they did, they said they’d pass my details on to the appropriate officer ‘a week on Friday’ because he was on a course.

“Very soon after the theft, someone told me they knew who had committed the crime and even where my stock was being held. I believed them because the details they gave were bang on. I told the police, but it took them eight months to arrest anybody, and by that time the evidence had all disappeared.

“They lost emails with my details in them and didn’t even have my telephone number. As far as I know, nobody’s yet been charged.”

The Stray Ferret has spoken to Chief Inspector Simon Williamson of North Yorkshire Police about the force’s response to reports of crime, and you can read the interview here on Thursday.

In the meantime, traders are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in improving conditions in the centre of “one of the finest shopping towns in the North”. One shopkeeper said: 

“I see it all here. Every week there’s something going on. I speak to other business owners and there’s a general feeling on the street that there’s no-one in power who’s doing anything about it – and it just gets worse.”

Tomorrow – what exactly do the official stats show? We report on a huge rise in shop-lifting and examine the extent of drug taking and wider anti-social behaviour cases reported to police in Harrogate town centre.  

Have you got a story to tell about any of the issues covered in this article? Let us know by emailing us at [email protected].

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