Stevenage – a journey to utopia
Sharon Taylor and John Gardner outline Stevenage Borough Council’s plans to regenerate and reinvigorate Stevenage’s town centre.
Town and Country Planning Association
Cllr Sharon Taylor OBE, Leader of Steveange Borough Council and Cllr John Gardner, Executive Councillor for Environment & Regeneration at Stevenage Borough Council
‘Can towns be built in which all kinds of people can live and work together happily and productively? Towns with plenty of shops and cinemas, health centres and schools, but in a setting where the trees and fields of the countryside are never far away? Those associated with New Town projects believe the answer is yes.’
So reads an excerpt from a late-1940s copy of The New Town of Stevenage publication. Over 70 years on from the creation of the UK’s first New Town, and with large-scale regeneration plans for the town already in motion, the sentiment from the above quote remains just as relevant for us at Stevenage Borough Council today as it was back then.
The pioneering Stevenage New Town designated in 1946 created neighbourhoods and communities, provided new modern homes, brought culture to the town, attracted businesses, and created a sense of civic pride. Seven decades on, we have the very same aspirations for today’s residents. We want to invest for the future, and reinvigorate, improve and develop our entire town so that we can create new and promising opportunities for future generations.
Originally a quiet farming town of just 6,000 people, Stevenage was the first New Town site chosen under the 1946 New Towns Act, in a development programme implemented by the government to tackle slum overcrowding in London and to rebuild post-war Britain. Throughout the process of re-making Stevenage, the town went from strength to strength; the population swelled with people looking for their own home near the countryside, a range of multinational corporations and small businesses set up shop and provided jobs, and the Queen paid a visit to open up the UK’s first pedestrianised, traffic-free shopping zone.
Over the next three decades, an arts and leisure centre (including the Gordon Craig Theatre), the Westgate Shopping Centre and the Plaza were added to the town centre.
Now, Stevenage has a population of 87,000, is home to some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical, aerospace, and defence companies, and still has a range of retail and shopping options. While this may paint a pretty picture, there are, however, critical issues which need to be addressed in Stevenage, as in other New Towns.
To the naked eye, the most evident area in need of some attention is the slightly dated shopping area in the town centre. The once-popular concrete style, which embraced modernism and is still on show in Stevenage, is not quite as in vogue as it once was, and makes the town square and many of the shops look a little unloved.
A less visible problem lies with the enforced sales of New Town assets following the 1979 general election – the way in which assets were sold off to private landowners, and the issues this caused, have been well documented. Our ambitious 20-year regeneration programme aims to address these issues, restoring Stevenage back to its former glory and making it even better.
The Stevenage regeneration framework
With our £1billion regeneration plans, we are transforming Stevenage into a place where people can live, work and enjoy life to the fullest, through significant improvements to aspects of both urban life and rural escape. We have planned a number of schemes to regenerate Stevenage, which are set to be completed over a 20-year programme. The schemes are contained within the framework for Stevenage Central, produced for us by David Lock Associates.
The schemes consist of a mix of multi-million pound, residential-led, mixed-use developments that will breathe new life into the town centre, as well as significant transport and public realm improvements. The renewal will follow the same principles employed when building the 1946 New Town, adapted for a modern setting. Just as the former Development Corporation did, we will deliver high-quality housing fit for the demands of this day and age, with more green spaces and amenities on people’s doorsteps.
In post-war Britain, the people flocked to Stevenage to take advantage of job opportunities with easy access to the countryside. Whereas Stevenage’s pioneers would have moved to within a 30-minute cycle or walk from their work, now Stevenage gives commuters the enviable option of utilising excellent transport connections into Central London and Cambridge in the same amount of time. The additional housing and town improvements will put Stevenage back on the map for our population, as well as for anyone wanting to make the move out of London to homes where residents can get the best of both working in the city and living in the countryside.
