A town centre that has lost Debenhams, Marks & Spencer, Beales, Top Shop and River Island in recent years is fighting back with the opening of new businesses and the renovation of its High Street. So does this mean Bedford is on the up?
Bedford prides itself on being a market town since its Royal Charter was awarded by Henry II in 1166, and runs two markets a week on Wednesday and Saturdays.
But ask the council, business owners and shoppers what makes Bedford stand out compared to Milton Keynes and Rushden Lakes, the answer is often its high number of independent shops.
Love Bedford, the Bedford Business Improvement District (BID), says the town is bucking the national trend and according to the National High Street Index, 64.7% of its businesses are independents – nearly double the UK average at 38.7%.
There are currently about 400 independent businesses in the town, it proudly says.
‘New life in the town centre’
One of the new businesses is Mist, on Bedford High Street, that despite new national fears over coronavirus opened to full capacity last weekend.
Salvatore Franco, manager of Royal Shisha which is based at the bar and grill, says he is excited about the town’s future. However, the new rule for people to work from home has left him concerned that some may stay away.
“Bedford is all the way on the up, it’s my hometown,” he says.
“I’ve been here for 22 years and I’ve invested in so many other properties and stuff outside of Bedford, I thought I would jump back into Bedford and do something for the locals. Now we’re bringing a new life to the town centre.”
Regarding coronavirus restrictions, he says “everyone needs to live” and feels reassured that his customers are staying safe.
‘Let independents fill the gap’
For two-and-a-half years, the former Mexico restaurant has sat empty on the town’s Riverside.
On Monday, Foxy Wings took its place after a successful crowdfunding campaign.
He says the town is “on the up”. “We can see the works on the High Street, we can see new stores opening, new restaurants opening, there’s talk of more restaurants and smaller chains opening.
“If you allow the independent businesses to fill some of those gaps, I really think it will continue to go from strength to strength.
“Our towns are going to change. We have to look to the future and I think this is going to be a town with a fantastic thriving independent scene.”
Gabbie Pearson, another co-owner, says despite the new rules coming in for Plan B, people are “still keen to come out and dine with us, as December bookings have been pouring in”.
“We are committed to being safe and making sure everyone can enjoy themselves,” she says.
“We believe Bedford is on the up,” says Emily Ord, marketing manager for Bedford BID. “We’re excited about what has been happening these past few months and into next year.”
The group has just wrapped the vacant Debenhams and Beales stores with new signage to give them a “cleaner and fresher” look.
She says a number of units are purposely being kept empty to house exhibition and community space for the High Street Heritage Action Zone (HSAZ), which is an investment of £1.76m from Historic England to restore historical features on 43 buildings.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic we’ve seen 60-plus businesses open up in Bedford. Units are being taken over, we’re losing some businesses, but they’re being replaced quite quickly,” says Emily.
The independents, like the “tiny boutiques that curate things that you can’t find online”, are the “draw” along with services, she adds.
“You can’t get your haircut online, you can’t have a nice coffee online, you can’t have an ice cream online.
“Bedford is the place to come in and have these great experiences. It’s about shopping for things you didn’t know you wanted and you are really happy with.
“It’s also been reassuring to see so many people mask wearing again as they go about town – it gives me confidence in the Plan B approach.”
‘Packed with customers’
Recently, B&M opened in the former Marks & Spencer store on the corner of Midland Road and Harpur Street.
The building has sat empty since May 2019, when the popular retailer moved out.
Helen Patterson started Town Centre Champions in January 2019 to battle its closure.
“The unit has been blacked out for two-and-a-half years now, so it’s exciting to see a thriving retail business opening in the former store,” she says.
“There’s still plenty of life in bricks and mortar shops.
“I walked past the store on Saturday afternoon and it was packed out with customers with smiles on their faces and arms full of shopping.”
‘Just the start’
Bedford is becoming a “vibrant and varied town centre”, says Liberal Democrat councillor Henry Vann, who is the portfolio holder for town centres at Bedford Borough Council.
“We proactively work with our local shops, communities and residents to secure investment. This includes a reopened and significantly improved High Street environment, the HSAZ, as well as a Town Centre Priority Fund which supports local projects and improvements, and a £1m accelerator fund improving pedestrian access, events infrastructure and cycling facilities.
“This is just the start – the £22.5m won through our Town Deal Board, supported by fantastic local business leaders, is an exciting opportunity to continue to improve our local environment.”
‘It doesn’t look so derelict’
Alannah Gray, from Marston Moretaine, normally does her shopping in Bedford.
She noticed the new-look High Street that has fully reopened after it was adapted to become a single lane, with wider pavements and special loading bays.
“It works a lot better, traffic does get a little congested, but it’s a lot safer for pedestrians. It’s a big improvement and it doesn’t look so derelict,” she says.
The selection of shops is a “good thing”, she says, but she thinks there is still not enough.
‘It’s getting there’
Max Corrigan is from Bedford and Lexi Powell has recently moved here, but as she works from home she mainly does her shopping online.
She thinks the town is “looking run down”. “It’s not bad, it’s not great,” she says.
Max believes the changes to the High Street are “good” but it is still “run down and quiet”.
“I do think it’s on the up – it hit a low but now it’s getting there,” he says.
He does not come into Bedford to shop, as he mostly goes to Milton Keynes, but he does like to “hang out in escape rooms or have a coffee”.
‘Could be a lot better’
Tom Crawford lives in Cople and in the six years he has been shopping in the town “a lot has changed”, he says.
“It could be a lot better, the council is trying,” he says.
He would like to see “more independents” and his habit of shopping in Bedford is not going to change, as “I can’t stand Milton Keynes, so I prefer coming here”.