Council criticised for being ‘behind the curve’ as it unveils town centre plans for the future

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Bedford town centre. Image: Bedford Borough Council
Bedford town centre. Image: Bedford Borough Council

Bedford Borough Council has published its ‘Town Centre Vision’ which it says outlines its aim to create “town centres [in Bedford and Kempston] that people are proud to live in and excited to visit”.

However, it has recieved a lukewarm reception from critics, saying it’s nothing new and lacks ambition.

The Council has said that this new vision is to be delivered through a series of short, medium and long-term projects that will benefit local town centres.

It has been proposed that £10m is allocated in the Council’s forward capital programme, which it says will be considered as part of the 2024/25 budget preparation process.

The Council has been criticised for its lack of ambition and new ideas, with councillors and members of the previous administration saying the plans don’t reveal anything ground-breaking.

And an expert in town centre regeneration has told the Bedford Independent that residents should manage their expectations given the limited budget available.

Distinctive quarters and vibrant hubs

The vision aims to revitalise the town centres into “vibrant hubs that offer shopping, services for the community, and leisure, cultural, business and residential spaces, with distinctive quarters that reflect history, heritage and culture.”

You can see the Bedford town centre vision here.

The Kempston plan can be viewed here.

Castle ward councillors, Lucy Bywater and Paul Edmonds (Green Party) who represent residents in Bedford town centre said: “The labelling of various ‘quarters’ and ‘development areas’ (such as in St Mary’s Gardens) very much needs explaining, as does the plan for an “Oasis Road Bridge” which could further increase the traffic on an already busy Newnham Avenue.

“In terms of providing ‘a clear direction for the regeneration and revitalisation of our town centres’, this plan fails to capture that in our view.”

Many of Bedford’s existing independent retailers currently exist within what will be known as the ‘cultural quarter’, while the area to the west of the High Street, encompassing Silver Street to Midland Road, is to be renamed the ‘independent quarter’.

Connectivity

Much of the new vision places an emphasis on the importance of connectivity across the Borough.

Alongside improving gateways into Bedford and Kempston, the Council also intends to use the river and parks to link the town centres to the wider areas of the Borough, alongside creating connections to some of the local area’s hidden gems.

The proposals seek to improve the ‘Town of Markets’ offer in both Bedford and Kemston, “ensuring the town centres are well managed, clean and accessible, and bringing investment into the areas to encourage jobs and prosperity”.

Expert analysis

Patrick Harnan has 25 years’ experience in UK commercial property, specialising in investment, asset management and property finance. He lives in Bedford, but has vast experience working with town centres up and down the country to address exactly the problems Bedford faces.

In addition, he has collaborated with several local independent business owners in Bedford to help them open premises in the town centre.

“It is clear to me that Bedford is miles behind the curve in intervention in the town centre,” he told the Bedford Independent.

“Many other councils in many other towns are doing many things to re-vitalise and reinvent their town centre, in ways we have not even started and possibly contemplated.

“Despite the new mayor and his team having a lot of catching up to do, I feel this focus now is a start and recognition that the council need to do things and maybe can make a difference.”

Realistically speaking, Patrick acknowledges that the budget available to realise the vision was limited.

“Finding £10m in the forward capital programme will be tough and those interested in the town centre should temper their expectations about what is possible in the context of the wider demands on the council budget,” he said.

“But a huge amount of actual, real, visible and meaningful change can be made with £10m, but the council needs focus and courage, a willingness to use their range of powers – particularly Compulsory Purchase – and a willingness to partner with others.

“I look forward to seeing their Town Centres Plan and would be happy to use my experience to assist. And I really wish them well with it. It’s important to all of us who live and work in Bedford.”

Bedford Flea market bustling with people on St Paul's Square
Events such as Bedford Flea bring residents and visitors to the town centre (image: Bedford Flea)

Property lawyer, Catherine Williams, who also lives in Bedford, said the proposals ticked a lot of boxes and it was important to emphasise the town’s assets: the river, markets and historic buildings.

“This is not a wholesale redevelopment and reinvention project and is more about incremental changes – which is probably all that can be done with a small budget of £10m,” she said.

“Now it is all about the execution of that vision, starting with the quick and easy wins.

“Town centre vibrancy requires people. My recommendation would be to focus on the two ends of the spectrum. Focus on what puts people off coming and encourage more of what draws people in. Disregard anything in the middle that does not deliver on those two priorities.”

“Nothing new”

Several councillors have expressed their disappointment that the plans are not more radical, offering few new innovations.

Cllr Lucy Bywater (Green) said: “We’ve looked with interest at the plans, such as they are, and cannot find much that’s new. It appears we have been offered various existing improvement plans bundled into a strangely incorrectly numbered map (placing Russell Park as part of the railway station planning).

“The recent council executive meeting didn’t illuminate but spoke in vague terms.”

Cllr Bywater and fellow Castle Ward Green Party councillor, Paul Edmonds said they wanted the council to concentrate on “getting the basics right”.

“…a feeling of town centre safety, cleanliness, sufficient working toilets and decent disability accessibility. We should be fully celebrating and promoting the unique gems we already have in terms of culture and history, crucially having a healthy river at the centre of that.”

Former portfolio holder for town centres, Cllr Henry Vann (LibDem, De Parys ward) said he didn’t feel there was anything new of substance to comment on.

“Whilst we welcome the continuation of the many exciting projects started under the previous administration for the town centre, this is basically a repeat of our radical vision for vibrant, diverse, thriving town centres,” he told the Bedford Independent.

He described the vision as “a list of existing projects, funding for which was won by the Liberal Democrat administration, and almost all of which have been announced previously”.

The national picture

Bedford is by no means alone in the challenges it faces, from empty shops to homelessness to anti-social behaviour.

“The cost of living crisis, poverty and addiction that leads to begging, empty shops and the preference for online shopping – and we need to get genuine engagement from locals about what improvements will make a real, positive difference to them and their daily quality of life,” added Cllr Bywater.

“We’re promised a consultation next Spring… What do people really need? What things can’t they access online? What will enrich their lives? How do we engage people? Community ‘ownership’ should be an important part of any plans going forward.”

Debenhams has been empty since 2021

Christina Rowe, chair of Bedford BID, which is funded by over 500 town centre businesses told us they were “looking forward to contributing to the consultations and wider vision of Bedford town centre with a focus on our town centre business community.”

Councillor Andrea Spice (Conservative), cabinet member for town centres and planning, said the council accepted that the role of town centres is changing and that they aimed to be ambitious.

“That’s why we’ll be working with local businesses and residents to understand how they would like to see this vision brought to life in a meaningful way,” she said.

“I am delighted that we have agreed a new Town Centre vision for Bedford and Kempston at yet another positive and productive meeting of the Council’s Executive.

“This vision outlines our aspirations for the Bedford and Kempston town centres, detailing our framework for making them areas where people want to live, work, shop and spend time.”

Bedford Borough Council confirmed that a more detailed Town Centres’ Plan is being developed to support the delivery of this vision and is expected to be published next year. 

You can discover more about the Town Centres’ vision, including a map with key planned projects, here.