We have already started to reinvigorate our high streets by renovating areas of the town centre, with added green spaces, dedicated seating areas, and children’s play equipment. A refreshed town centre, with added street lighting and a more inviting environs, also aims to reboot a once-thriving evening economy. These improvements, along with significant mixed-use retail, residential and public realm plans, will rejuvenate the town centre and make Stevenage the exciting destination it once was.
While the town will be getting a significant facelift over the next 20 years, one of the key principles of our regeneration scheme is to make sure that it is still recognisable, treasuring and protecting the historic landmarks and countryside that make Stevenage unique. To ensure this is the case, inspiration for many of the new buildings and developments draws on Stevenage’s rich culture and heritage, and we will be working to make sure that there will be no unsightly juxtaposition between the old and new.
Just as the initial planning of the 1946 New Town was faced with some considerable opposition, our regeneration will not be without its challenges either – but we are well equipped to tackle them head on.
There is no better example than the Local Plan, which was found to be sound by the government’s own inspector over a year ago, yet continues to be affected by a holding direction without any resolution. In the meantime, the council has continued to press ahead with the procurement of our development partner Mace, has supported the regeneration of Park Place, and has delivered a range of public realm improvements.
The wide mix of land ownerships has also been a significant challenge. Delivering wholesale regeneration on the scale needed to boost the town centre is difficult to deliver when land has been sub-divided and leases sold off. The council has worked over the past few years to consolidate land ownership, and it has been the vital partnership working together with Hertfordshire County Council, Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership, Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce, and the NHS which has helped to shape a deliverable proposition.
One of the major challenges facing the town – and high streets all over the country – is the changing face of retail. As more people opt to shop online and high street stores fold, Stevenage town centre needs to evolve and adapt to the public’s changing retail expectations.
To meet them we are changing the town centre to give a new type of retail and leisure experience; on top of significant improvements to existing retail units to provide modern frontages and suitably sized units, we are opening a number of new dining options, introducing state-of-the-art leisure facilities, providing flexible office space, and encouraging temporary uses while plans are advanced. This new look will give the public not only somewhere to shop, but also a place to relax, unwind, and socialise with friends, family or colleagues, any time of the week.
Our regeneration schemes
To reach our ambitious targets for regeneration, we have partnered with leading developers Mace and Reef Group, both of which have excellent experience and reputations for delivering regeneration programmes both in the UK and abroad.
Mace is an international developer and construction company that has helped to shape cities around the world. We have partnered with them for the SG1 scheme, one of the biggest town centre regeneration schemes in the East of England, with a gross development value of around £350million.
The SG1 scheme has nine development sites, and will create a new town for today’s modern way of living – it will involve building new contemporary homes, creating one central location for community facilities, adding a pedestrian boulevard from the town square to the station, improving our public spaces, and attracting shops, bars and restaurants into new retail space in the centre of the town.
Reef Group is one of the UK’s leading retail developers, specialising in urban regeneration and mixed-use development and investment. We will be working with Reef on the Queensway North project: a retail-led, mixed-use scheme that will deliver significant improvements to an existing retail block in the centre of town.
The Queensway North scheme has a GDV (gross development value) of £50million, and will form an important part of our overall regeneration programme. The mixed-use retail and residential scheme is the first of its kind for Stevenage, and is set to deliver around 45,000square feet of retail space and restaurants, as well as a gym, office space, residential units, and major improvements to the surrounding public realm.
This extension to Stevenage town centre’s leisure and cultural offering will revive the evening economy in the area, attract new retailers to the town, and will once again make Stevenage an appealing place to shop and visit.
These are just two of the schemes we are set to see in Stevenage over the course of our £1billion, 20-year regeneration scheme. The time is right for regeneration. Over 70 years on from the designation of the original New Town, we at Stevenage Borough Council are excited to have the chance to re-imagine Stevenage again, and transform it to realise its full potential. The Stevenage journey to utopia continues.
Find out more about the Stevenage Regeneration programme
Cllr Sharon Taylor OBE is Leader of Stevenage Borough Council, and Cllr John Gardner is Executive Councillor for Environment & Regeneration at Stevenage Borough Council.