Opinion: An open letter to Mary Portas

Mary Portas (photo: Twitter @maryportas)

Dear Mary,

Bedford was part of the Portas Pilot project 10 years ago and it is my belief that it had a long-term and transformational effect on Bedford.

When Radio 4’s You and Yours programme broadcast a series of catch-up programmes a decade on from Bedford receiving £51,000 of government funding to implement projects to revive the town centre, they contacted me to talk about their findings.

I’d been part of the Portas Pilot Town Team and a recipient of some of the funding.

In their broadcast earlier this year, You and Yours said that since 2012, research showed that Eastern European supermarkets had flourished in Bedford.

Their whole programme centred around that single visible change to the retail landscape.

Although R4 chatted to me about my experience, they didn’t record any of our conversations and instead broadcast interviews with Christina Rowe of Bedford BID, councillors and shop owners.

At the time, back in January, I didn’t have the courage to tell them that I thought they were looking at it all wrong.

That the rise of these convenience stores had absolutely nothing to do with Bedford being part of the Portas Pilot project.

That the actual changes that have taken place in the town over the last decade as a result of our participation in the Portas Pilot project are far more nuanced and intangible – and most can’t be found on a map.

When I took part in the Portas Pilot project, I was given £1,000 of the town’s allocated £51,000.

Even 10 years ago, those sums seemed laughable, that anything meaningful could be achieved with such small amounts. But where there’s a will there’s a way.

Other ways the Portas Pilot funding was used can be found here.

Under the moniker of BedPop, in December 2013 we took on an empty shop on Bedford’s High Street. Number 68 to be precise.

It was a former Pizza Hut, it was enormous and it had lain empty and neglected for six years.

Alan Cooley organised the first BedPop Record Shop at 68 High Street as part of the Portas Pilot project

Over six months we held 19 events in the space and the landlord immediately had a flurry of enquiries, eventually renting the building to Coffee Republic, which has been successfully trading there since 2014.

Read: When is an empty shop not an empty shop?

One less empty shop on the High Street.

But it’s what happened afterwards and the collaborations that were formed that have proved to be the real success of our taking part in the project.

Firstly, four bricks and mortar shops opened as a result of that one pop-up shop.

A children’s book shop (and annual book festival), a record shop (and annual record store day events), a fruit and veg shop and a ‘Made in Bedford’ shop/vegan cafe (that runs regular artisan and vegan events too).

Another four fewer empty shops – and multiple events to enhance Bedford as a visitor destination.

Emboldened by our experiences, Julia Crofts and I ran Fun Palaces events in venues all over the town centre, bringing thousands of extra visitors to Bedford’s museums, libraries and theatres.

We then added events during British Science Week. Fun Palaces and Science Lab events continue in these venues to this day.

Alan Cooley had worked with us to run a pop-up record shop at 68 High Street.

He introduced Julia Crofts and me to Anne Harnan, and Taste Bedford, an annual food and music festival was born, putting Bedford on the foodie map and inspiring similar events to thrive.

Grandparent and child
Taste Bedford

In response to one of your recommendations in the 2011 Portas Review, Mary, we set up Bedford Flea, adding affordable art to the mix.

We handed over the reins to Talia Giles and Laura Holmes last year and they have grown the Flea into an incredible community of traders, added a local produce section and built up a must-visit monthly event.

A vintage clothes trader has opened a ‘bricks and mortar’ shop in the town centre thanks to trading at Bedford Flea.

Another less empty shop.

During the last 10 years, St Cuthbert’s Street and Mill Street have attracted a wealth of indie retailers – including a row featuring a butcher (Linger’s), a baker (Say doughnuts) and a candlestick maker (épanoui), plus a fishmonger, pizzeria, tattoo parlour and hairdressers.

The Edwardian Arcade (home of 68 High Street – our original pop-up location) has transformed large, expensive units into smaller, business-rate-free spaces that have attracted more new businesses.

Anorak in the Arcade

Riverside North, which saw some high-profile hospitality closures, is now home to some of Bedford’s most well-loved and supported independent businesses including Bridges Espresso Bar, Naughty Pizza, Foxy Wings, and we’ll also give Albero Lounge an honourable mention.

And following the closure of our local printed paper, Julia and I teamed up with Paul Hutchinson to set up the Bedford Independent.

A local online newspaper, determined to provide balanced, trusted news while also highlighting the best of Bedford and giving Bedfordians pride in their Borough.

We now have an average of 130,000 readers every month, provide a weekly what’s on guide, showcasing the Borough’s incredible live music and arts scene (Bedford isn’t sh*t, btw) and host the annual Everyday Heroes awards, which celebrates the people that make Bedford Borough brilliant.

Each of these achievements has had multiple other ‘ripples’ of collaborations and successes.

Bedford Film Festival, FiverFest (thanks to the Totally-Locally-award-winning Helen Patterson), Bedfordshire Gin Festival, and Explore Bedford, to name a few, so the effects keep on coming.

During the same time period, our town, through no fault of our own, has lost its BHS, Debenhams, Beales, Dorothy Perkins, Game and Miss Selfridge. All of these businesses have disappeared from all UK High Streets (thanks, Sir Philip).

In addition, our M&S and Next have relocated out of the town centre to nearby retail parks and even through the most rose-tinted of glasses, it’s sometimes hard to see the positives.

But we do remain positive and we do remain inspired.

Read: Opinion: The death of the High Street has been greatly exaggerated* 

And I’d like to thank you for that. For being a ray of town centre positivity and inspiration over the last decade.

None of the above would have happened without that £1,000 Portas Pilot grant and the relentless creativity and hard work of the everyday heroes that refuse to give up on town centres.

There is a tour de force of creative practitioners and producers on the rise, who are working tirelessly to help the ‘high street’ renaissance – taking it back to its original purpose of being community-focused, with specialist shops and centres rather than national chains.

And a Creative Hub Pop-Up has funding in place, but as of yet, no landlord has seen the positive impact of such a project, so it currently has no premises.

Maybe you could give them a nudge, Mary.

Here’s to the next 10 years of the evolution of Bedford and the people that make it happen

And thank you.

Erica Roffe
Co-managing editor, Bedford Independent
Co-founder of BedPop

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