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Bedford: Will renovation bring in more shoppers?

By Alex Pope
BBC News

image captionWork starting in 2021 will mean Bedford High Street will only have one lane open for traffic, while the other will be used for loading and drop-offs

The way we shop has dramatically changed since the coronavirus pandemic forced the closure of many stores and increased our reliance on online shopping. Could renovating its historic buildings help one town's high street recover?

Steeped in history, the town of Bedford was given its Royal Charter by Henry II in 1166 and was where author and preacher John Bunyan was jailed for his religious non-conformity.

Now home to about 100,000 people, it still holds its charter markets every Wednesday and Saturday, but has suffered the recent closure of big-name stores including Topshop, River Island, Marks and Spencer and Beales.

Bedford Borough Council is keen to boost trade and hopes an investment of £1.76m from Historic England to restore historical features on 43 buildings will make Bedford a "more attractive place to visit and shop".

'We all need to work together'

image captionHenry Vann said Bedford "has an outstanding array of independent businesses as well as other major shops, libraries and river frontage"

Henry Vann, the council's portfolio holder for town centre and planning, said: "Bedford has a rich, diverse history to celebrate and this funding will help us restore some of those buildings, support town centre businesses and help get even more people into our town centre.

"Coronavirus has had a massive impact on town centres across the country, with people staying at home when necessary and social distancing as much as possible, and, as a result, doing more of their shopping online. Bedford is no exception."

He believes making the town a "destination" is the answer, not just by encouraging retail but creating more residential properties, as well as office space and businesses, such as yoga and dance studios.

"It would be absurd to say we can do it alone: people in Bedford feel strongly about their town centre, and we all need to work together to continue to support our town, shop locally, and support local businesses."

The shoppers' verdict

image captionJoseph Alason said: "The better the place, the more people will come"

Joseph Alason, 23, is happy to come to Bedford and shop as it is a "decent town" with everything he needs.

He was pleased to hear money is to be spent on the High Street, and said: "The better the place, the more people will come."

image captionEmma Talbot likes to walk into town to shop with her daughter, Clemency

Just investing in updating shop fronts is not enough for Emma Talbot, 38.

The Bedford mother-of-two said the town was "so sad and depressed because the main shops have gone - it's just awful".

She believes improving its appearance will give the town a much-needed "lift" but said: "Long-term, we need something more."

image captionBedford had always been a great place to shop, said Sarah Dobranzski

Shops will play a vital part in the town's regeneration says Sarah Dobrzanski, 50.

"We need to be selling ourselves as a destination town, but not just for food, drink and entertainment - I don't want that to happen," she said.

"Bedfordians, when they look up... are very proud to see the regeneration of old buildings that have been here for hundreds of years."

image captionKatie Jones only comes to Bedford occasionally to shop as she lives about 10 miles away

Katie Jones, 45, from Riseley, normally shops at Rushden Lakes, about 17 miles (27km) away from Bedford, as it is a little closer to her home and has free parking.

Having come into town to get her son's phone fixed, she said: "I was shocked to see so many places have closed."

She said the town "looks really tired" but the hoped the renovation would help.

"If places look scruffy then it's not very inviting to go there," she said.

What do the businesses think?

One thing that makes Bedford stand out is its high number of independent shops.

According to Bedford Business Improvement District there are 300, making the proportion 22% higher than the UK average.

Michael Damiano, 32, runs one of them.

image captionMichael Damiano planned to open his new shop on the High Street before coronavirus hit and is now "busier than ever"

He opened Damiano Hair on the High Street on 4 July, the day when hairdressers and barbers were allowed to open again and says it has been a great opportunity for him.

He started his own business after taking over his father's salon by the bus station and moving it to the High Street, where he hopes to be "noticed".

"This is the place I wanted, as I wanted to be on a ground floor to showcase my work", he said.

He is very happy that more shops around him will be renovated.

"To be part of it now, I picked the right place at the right time," he said.

image captionWillow Mayes said opening a shop in the town centre was important but also also nerve-wracking

Willow Mayes, 19, is the part-owner and founder of Bedford Cat Cafe, which is getting ready to open and will let customers stroke cats as they sip their drinks.

"We wanted to be in a nice central location, just so we are easier for people to find," she said.

She looked at several properties in the town with her mother and business partner Paula Mayes, but when the one they wanted became available on the High Street it "felt like fate".

She is pleased money is being spent on the town as it has "not looked its best for a while, and having a more attractive looking High Street will draw more people into the town."

image captionTobacconist Dominic Simmonds runs a shop and an online business, and said any firm had to "adapt" to keep going

Dominic Simmonds runs Harrison & Simmonds tobacconist and "gentleman's emporium", which opened in 1928 and is one of the oldest businesses on the High Street.

He "loves the idea" that the town will be improved, for the second time.

image captionHarrison & Simmonds has kept most of its fixtures and fittings from when it opened in 1928

Between 2011 and 2016, £5m was spent on the Townscape Heritage Initiative to renovate 16 properties.

He wants the new money to get to the "right people in the right way" but fears grants will go to people who neglect their buildings.

image copyrightBedford Borough Council and BBC
image captionMillennium Kebabs before and after the building's renovation in the 2010s
image copyrightBedford Borough Council and BBC
image captionCoffee With Art moved into a newly renovated building in 2013 and still trades in the town

The updated shops are not the only improvements being made to the High Street.

The road has been reduced from two lanes to one to allow for easier social distancing.

This work will be carried out fully with the road narrowed to one lane and the pavements widened with Yorkstone flag paving.

Mr Damiano thinks this will only increase his trade as drivers stuck in queues will "cause an audience to view my shop".

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