View from the villages: It’s vital that all of us support the town centre and shop local

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The now finally confirmed closure of all Debenhams stores, as it goes purely on-line, further damages Bedford town centre.

Until now Bedford has, despite the losses of several major retailers, been doing better than many comparable towns in retaining both traders and customers.

The question now is can it continue to attract sufficient visitors to provide existing and prospective retailers with sufficient business.

What Covid has of course done is boost even more the number of people shopping online and further weaken the high street shops .

The number of delivery vans I now see in the villages may reduce after Covid but many more people will now choose to shop differently.

It is the same for work patterns; it is already clear that more people will work wholly or partly remotely in future and that will change travel patterns further reducing that passing trade that so many small shops such as newsagents or cafes rely upon.

Towns have always changed in response to economic and other pressures but what they have always had in common is that they have been a focus for trade.

Bedford, like many other county and market towns, has always had that going for it; indeed the original market charter was granted over 800 years ago.

Bedford Market

But not all towns flourish all the time and external factors can either boost or weaken them.

We all know the structural factors harming Bedford town centre’s viability; it started with out of town supermarkets and shopping centres with free parking and has continued with unfair competition from online shopping.

Amazon and its rivals pay very little by comparison in either business rates or tax. Many Bedfordians have lost jobs or businesses because it isn’t a level playing field.

What can Bedford do to attract potential visitors and customers from the villages or further afield?

The Borough has prioritised this issue and consulted residents in 2019. There were, perhaps disappointingly, only 2000 responses but they were united in wanting to save Bedford as a destination.

All recognised its assets ranging from the embankment to The Higgins but the biggest single group of responses concerning the future looked for a restoration of retail and the second was connectivity, whether roads, parking or bus fares.

The Town Centre Plan was approved last year and includes many good ideas which deserve implementing.

We have already succeeded in tapping Government funding for a variety of schemes but reversing the trend can’t be done by the Council alone.

Economic viability for Bedford and its businesses will, for the future, still depend on visitors and that means that those who want a thriving town must use it more.

That means us.

There may be a short term gain in using Amazon (which I refuse to do) but in the long term we lose.

I would urge all of us who live outside Bedford Town, but want it to thrive, to shop locally.

When, post covid, we are allowed to come in and use the Town Centre, its shops and its facilities we need to do so. Perhaps a Buy Bedford campaign is needed.

The more prosperous the town the better off we will all be.

View from the Villages is a monthly column by Cllr Stephen Moon.
Councillor for Great Barford Ward (Including Cardington, Cople,
Great Barford, Renhold, Ravensden, Willington and Woodlands Park).

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