Is Bedford in terminal decline?

I have lived in Bedford long enough to know that the Mayor and his coterie of favoured local politicians in the Borough Council lack vision, ambition and courage to make the town a place it’s inhabitants can be proud of. I have moved away but return regularly.

Empty shops dominate the High Street.

I came back this weekend for a brief visit; in a ten minute walk round the town centre I was shocked at the sight of so many empty business premises, together with a tangible sense of neglect.

Bedford’s traditional shopping streets used to have many household brands; now they are emptying at an alarming rate. Charity shops inevitably fill some spaces.

I’m sure the local political elite in Bedford will cite national trends to explain the wholesale abandonment of the town centre by well know national brands and local independent shops. Is it high business rates? Is it the shift to online shopping? Both of these are important factors, but it is so much more than this.

BHS no more – Bedford’s flagship store closed a long time ago.

Initiatives like ‘LoveBedford’ all help. But what Bedford needs is courageous political leadership. Pure and simple. The current Mayor’s version of strategic thinking is offering two hours free parking on Saturday. This is not good enough for 2019 and beyond.

People are still drawn to Bedford but they compete for space with cars and lorries.

Where is the bold, ambitious vision that could transform Bedford? Who is going to create a new hope for a bygone provincial market town that is clogged with traffic and poor air quality? We have had years of indifference and poor decision making by our political ‘elite’.

It has to change.

It’s time the people of Bedford did something about it.

Some stores remain hopeful of attracting passing trade.

Who is going to take that step forward to grab the town by the scruff of the neck and turn it into a place where people want to visit, where people want to shop and where the major retail brands want to be seen? Are there candidates out there capable of stepping up to the plate?

High Street brands are unlikely to want to open stores in Bedford when Borough Council decisions allow street food vendors to park in front of their shop fronts.

Perhaps the candidates in the Mayoral might like a few ideas for policy initiatives or manifesto pledges. Here are five ideas for starters;

1. Close roads in the town centre – ban vehicles entirely – to make the town centre a healthier, cleaner, safer and more people friendly space for families and visitors.

2. Link the town with the river. By removing vehicles from the centre we can connect the river and the beautiful parks the town is blessed to have in one safe space.

3. Use the town’s strategic location between Oxford and Cambridge to our advantage. We are equidistant between the two most pre-eminent university towns in the world. Why not open a Cambridge University ‘Bedford Campus’?

4. Ensure the new East-West railway line brings wealth to the town. We have a fantastic opportunity to be a key hub for both Oxford and Cambridge.

5. Leverage our close links with Cranfield University to create a place that attracts the best minds in the country. Tie ups with the universities and academia in general could lead to Bedford becoming a research or high tech hot spot for the UK’s economy as we make our way in the world outside the EU.

The town has much to offer. Here a choir sing rock songs in front of the Harpur Centre.

All of this is possible if only we have the right political leadership and brave, forward thinking politicians.

Bedford is in decline; yet it doesn’t have to be terminal. It’s clear to anyone who spends more than a few minutes walking around the centre of the town that it has lost its identity. It looks no different to any other similar town in the UK that has been starved of innovative and bold investment. But it doesn’t have to be like this going forward.

In this year’s Mayoral election the people of Bedford have an opportunity to bring a fundamental change to the status quo. As long as we have the right candidates, we have hope.

I fear for the future health of Bedford if we continue, unchanged down the same path.

It’s up to the people of this famous old town to be bold and make a choice that will embrace a different future.

Bedford needs a fundamental change of leadership; who is capable of making a difference?

By Ade Clewlow MBE

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