Opinion: Beyond M&S – the future of Bedford’s town centre

2008
Could the empty building become a food hall?

Last week we broke the news that Bedford’s town centre M&S has been earmarked for closure.

The immediate reaction from many was one of concern that if the shop that has stood at the centre of our town for 90 years was to close, it would spell doom for Bedford’s town centre.

In response we immediately backed a community led campaign to show M&S bosses that their store is still very much a part of our town, but must adapt and evolve with shoppers’ modern wants and needs.

Read: “Let’s show M&S what they’ll miss out on” – Save our M&S campaign launched

But what if M&S was to close? Would it really be the end of Bedford? The Bedford Independent‘s co-managing editor, Erica Roffe, looks at the idea that while it may be painful, this is simply part of how town centres are evolving.

Opinion: Beyond M&S – the future of Bedford’s town centre

The decision of M&S to close the Bedford town centre store was not only expected but inevitable. To deny that is to put one’s head in the sand.

The brand’s focus and profits have been suffering for years, with food sales propping up fashion (currently 62% food: 38% fashion).

In recent years, each time store closures were announced, it felt like Bedford was merely getting a stay of execution; we were kicking the can and delaying the inevitable.

M&S Bedford
Marks and Spencer has occupied the corner of Midland Road and Harpur Street for 90 years

It may have been unavoidable, but that’s not to say it’s not devastating.

When the store closes it will leave a physical and metaphorical hole in the town centre. It is a retail anchor, representing the heart of our shopping centre.

M&S to most people is much more than a shop, a brand, a prawn sandwich or a pair of knickers. To many people it represents the very best of British retail, quality and service.

To have retained our M&S as Northampton lost theirs felt like an endorsement of Bedford.

M&S prawn sandwich
This isn’t just any prawn sandwich…

Overheads including town centre rents and business rates, staff costs, the BID levy coupled with an ageing customer base, limited disposable income and the convenience of out of town and online alternatives has made town centre retail a costly endeavour.

But for now, all is not lost. The former BHS store is due to open as a Days department store this Spring.

One of three concept stores created by respected retail heavyweight, Philip Day, Days will bring his various brands – including Jaeger, Austin Reed, Country Casuals and Jane Norman – under one roof, rethinking the traditional department store concept.

Days department store: opening in Bedford in 2019

The redevelopment of the Bedford store is running behind schedule, but as Philip Day’s spokesman told the Guardian: “As we’re a private family business, we’d rather take the time to get things right, than get them done quickly.

“We have the flexibility to take our time – and we do not chase short-term results or profits. We’re not in a rush because we’re trying to build something that will last generations into the future.”

So, is it time to turn what we know about town centres on their head and think creatively about what function they’ll have in the future?

Predictions show that future town centres will bear little resemblance to the halcyon days of the High Street; the days before clone towns, before Amazon and ASOS, before out-of-town supermarkets and double-income families.

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Successful town centres will trade on their uniqueness, on their retail mix, their cultural assets and their civic environment.

We’ll still need to shop there, and large functional chains will still remain. But there will be an increase in independent shops creating diversity, offering a retail experience, great customer service and product knowledge.

Towns will increasingly be leisure destinations, social hubs, home to dining and entertainment options, libraries, museums, events, residential units and open spaces. A place to spend quality time with friends and family.

They’ll be well-lit, safe and welcoming. The restoration of a sense of community.

Driverless cars will mean less parking provision will be required. There will be safe cycle paths and we’ll make more use of the beautiful river.

Adventure golf

A building that could be a bowling alley, an arts centre, an indoor food court, a crazy golf course.

And I feel that if there is enough creative thought put into that building, it could herald a bright future for Bedford.