In England's green and multiplexed land

First we had a plague of out-of-town supermarkets. Now it is leisure centres.

Finchley has never seen anything like it. Nor, for that matter, has the rest of Britain. A new phenomenon in entertainment, the leisure park, is taking the country by storm. The size of a small village, open from morning till night and offering attractions such as multiplex cinemas, bowling alleys, nightclubs and shopping, the leisure park is the favourite new wheeze of the property developer.

On Tuesday the Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley will open a giant multiplex cinema at the Great North Leisure Park, just outside Finchley, north London. The complex, whose vast 26-lane bowling alley opened three weeks ago, is already pulling in crowds every night. To the youngsters of north London, who could find little to do in the evenings bar loiter in the streets before it opened, it is a wonder of burgers and fries, neon light, and ready-made entertainment. To those who loathe the stench of fried food, hate the tinny beat of endless muzak, and deplore the gimcrack architecture topped with a grinning Daffy Duck, it is Absolutely Horrid.

Soon, more than 60 such centres may cover Britain. So far at least 26 have opened and more than 30 more are being planned on the edge of conurbations.

Most will be even bigger than Finchley. In the pipeline is the "megaplex", the successor to the multiplex, with up to 30 screens showing movies all day long. The megaplex operator, the American company AMC, has already signed up to run at least four such cinemas in leisure parks in Britain.

Future leisure parks will also include Family Entertainment Centres, which are loosely based on Japanese pacahuiko parlours, with technology- based games and activities. The key to the leisure park's popularity with developers is the realisation that planning permission is now much easier to acquire for a park than it is for an out-of-town shopping centre, even though its impact - bringing more cars and pollution into the countryside, and taking trade away from the high street - may be the same.

Like the biggest out-of-town shopping centres, they are "catchment-critical" - built within 20 minutes' drive time of 500,000 people and with plenty of car parking. Shopping complexes have had a devastating effect on Britain's high streets. The Environment Secretary John Gummer has recently issued guidance, stressing the need to preserve town centres and restrict the number of out-of-town shopping malls.

But canny developers have discovered that shops are allowed in leisure parks. As one cinema operator explained, so long as shopping is described in veiled terms such as "cultural retailing" with stores offering goods such as books and records for sale, town hall planners will give the go- ahead. And as cinema operators and restaurants venture into selling branded products, so the distinction between shopping and leisure becomes blurred. Indeed, in some parts of Britain, local authorities have invited developers to tender plans for sites on their land.

David Watt, chairman of the retail and leisure section of DTZ Property Advisers said: "The leisure park replicates what is in a town centre with a new environment.

"You can go bowling, watch a movie, eat out and then go to a club. You can do that in the West End but not necessarily in every other high street in the country, and there is plenty of parking and lots of choice.

"The pattern so far is that the approach by planners is more relaxed to leisure than it is for retail. Town centres are in competition against one another and so they want a leisure park themselves. If they can't get one in the centre of their town, they will consider one on the edge of town. Leisure parks create jobs and provide acceptable family entertainment."

The result, say developers and estate agents, is that entrepreneurs are jostling to launch a leisure park to win a slice of the booming market. Robert Chess, of the commercial estate agents, Chestertons, said: "One of the things we are concerned about is that every farmer who has 120 acres wants to get planning permission for a leisure park, and we are going to see a glut of them across the land". The growth in leisure parks has also been fuelled by the increase in consumer spending. The amount of money spent on leisure, from eating out to movie-going and dancing, has outstripped that spent on shopping in the last 15 years, and is still growing at 4 per cent a year.

Essential to the leisure park is the cinema. In 1994, UK cinemas admitted 120 million people - more than double the number of admissions in 1985, when the first multiplex opened in Milton Keynes. All the major UK cinema operators - Rank Odeon, Cine UK, Warners, UCI, Virgin/MGM - are moving into leisure parks. Peter Dobson, managing director of Warner Brothers Theatres UK, said: "This is such a successful concept. Rather than just see one film, a family can arrive at 1.30pm and not leave until 9pm because there is so much to do. All the cinema operators are getting into this. It is the easiest way to get planning permission."

But for all the many attractions and their popularity with consumers, there are doubts about their impact. In Finchley, for instance, the leisure park has been welcomed by some, but feared by others. Families, groups of office staff, and teenagers flock there for a night out. As one youngster said: "It's the biggest thing ever to hit Finchley. Until the bowling alley opened, there was nothing for us to do after school. Now, we're queuing up to come here."

But the local conservationist body, the Finchley Society, voiced concern over its impact on the town centre and the demolition of the Finchley Lido, a charming Art Deco outdoor pool used to host water polo at the 1945 London Olympics. In its place is the leisure park including blander indoor and outdoor pools.

The Finchley Society's concern reflects other conservationists' fear that few people have woken up to the impact of the leisure park on towns and the countryside.

Neil Sinden, of the Council for the Protection of Rural England said: "There is an urgent need to do more to counter the trend of these leisure parks. They are taking vitality away from town centres, but there is little sign of the Government really grasping the nettle."

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