Bedford has all the makings of a leader in city centre living

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High Streets could become about “city living” with key businesses serving very local customers.

On the doorstep cafe society, convenience stores, delightful delis, special interest shops, bars, restaurants, gyms and hair and beauty services, is, in part, the future of town centres.

Conversions of “above the shop” spaces and offices blocks into apartments, attracting young professionals and even students, means a more youthful audience for town centre businesses.

Shaun Barnett, Senior Branch Manager at Leaders Romans Group, which manages 100s of town centre lettings says: “We are seeing a huge demand from tenants for central locations with convenient access to the public transport infrastructure from which Bedford benefits, along with the offer of café culture and independent local businesses 

Shaun Barnett, right on the occasion of the opening of Leaders’ new office.

“Five years ago all we heard about from clients was off-road parking and magnolia walls, now the demand is very much about location, convenience and a neutral grey modern décor!

“We have been in consultation with a number of London City-based, and local investors, looking to capitalise on this surge in demand, investing millions back into the High Street and transforming old office blocks into modern state-of-the-art living accommodation, with additional attractions like concierge services, open work spaces for convenient working from home, yoga rooms and communal gyms. 

“With the growing rental demand and reasonably priced property ready and waiting to be transformed, the ‘Build to Rent’ sector is a huge area of growth and opportunity for our town, which in turn will support the High Street.

“Bedford really is an exciting hot spot for City commuters looking for that additional working from home space, as well as a convenient commute, and as a result, the demand and calibre of potential tenants is fantastic.”

A Government consultation “Supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure”  could allow make easier changes of use from commercial to residential premises – speeding up a process which is under way already in Bedford.

The former home of major employer NFC, the Merton Centre, is now a complex of quality apartments To Let. More properties have been converted around the town.

Jo Marks has taken the old post office in Dame Alice Street and turned it into quality apartments. She has done the same in an old building opposite the rugby club in Goldington Road. She has transformed the old Higgins Sheds to unique start-up business units now called Marks Mews.

Businessman Kevin Kavanagh, known for his association with the town centre via Frescoes Coffee House and The Blue Glass wine bar said: “Since I opened my first business in Mill Street, the town has changed dramatically, as have all towns. Now post-pandemic and the shift to online shopping, there will be be a further change in the streetscape.

“I am part of a group which consults regularly with the local council and the general view of independent business owners is for Bedford to boost its tourism appeal, make more of the river, and stage events which bring in people from outside the town centre. Those who live in town will help to keep independent businesses going, but of course, those businesses will have to offer online services as well.

“There are great opportunities ahead – but it needs a combination of council and businesses to navigate these changes. Bedford has been ahead of the game with its 100s of independents and I am sure more will follow.”

Kevin is a former Chair of the pioneering BedfordBID (Business Improvement District). He was instrumental is opening up cafe society in the town by getting the local council to change expensive fees licensing tables and chairs on the pavement. The move benefitted Frescoes, but also scores of others in the town over the past two decades.  

“Businesses need to work as one for the greater good,” added Kevin: “Using the BID’s Love Bedford brand to promote the town is proving increasingly useful in the overcrowded and confusing social media scene.”