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

Bedford's Old Arcade
Visitors to the Edwardian Arcade in Bedford can park in the short-term bays to visit many of Bedford's independent shops

This afternoon I was interviewed by Roberto Perrone on BBC Three Counties Radio about the latest town centre statistics.

According to research released today, around 16 stores closed their doors every day in the first half of 2019 while only nine opened.

This has seen a net decline of 1,234 chain stores on Britain’s top 500 high streets and here in Bedford we’ve certainly felt the pinch with the closure of M&S and TopShop.

And although our town centre vacancy rates are below the national average, the perception seems to be that there are swathes of empty shops in Bedford (there aren’t).

In fact, the managing agents of Old Arcade report that just one unit is currently available – everything else is either let or under offer.

Over the last ten years, Bedford has been at the mercy of chain store closures, often leaving large buildings vacant for years.

Woolworths, Bhs, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Prezzo – leaving the Mexico unit empty, Pizza Hut and M&S have all left blank spaces in the town centre, some taking years to fill.

The former Pizza Hut unit at 68 High Street was empty for six years before BedPop took it on with a £2,000 grant from the Portas Pilot scheme and ran pop up shops and events in the space.

Alan Cooley organised the first BedPop Record Shop at 68 High Street

Six months later a tenant had been found and five years later, Coffee Republic is still thriving in the space.

That pop up space inspired Rogan’s Books, Slide Record Shop, Made in Bedford at Number 13 and the Black Cat Farm Shop in Roxton, as well as countless events and projects.

Tom Grennan even played an acoustic set at the BedPop Record Shop in the space.

So, while the big chain stores are struggling to navigate the retail revolution, innovative independent shopkeepers are making waves, creating experiential shops that customers can’t wait to visit.

In the last fortnight, two new independent shops have opened (The Store on St Cuthbert’s Street and Anorak in the Old Arcade), with Eagle Bookshop and Gallery relocating to new premises by the end of the month.

Rosanna from The Store and Emma at Anorak both report that their opening trading figures have far, far exceeded their projections.

“I’ve been blown away by the response from the customers,” said Anorak’s Emma Foley.

“The amount of positivity about the shops and about Bedford has been overwhelming.

“My customers see a future for Bedford and want their town to thrive.”

Anorak is the exclusive UK stockist of a number of brands and also sells original artwork and accessories

“Lots of our customers had never been to St Cuthbert’s Street before, so we’re opening up a whole new side of the town centre to them,” said Ro Heasman of The Store.

“I’d say that 30% of customers have come in to Bedford specifically to visit our shop.

“I then send them off with personal recommendations of other shops, cafes and restaurants to visit.”

When Eagle Bookshop relocates to St Peter’s Street at the end of the month, they will not only treble their floorspace, but also make the shop more accessible to their customers.

“We’re looking forward to contributing to a buzzing town centre,” said owner, Peter Budek.

“In our new space, customers will be able to immerse themselves in the pleasure of browsing and shopping 100,000 books.

“Online competitors might be able to compete on price (although generally we’re better value) but they certainly can’t compete on experience.”

But while independent shops and businesses are bringing a new lease of life to some parts of the town centre, the threat of chain store closures still hangs over the High Street.

So we’re behind calls to ask the government to make changes to business rates, we’re behind the Council’s town centre consultation and we’re behind an ambitious vision to bid for part of the new £25m town centre fund.

But mostly we’re behind the brave businessmen and women who are running independent shops in Bedford, making it a unique, interesting and diverse place to visit.

*With apologies to Mark Twain

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