A council officer has revealed that efforts are ongoing to find space for big brands to move into Bedford as part of a massive effort to bring shoppers back to the town centre.
A committee was told about a multitude of initiatives being carried out – including renovating shop fronts and dividing up larger units to provide space for growing independents.
One councillor described a return to May 2016 and May 2018, when visitor numbers topped 1.2million, as a “huge uphill task.” In May this year visitor numbers were about half that, at 645,000.
Patrick Lyons, Bedford Council’s acting manager for economic growth and development, said: “Bedford is still an active requirement for some top brands who aren’t in the town.
“A big fashion retailer, I won’t name who they are but headquartered in Sweden, are someone who would come to Bedford if the right sort of property, the right option was there.”
He told the environment and sustainable communities overview and scrutiny committee that: “We are in constant dialogue with them.
“They have very specific requirements in terms of the footprint and the location and the shape of building they need.”
The council is also in touch with the owners of empty shops in the town and trying to “marry them up with end-user occupiers.”
The committee, which met on Thursday was also told of other initiatives aimed at improving the look of Bedford.
The council is using money to improve shop fronts and in creating smaller units for independent traders to move into when they grow.
Christina Rowe, the director of operations at Love Bedford (Bedford BID), told the meeting that Bedford’s figures were “bucking the trend” positively.
Traders have been reporting that visitors have been helping by filling “two shopping bags, not one” at visits, she said.
Cllr Roger Rigby (Cons, Bromham & Biddenham) said: “We will see more people coming back to the town but we have a huge uphill task ahead of us.”
He had found footfall figures from the past showing there had been 1.216 million visitors in May 2016 and 1.254 million in May 2018.
Chairing the committee Cllr Kay Burley (Lab, Kempston Central & East) said she welcomed a focus on independent retailers.
“Hopefully we could build a future on them because we will be different to Milton Keynes.
“We’re not in competition with places like Milton Keynes or even Rushden Lakes.
“We should be unique on our own and people should want to come to Bedford because there are a range of facilities.
“People won’t come here for Debenhams but maybe for something different, like for food and to visit the river or watch a performance.”
Cllr Jon Abbott (Lib Dem, Oakley) said the Riverside North development had improved the town by replacing a “manky old car park and an occasional market.”
“We are making Bedford far more beautiful and attractive than it was.”
by David Tooley
Local Democracy Reporter