Is Bedford in terminal decline?

After living away from Bedford for just over a year, I moved back in 2019. I first drafted this article after a brief visit during that time away. Sadly, even with a change of dates, the article remains relevant today. All photos (bar one) were taken in 2019, although they could just as easily have been taken last weekend.

I have lived in Bedford long enough to know that Bedford’s political leadership lacks vision, ambition and the courage to make the town a place it’s inhabitants can be proud of.

Empty shops dominate the High Street.

During a ten minute walk round the 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 international 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. Since writing this blog, M&S and Debenhams has followed suit although B&M, the low budget department store, is opening up a second store in the town.

Initiatives like ‘LoveBedford’ all help. But what Bedford needs is courageous political leadership.

The current level of strategic vision to boost foot fall is maintaining two hours free parking on a Saturday, along with other parking concessions in the town.

The lack of thought and attention to detail is everywhere; this month, during the Armistice Day two minutes silence, nobody thought to stop the traffic driving past the event. It’s a little thing, but it’s a symptom of neglect and poor leadership.

Even the current changes to the High Street traffic flow has missed a huge opportunity. We need to improve air quality and make the town centre a place people want to come to by removing traffic, not reducing it. This is no longer good enough for 2021 and beyond. There are countless examples around the UK and overseas where this approach has brought spectacular benefits.

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 has lost its spark? Who is going to lead the charge to attract investment into Bedford? We have had years of indifference and poor decision making. Someone has to turn this around.

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 located?

Bedford has three independent schools catering for school children aged between 11-18, not to mention Pilgrims. It’s not as if Bedford lacks people with the means to spend money in town. So why do they go elsewhere to spend it? How can we make Bedford a place people want to invest in, rather than ignore when it comes to spending their income.

Are there candidates out there capable of rediscovering Bedford’s soul?

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.

In case anyone who reads this wants to put their name into the hat, here are a few long term ideas for policy initiatives and manifesto pledges;

1. Close roads in the town centre and ban vehicles entirely in the High Street and around St Paul’s Square; make the town centre a healthier, cleaner, safer and a more people friendly space for families and visitors. The ongoing changes have missed this opportunity.

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, into one safe space. Make the river a place where people want to spend a few hours; there are currently only two small cafés to cater for visitors to the area. Let’s create something out of nothing to attract more people to the area.

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, for example, use Borough-owned land (if there is any left) to open a Cambridge University ‘Bedford Campus’, rather than building huge warehouses that don’t add anything to the value of the town? It just takes some initiative and the right story to tell to get investors interested.

4. 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 a post Brexit world.

5. Ensure planning for the new East-West railway line brings wealth to the town rather than bypassing it. We have a fantastic opportunity to be a strategic hub for both Oxford and Cambridge. Think big.

6. Get a grip of the town centre. It’s one of the most unappealing places to visit; no wonder people take their disposable income elsewhere. Remove market stalls from in front of shops and regulate their use and their location, use the dedicated area for market stalls rather than the main shopping streets (with cars banned from St Paul’s Square there would be more room), introduce farmer’s markets, and incentivise independent shops to open in the centre. Speak to leaders in other towns where these changes have been a success.

6. Finally, consider relocating the council offices out of town and into an eco friendly, smaller building on the outskirts of the town. Demolishing the concrete structure, an eyesore to most casual observers, will free up a highly valuable plot of land that should be the subject of a Borough-wide survey, which encourages people to make suggestions for its use. The possibilities are endless.

By developing a strategic plan incorporating many of these initiatives, we can get the local MP on board and give him a reason to champion Bedford’s potential with the Government, to attract investment beyond UK-wide funding initiatives.

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 investment.

A rowing regatta last weekend (2021).

In Bedford, an inclusive and proud multicultural town, we have a great story to tell. We have one of the best river frontages in the UK used for international rowing regattas, an international standard athletics stadium, a Rugby club one step away from England’s elite (if only the club was able to meet the necessary technical criteria), wonderful parkland, and a thriving arts scene, even if it could do with greater exposure and investment. The list could go on. Essentially, we have to build on what we have.

In the next Mayoral election in 2023, 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.

Bedford needs a fundamental change of leadership to reverse the decline. Who is capable of making a difference to the future of the town and its inhabitants?

By Ade Clewlow MBE

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