Town centre mythbusting: from rent and rates to tree roots

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Bedford Town Centre

When it comes to town centres, including Bedford’s, it seems that everyone is an expert. From rent and rates to regeneration projects, everyone’s got an opinion and everyone thinks they’re right.

Here at the Bedford Independent, we thought it was about time we busted some well-worn town centre myths, particularly those that plague social media community groups across the UK including those centred around our own town, like We Are Bedford.

Myth one

No wonder there are so many empty shops, the council charge too much rent

Shop rents are set by the landlord of the property. Almost 90% of the properties in Bedford town centre are owned by private landlords, over whom the council have no control.

Many private landlords are not local and the buildings are owned by a large investment or pension fund. For them, the value of the property is the same whether the building is occupied or empty.

The former Goldings building on Bedford High Street – not owned by the Council

According to Bedford BID’s most recent data, there are approximately 650 businesses in the town centre.

Associating that figure to business premises, Bedford Borough Council currently owns 73 premises, which makes up around 11.23% of the total town centre stock.

At the time of writing, six of the units owned by the Council are currently vacant, with two earmarked for redevelopment and four available for lease.

These six units equate to 8.22% of the Council’s Town Centre property stock, and 0.6% of the total town centre stock.

Myth two

The council should not be so greedy and should cut business rates

While business rates are collected by the local council, the rates that businesses pay are set by central government’s Valuation Office Agency. They give each non-domestic property a ‘rateable value’.

The rateable value is then used by local councils to calculate the business rates that should be paid by the occupier of the premises.

The Council only keeps 49% of the business rates that they collect.

50% of business rates are returned to central government, while 1% goes to Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Authority.

Although business rates are set centrally, Bedford Borough Council may be able to provide advice and support to eligible businesses that feel they need help.

They also provide rate relief where central government enables them.

The owners of the Old Arcade have reconfigured many of their units so they are below the rateable value

Small businesses with a rateable value of up to £12,000 no longer pay business rates, as they qualify for 100% business rate relief.

For properties with a rateable value of £12,001 to £15,000, the rate relief will go down gradually from 100% to 0%. There are various other forms of business rate relief, which you can read more about on the Council’s website.

Premise owners that feel they are paying too much in business rates can contact the Valuation Office Agency to have their rateable value assessed.

Myth three

Bedford town centre is a ghost town

Not only is this well-worn social media moan inaccurate, but it is also hugely disrespectful to the hundreds of business owners, from national chains to small independents, who are working tirelessly in the face of the most turbulent period in retail history.

As of December 2020, 78 units in Bedford were vacant, which equates to 14% of the stock. This is the same as the national average.

All comparable towns and cities (Northampton, Wellingborough, Milton Keynes, Kempston, Huntingdon, Cambridge and St. Neots) have seen an increase in vacant units between 2019 and 2020.

A significant factor for the increase in vacant units has been due to the closure of large national department stores.

As that business model has become unviable, towns and cities up and down the country have suffered, and sadly Bedford is not immune from this worldwide trend.

One of the things Bedford can be most proud of is its large number of thriving independent businesses.

epanoui
épanoui on Mill Street, just one of Bedford’s 300 thriving indie retailers

From shops and cafes to escape rooms and hairdressers, Bedford has over 300 independent retailers, 22% more than the UK average.

That’s nearly a quarter more than most other towns and cities in the UK and is something we should be shouting from the rooftops.

Myth four

Planting trees in the town centre will ruin pavements and foundations of the buildings

A regular feature on social media comment threads is that green spaces in town centres are unnecessary.

This is usually backed up with concerns about pavements and building foundations being ruined.

“Street trees have the potential to make a significant contribution to improving and ameliorating the worst impacts of climate change in town centres,” according to buildingconservation.com.

“As a response to climate change, the planting of street trees is increasingly being promoted as a mechanism for dealing with the expected future increases in temperature,” they add.

Bedford town centre improvements have included tree planting in Silver Street Square, Allhallows and along the High Street.

Trees on the newly reopened stretch of Bedford High Street

The specification of trees planted in the town centre are written in consultation with Bedford Borough Arboriculturists to ensure that a species selected will be sympathetic to the local area.

They take into consideration things like anticipated growth size so that they complement the environment for years to come.

To mitigate root damage to pavements, trees are planted in specified tree pits where the sides are lined with a suitable root barrier to encourage the downward growth of roots, rather than outwards.

The species planted on the High Street are Gingko Biloba ‘Princeton Sentry’ and Liquidamber Styraciflua ‘Stella’.

On Silver Street Square are Gleditisia Tricanthos ‘Skyline’ trees.

Myth five

It’s all a waste of money that could be better spent on the NHS/homelessness/ schools/adult services/potholes*

*delete as appropriate

It’s very easy to think that any money the council has can be spent on anything they like.

However, many of the grants and the funding that Bedford Borough Council receives from partners including SEMLEP, Bedford BID and central government, are ring-fenced.

This means there are specific restrictions attached to it stating that if the Council accepts the money, it must be spent on a particular project and is also mostly one-off ‘capital’ spending.

This means that whilst the Council received a cut to its annual budget of £10m last year, it still had to prepare and spend money bidding for these one-off grants, which can’t be used on repeating annual costs (known as ‘revenue spending’).

Trevor Huddleston’s statue looks over the newly completed Silver Street Square, part of the High Street regeneration works

An example of this is the £22.6m funding that Bedford Borough Council recently secured through a Town Deal.

The Town Deal Board, representing local businesses, charities, education bodies and in partnership with the Council was asked to put forward a town investment plan for up to £25m.

This plan included projects that promoted urban regeneration, skills and enterprise infrastructure and connectivity.

The government then awarded funding that must be used on the projects included in their Town Investment Plan.

Bedford’s application, which met the Government’s criteria, won more than 90% of its original funding application.

The Council must send returns to central government stating what funds were spent on.

If the Council were to spend this funding on something outside of what has been originally agreed, they would be in violation of the agreement and would have to pay this money back.

Similarly, if the funding was not spent at all it would have to be returned to central government.

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