Budget 2021: Bedford's High Street hoping for 'booming summer trade'

By Sarah Jenkins & Ben Schofield
BBC East

Published
image captionBedford's High Street has lost many of its big names stores in recent years, including Marks & Spencer, Topshop and River Island

Rishi Sunak has unveiled a £5bn scheme to help High Street shops and hospitality firms recover from the coronavirus pandemic. The BBC went to Bedford to speak to people about what they believe will help businesses survive and thrive after lockdown.

'The High Street is dying'

image captionDominic Simmonds co-runs the oldest shop on Bedford's High Street - Harrison & Simmonds, which opened in 1928

Dominic Simmonds jointly runs the oldest shop in Bedford High Street, Harrison & Simmonds, which his grandfather started in 1928.

"The High Street is dying," he says.

"It's sad to see."

He says the business has "diversified" to survive three lockdowns and adapt to the way shoppers' habits are changing.

"Surprisingly, we are keeping going with mail order and click and collect services," he says.

"It's what we are relying on."

image captionThe gentleman's emporium sells items such as pocket watches, flasks and tankards

The gentleman's emporium owner says the closure of Marks & Spencer in 2019 was "a huge loss".

"We saw a definite fall in footfall," he says.

"With the big names going there's less of a reason for people to come into town."

Mr Simmonds says a big help for his business would be a rates cut.

"We need anything to help small businesses get back on their feet," he says.

"There are so many that have been hit hard and they're not going to survive.

"Even the lucky ones that do - it's going to be a real struggle."

What has the chancellor announced for businesses?

  • Rishi Sunak unveiled a £5bn grant scheme for High Street shops and hospitality firms, which will see them receive up to £18,000 each
  • The furlough scheme, which pays up to 80% of an employee's wages, has been extended until September
  • A further 600,000 self-employed people will become eligible for government help as access to grants is widened
  • The reduction of VAT to 5% will be extended for the hospitality and tourism sector for six months to 30 September, with an interim rate of 12.5% for the following six months
  • Business rates have been paused for a further three months
  • The headline rate of corporation tax will go up from 19% to 25% in 2023, with an exemption for smaller businesses
  • Tax breaks for firms to "unlock" £20bn worth of business investment
  • Incentive grants for apprenticeships to rise to £3,000 and £126m for traineeships

'We must spread the word'

image captionHelen Patterson says Bedford has huge potential, but some days the town centre feels "quite depressing"

Helen Patterson started a campaign group to save the town's Marks & Spencer, but after its closure she transformed the group to one which champions existing businesses.

She says more needs to be done to "spread the word" about the range of independent businesses, which comprise 60% of shops in the county town.

"We need to do a better job of promoting these. One woman had lived here for 50 years and only recently discovered our butchers," she says.

Ms Patterson adds that she had fought to save the M&S as she believed "flagship stores bring people to a town while the independent businesses keep them coming back".

Speaking about the plan for non-essential shops to reopen from 12 April, Ms Patterson says for many businesses it will be "a struggle".

She fears people may venture out at first, but retreat back to online shopping if Covid-19 infection rates rise again.

Ms Patterson says Bedford has the potential to be as successful as nearby market towns such at St Albans and Harpenden, but more work is needed.

"Some days the High Street feels quite depressing," she says.

"But it is a beautiful town and if we worked on making shop fronts more attractive it could encourage more people to explore the town and its businesses."

'We are confident we can make it work'

image captionBeckie Fry says she is hoping for a "booming trade come summer"

Beckie Fry opened Bridges Espresso Bar in Riverside Square in September, after signing the lease two weeks before the country was plunged into its first lockdown in March last year.

The 35-year-old is positive about the future.

"People still want to go out and enjoy nice things," she says.

"They want to have nice food and drink, so we are confident that if we supply that people will keep coming back."

She says she is looking forward to what she hopes will be "a booming trade come summer".

"We have lots of space for outdoor seating and will create a nice al fresco sort of vibe," she says.

Ms Fry adds it has been a "very daunting" experience opening a business during a pandemic.

"Restrictions were changing all the time, but we had no other option that to just go for it and keep changing as we needed to - but it's been great and we are confident we can make it work," she says.

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