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Let's Work Together to Help Bedford Town Centre to Adapt and to Thrive

January 28, 2013 6:27 PM

Bedford Town CentreThe latest of my monthly columns for the Times and Citizen newspaper looked at Bedford Town Centre in the context of the nationwide trends which are creating such challenges for the British High Street. The 'perfect storm' of the extremely difficult wider economic climate, the rise of internet shopping and growth of out-of-town shopping have sent many town centres fall into steep decline.

While things are obviously tough here in Bedford, our town centre has bucked the trend in some respects, with a reduction in the retail vacancy rate last year, in contrast to other towns nearby and across the country. However, with national chain stores closing and those prevailing trends creating major challenges in Bedford just as they are elsewhere, it is clear that Bedford town centre needs to adapt and change if it is to thrive. My article looked at the opportunities for this to happen, now and in the coming years. If you didn't see it, I have pasted it below:

Currently it seems that each week brings news of another high street chain in crisis. The cases of Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster have prompted talk of the decline of the British high street, as people turn increasingly to internet or out-of-town shopping. Bedford faces these same challenges, but even as some town centres elsewhere decay alarmingly, there is absolutely no reason why we should simply accept such a fate here. Far from it, in fact, as there are real opportunities for us to help ensure our town centre enjoys an exciting future.

People have got to want to choose to come to Bedford not just for shopping, but also to enjoy spending leisure time and, in turn, money! We are well placed in this regard. The Riverside North Development will reintroduce town centre cinema in Bedford, which alone will attract up to 350,000 people every year. The development will also create genuine links between the town centre and the riverside, especially via the major new public square to be created following the demolition of the town hall office block. This new riverside environment will attract people of all ages, including in the evenings. The newly redeveloped Higgins Bedford art gallery and museum will also open this spring, offering a first class cultural attraction.

We also need to promote our existing strengths, such as the fantastic range of independent traders we have. Bedford is a historic town centre too, of course, and the £3 million heritage-based regeneration scheme for the High Street will help us make the most of this. Meanwhile, three successive car park charge freezes in support of shoppers and traders have bucked the trend seen elsewhere.

Finally, we should see that beyond those who will always talk down our town, people really do care about their town centre and will support it given the chance. The tremendous response generated by the We Are Bedford community group is just one example of this, as was the success of the 'Portas Pilot' Bid. So, while acknowledging the challenges ahead, let's recognise that with the will to work together we can ensure that rumours of the death of the British high street remain far from the truth, at least here in Bedford.