INDEPENDENT traders struggling to compete with nearby big brands enjoying rent free holidays fear they may have to shut up shop.

Ever since retailers including Pets at Homes and Hobby Craft moved in to Epping Forest Retail Park in Langston Road, Loughton last August, shops on the nearby Broadway have seen a marked downturn in trade.

Many of the indepedent traders feel unfairly treated by the council, which gifted rent free periods of up to two years to the chain stores in a bid to fill the £14m shopping development.

Tom Barwick, owner of World of Pets, has found it difficult to make ends meet.

The 49 year-old said: “We are really struggling down here.

“It is the major players who can afford to pay rent against independents.

“I asked the council for six months free rent, but they said no.”

To add to their trading woes, spates of anti-social behaviour during lunch times are driving potential customers away, he believes.

He added: “There is also a lot of anti-social behaviour at lunch times. People are frightened to come down because of the college kids. It has affected trade massively.

“People on bikes are riding in and out of the road. I can’t believe no one has been run over.

“They let off fireworks on bonfire night. I asked for community police officers to come down but they said no.”

Mr Barwick saw trade fall by £3,000 in the weeks before Christmas compared to last year, and now fears his shop’s days may be numbered.

He said: “I am going to try and change the shop, to be more niche and focus on the exotic stuff, but I’m worried I am going to have to close.

“For me this is my house as well. I am a single father with a six year-old daughter, and I don’t know where we’ll go.”

Fellow trader Debbie Cranfield, who runs Ice Events, is also feeling the pinch.

She said: “A lot of people have been avoiding the area because of the road works which have been going on for the past year or so. It is really difficult to pull them back.

“I think the Broadway will be boarded up soon. It will just be charity shops and cafes left.”

A spokesperson for Epping Forest District Council said it was normal to offer rent free period for longer-term tenancies, to reflect fitting out costs.

They said: “It should be highlighted that many of the tenants in the Broadway have themselves benefitted from initial rent free periods and no commercial advantage is being given to traders on the Shopping Park.

“The council’s Economic Development Team and Estates Team have a long history of supporting the Broadway tenants through participation in the Debden Town Centre Partnership and also support through grant-aid to the Partnership.”

As for the reported anti-social behaviour, the spokesperson said a ‘positive stance’ was taken and that no complaints had been made in the area.