Estates Gazette – Stevenage mixes it up the Grimsey Way
18 October 2019
If you listen to external commentators, Stevenage hasn’t always enjoyed the most positive reputation. However, those inside the town sometimes find that surprising. After all, we’re home to major, international, sector-leading businesses, Green Flag-listed parks, scientific innovation and much more. In truth, negativity about Stevenage is largely unfair and misplaced.
But it would be remiss to ignore that some areas of our town need a little bit of love. Stevenage was the UK’s first new town, built more or less all at once, with the result that everything has aged at the same time, leaving the central spaces requiring investment. The masterplan for Stevenage meant that the town centre was designed as a traditional 9 to 5 shopping precinct, with limited homes, restaurants and bars within the area itself. That is now seen as an outdated approach.
As a progressive council we are looking to the future. In conjunction with partners including Mace, Reef Estates, the Local Enterprise Partnership, Herts County Council and more, we have launched a 20-year, £1bn regeneration programme designed to transform the town’s central spaces and reimagine what it can offer to residents and visitors both now and in the future.
There is an interesting synergy between the vision for Stevenage and the findings from the 2015 Grimsey Review, and we aim to make Stevenage a place where people want to live, work, play and relax.
As we all now know, Grimsey’s study outlined that retail-only town centres are a thing of the past. Nationally over 150,000 retail jobs were lost in 2018, and a further 164,000 are expected to go this year.
This isn’t solely a Stevenage issue, but as the UK’s first pedestrianised town centre, this is a significant concern for us. Any visitors to Stevenage will know that its central spaces are dominated by retail provision. In our town the main assets are segmented and often require additional transportation to move from site to site. The majority of leisure uses are found in the retail park adjacent to the railway station which leaves the town centre empty after 5pm.
Grimsey highlighted that towns must instead look to mixed-use regeneration in order to drive footfall, further investment and, ultimately, to survive. Following these principles has meant we are moving away from a strictly retail model and are working with Mace and Reef, among others, to introduce new food and beverage, residential, leisure and commercial facilities into our central spaces.
We’re keeping the key components of our town, while bringing in new opportunities and facilities, with developments also aligned to our new cultural strategy. While development is only just under way, we’ve already had interest from a diverse range of brands looking to move into an area set for the largest regeneration in the East of England, and that’s just for the spaces that are already available.
Another key aspect of the review, particularly in the Mace-led SG1 scheme, is the focus on placemaking.
While Stevenage in its current form does provide a range of public spaces, our offer is inefficient and needs improvement. Currently, public services are split across six separate buildings, which creates six sets of heating, electric and water bills as well as various other costs. SG1 will deliver a solution by creating a shared public and voluntary services hub that will include charities, a library, job centre, café, council offices and more under one roof in order to lower costs and create flexible public spaces that contribute to a more vibrant look and feel in the area.
This part of our vision has been supported by the country-wide programme ‘One Public Estate’, and underpins the way in which the public sector is moving.
Stevenage is undergoing major change. No other town is launching such a significant and ambitious regeneration programme, but then again no town is quite like Stevenage. We want our town to have the reputation it deserves. We want to be known for our incredible green spaces and world-class employers. The regeneration of the town centre will be a challenging and long-term process but, as Grimsey said, “if it was that simple then people would have done it already”.
Sharon Taylor is leader of Stevenage Borough Council
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