Below I have pasted my letter to Colin McQueston, at Coplan Estates and Dave Hodgson our Mayor, regarding the proposal for the redevelopment of Riverside North in Bedford. I am posting it to encourage others to take part in the consultation and to encourage debate and conversation about the development. If you would like to view the proposal and take part in the consultation please do so here. If you would like to join a public conversation on twitter please use #riversidenorth. This post will be relevant mainly to those readers in Bedford, but others who are interested in urban regeneration may also find something here (and also might like to check out this post by Bradforia on DIY regeneration). If  you are interested in how to consider and communicate the changes your community might like, need, or want in their town you may find Place check of interest.  Jane’s walk is also worth a look (thank you to Dawn Giles of Bedford Creative Arts for the heads up on that one.)

Re: Riverside North Development, Bedford

Dear Colin,

Thank you for taking the time to consult with the people of Bedford over the proposed development at Riverside North. As an active member of the Bedford community striving to be a positive voice within the town I would like to:

  1. comment on the consultation process
  2. comment on the development itself
  3. suggest that greater clarity regarding the boundaries of the project is needed
  4. suggest that a process such as place check is used to aid consultation.

Firstly, thank you for making the consultation fairly accessible. I imagine that within urban regeneration, activities described under the term ‘public consultation’ might stretch from the shy and tokenistic where only the slightest effort is made to garner opinions from the public, (and you certainly cannot be accused of that) to the other extreme where consultation activities  put the people at the heart of the development process. For my liking the consultation has not yet gone far enough. You are relying on people to come to you, and the opinions you most need are those of the people who do not usually come to the town centre. A consultation committed to listening to the public should go out and find the public, even those who are disengaged and possibly cynical of the process. Why not talk to people at the market, tweet ups, the retirement centre, the local residents association for example.  You also need processes for crunching the data and making sense of it. But the more crucial question, for me, remains – are you consulting on the right thing?

When I came to see the presentation I left feeling deflated. It felt like being asked to choose from the menu at a dinner date you didn’t want to be on.  I dutifully ticked the boxes on the form and confessed that I would love a Wagamamas to come to town but I left with many questions.

  • Is the consultation process genuine?
  • What are the stipulations of the development?
  • What brief have the architects had been given?
  • What is the problem they are trying to solve?
  • Why the focus was solely on retail and money-making leisure services?
  • Who is it for?
  • Who does it serve?
  • Could the area become, for instance, a park, a nature reserve, an Exploratorium?
  • Does it have to make money?
  • Where is the funding coming from?
  • What is the project a response to?
  • Why that bit of land in particular?

Put another way, are you saying:

  • Bedford has £50 million to spend on itself, how should we spend it?’
  • Bedford has £50 million to spend on this particular area on the proviso that it has a cinema, X amount of retail space  etc, do we want it and if so, how should we spend it?’

The public would give very different responses depending on which question we are answering. Our town is a good town but it has areas of need. Ask your average Bedfordian where investment is needed and they’ll say that the bus station is the area in most desperate need of investment. Parking, and public transport in from rural areas are also huge issues. If we have a choice I imagine the townspeople would choose for other issues to be dealt with first.

I asked some questions at the consultation and felt uneasy at the answers.  For example, I asked why we needed another cinema. The answer was that the new development needed a draw to attract other investors. This clearly didn’t work for Aspects, which would no doubt be destroyed by any new Cinema complex. Indeed the premise on which Aspects was built is similar to Riverside North but Aspects has ample parking whereas Riverside North has very little. Aspects is far from ideal but it will be less good if it becomes a complete ghost town.

Castle Quay was mentioned as a similar ‘successful’ development, which has the draw of the museum and gallery (currently under development). Certainly it is an area which is starting to blossom and will be a key area for the future of Bedford, but it was not that way for a long time. It took massive amounts of community involvement to bring it to life. It does a disservice to the original businesses there to say that it has been an easy sell as they fought hard to survive in the early years, when most of the units laid empty and unfinished. Myself and others worked long and hard to create a buzz and ‘feel’ for the area thorough ‘pop-up’ arts activity through my community group We are Bedford. We can’t forget how hard we worked there. Let’s also notice that the big names did not flock there despite the riverside location, the large restaurant units and the draw of what will be an impressive cultural attraction of The Higgins. What would be different with Riverside North?

What I didn’t find in your answers was a sense that this development related to the rest of the town. Bedford town as a whole needs rethinking. It needs a vision. There is plenty of appetite for people to get involved and small ad hoc working groups are making waves; We Are Bedford, Castle Quarter, Tavision, Midland Road Residents Association, Transition Bedford, and ‘I love Lime Street’ are all bubbling away, making things happen at a local level. Bedford BID have also spearheaded a Portas Pilot application. For all the valuable community work that is done to try (and sometimes succeed) at redevelopment, grassroots work is, by it’s very nature, piecemeal, and run on good will and energy. These organisations do not have the budgets or resource needed to join forces and make a wholesale transformation of the town. A £50 million redevelopment plan and consultation on the whole town could. Bedford desperately needs a vision for the future.

Personally I would love to see a few more big name retailers come to town, and equally I would love to see more independents helped to settle and grow here. I would love more leisure activities for all in the town and the café culture to which we aspire to bloom here. I would embrace more arts provision and activity in the town. I would like to be able to get into town and move through town more easily. But more than this, I would like to see robust mechanisms for the townspeople to have a real say in what goes on here.

So, whichever question you are asking us to answer I would be pleased to see a strong commitment to genuine public consultation. If we are getting a 7 screen cinema whether we like it or not, but we have a say in the rest of the development, then tell us. If this money could be used in more creative and community serving ways then consult, consult, consult and prepare to be surprised.

This leads us to the question, ‘how do we consult with a town’? Not easily. People, en masse, are problematic! There is no hope of pleasing all of us, and not all of us can articulate what we want. We are not, all of us, architects. But if you ask the right questions, openly and with a genuine desire to listen then we might have a chance of making an investment that would transform the town.

You could ask us:

  • how we feel about our town,
  • where we go,
  • where we avoid,
  • what we leave town for,
  • what we miss
  • what we wish for.

You should also watch what we do, watch how we move through the space, how we travel and how long we spend in each area (I’ve blogged about this approach here ). Maybe what we want are spaces to connect, to communicate, to relax and reflect. I’m not sure that we have yet been asked. I would urge you to consult with us to find the brief, not the solution. You are the experts on the response to the brief, and we should certainly trust your professionalism in that, but please first check that you are working on the correct problem.

I suggest that you look at the place check process. This process can involve people in the development of their places on such a level as to become meaningful. It can make a real change to a town and is much more valuable than bricks and mortar. I would be more than happy to take part in such a process.

To finish I would like to thank you for your time, and I do hope that this response does not seem too critical. I am passionate about my town and would love to see the energy here harnessed to the significant investment that is being considered and used for the best possible ends.

With very best wishes

Kayte Judge