Monthly column: Be ambitious for our town

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Deserted Bedford Town Centre
Bedford Town Centre Image: Don Weerasirie

Regular Bedford Independent readers will know that to make sure our content is balanced and gives both sides of the story as much as we can, we offer regular monthly columns for our Borough’s elected leaders.

Some have taken us up on this offer and others have not. We are pleased, however, to launch today a new column for the leader of the opposition to Borough Borough Council’s executive.

Currently, Bedford Borough’s Executive is made up of four Liberal Democrat councillors, three Labour councillors and one independent councillor.

The author of our current opposition column will therefore be written by Cllr Graeme Coombes (Wilshamstead), leader of Bedford Borough Conservatives.

Cllr Coombes’ column will follow the same guidelines as all other political columns, which you can read here.


 

Bedford town centre has been through some tough times in recent years. The incessant rise of online shopping, resulting in the disappearance of many well-known high street brands, combined with the shutdown during COVID, has hit Bedford’s shopkeepers hard.

The number of visitors to our town continues to fall year after year, even post-COVID, fewer people visited Bedford in September 2022 than 12 months previously. The numbers for the peak Christmas trading period of November/December 2022 make for grim reading, with a decline of 88% since 2017.

Underused and often half-empty multi-storey car parks are not attracting visitors, suggesting that the Mayor’s 2 hours of free parking isn’t enough.

Prominent high street brands have gone – M&S, Debenhams, Next, River Island and Beales – and retailers who remain want Bedford Council to do more, as neighbouring local authorities seem to be able to make a much more compelling town centre offering – and the footfall figures prove it.

One other factor that has had a major impact on the ability of our town centre to thrive, is the complete lack of vision and ambition from Bedford’s political leadership.

Bedford Borough has been handed many millions of pounds of Central Government funding, specifically to finance projects to revitalise our town, this includes a whopping £22.6m from the Towns Fund.

With such a large sum of money at its disposal, you would think Bedford Council could put together a bold vision for our town and inject new energy. Let’s not forget the Mayor has spent at least £3m on widening the high street and yet footfall continues to decline.

Cllr Graeme Coombes
Cllr Graeme Coombes, leader of the Bedford Borough Conservative Group

The Mayor and his Cabinet, have buried their heads in the sand, and seem unwilling to recognise the real daily challenges that Bedford town centre faces. Not all the town centre’s problems are the fault of the politicians, but the unwillingness to recognise these problems and proactively seek to redress them can be laid fairly and squarely at the feet of the Mayor.

We need much greater engagement with Bedford retailers and also with the Bedford public, to find out what would make them more likely to come into the town centre.

It can’t all be about replacing departing shops with new shops and we must recognise that. We need empty town centre retail units converted to starter homes for young people to get on the housing ladder. We need a transport network that properly connects the bus station and railway station.

The lack of entertainment options, lack of toilets, lack of soft play areas for children, all currently act as a disincentive to visiting Bedford town centre – we need to change this.

As the current Mayor’s term comes to an end, we need someone with vision and ambition for our town to address the ongoing challenges outlined above.

Decline is not inevitable and we must be bold and re-think the town’s future if we are to inject new life into it and make a compelling case to visit.

This is a monthly guest column provided by Cllr Graeme Coombes,
leader of Bedford Borough Conservatives as Bedford Borough Council opposition.

It is published unedited and does not reflect the views of the Bedford Independent.