HIGH STREETS could become about ‘city living’ with key businesses serving very local customers, says a property lettings company in Bedford.
On the doorstep cafe society, convenience stores, delis, special interest shops, bars, restaurants, gyms and hair and beauty services, is, in part, the future of town centres.
And conversions of ‘above the shop’ spaces and offices blocks into apartments, attracting young professionals and students, means a more youthful audience for town centre businesses.
Shaun Barnett, senior branch manager at Leaders Romans Group, which manages hundreds of town centre lettings in Bedford, said: “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
“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.”
Leaders has been in consultation with London-based and local investors looking to capitalise on the surge in demand, investing millions back into the High Street and transforming old office blocks into modern living accommodation with concierge services, open work spaces for convenient working from home, yoga rooms and communal gyms.
Mr Barnett said: “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 commuters looking for that additional working from home space, as well as a convenient commute. As a result, the demand and calibre of potential tenants is fantastic.”
A government consultation paper Supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure could make easier changes of use from commercial to residential premises, speeding up a process already under way in Bedford.
The former home of major employer NFC, the Merton Centre, is now a complex of quality rental apartments. More properties have been converted around the town.
Jo Marks has converted the former post office in Dame Alice Street into quality apartments. She has done the same in an old building opposite Bedford Blues rugby club in Goldington Road and transformed the old Higgins Sheds, now renamed Marks Mews, to start-up business units.
Businessman Kevin Kavanagh, who runs 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 with the shift to online shopping, there will be be a further change in the streetscape.”
He is part of a group which consults regularly with Bedford Borough Council. “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,” Mr Kavanagh said.
“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 hundreds of independents and I am sure more will follow.”
Mr Kavanagh, a former chair of the Bedford Business Improvement District – one of the first to be formed in the UK back in 205 – 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 benefited Frescoes and scores of others in the town over the past two decades.
“Businesses need to work as one for the greater good,” he said. “Using the BID’s Love Bedford brand to promote the town is proving increasingly useful in the overcrowded and confusing social media scene.”