Stevenage town centre ‘in steep decline’ says local data analyst

PUBLISHED: 08:00 17 March 2017 | UPDATED: 08:16 17 March 2017

Looking back: Stevenage town centre of old

Looking back: Stevenage town centre of old

Archant

Sarah Teague says Stevenage is “struggling to fight headwinds of change, both national and local”.

Stevenage town centre (Sarah Teague)Stevenage town centre (Sarah Teague)

Stevenage town centre, the first pedestrianised shopping centre in Britain, was created to be the focus of the New Town; an inner shopping centre surrounded by offices, a library, the post office, a swimming pool, dance hall and youth centre.

60 years on, with Debenhams department store soon to open in the Roaring Meg Retail Park one kilometre away, what is the future for the town centre?

At the official opening ceremony in 1959, Stevenage town centre had 86 shops, anchored by the Cooperative Department Store, and including Boots, Fine Fare and Sainsbury’s supermarket, WHSmiths and Woolworths.

By 1996 the number of shops had increased to almost 200 and although few were premium retailers, large units were occupied by M&S, Littlewoods, Woolworths and Living department store, and the Forum had been added with Tesco’s supermarket, BHS, C&A, Mothercare and a Debenhams furniture shop.

Despite attempts to improve the centre, some parts felt dated and there were signs of a shift: in 1996 Stevenage Leisure Park opened within 600m of the town centre – with a cinema, bowling, restaurants and bars. The Roaring Meg Retail Park was already open.

Fast-forward to today and we see a town centre in steep decline, struggling to fight headwinds of change, both national and local. Mainstream retailers that once anchored the centre have not survived the shift to online shopping and prime retail spaces are occupied by discount retailers.

Local factors have also had an impact. The map shows the level of competition in the immediate vicinity. In an age where leisure is increasingly important to the survival of high streets, Stevenage town centre is out-competed by its neighbours. Nice restaurants and pubs are found in the more attractive and better maintained old town, Stevenage Leisure Park has expanded.

If leisure activities have moved away from the town centre, what about retail? The Roaring Meg/Monkswood Retail Parks, with free and convenient parking, now have high street retailers Boots, Mothercare, Argos and the soon to open Debenhams department store.

The future of the town centre is for substantial parts to be converted into housing. Major retail and leisure facilities have moved to neighbouring retail parks. This is a far cry from the traffic-free environment imagined by planners back in 1954.

Sources:

1) “Stevenage: A History From Roman Times to the Present Day, by Margaret Ashby & Don Hills

2) Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

Sarah Teague is a freelance data analyst. She can be contacted at steague@ehanalysis.com.

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