Beyond the new town blues: The changing face of Stevenage
PUBLISHED: 10:48 03 October 2019 | UPDATED: 11:37 03 October 2019
A £1 billion regeneration means the future of Stevenage's town centre looks bright - but getting here hasn't been easy, as Richard Burton discovered.
As Britain's first new town, mid-20th century Stevenage promised a fresh start in the country for Londoners displaced by World War Two. While many were delighted with the opportunities this new rural life presented, others missed the buzz of the capital and the community they'd left behind.
The decade was in full swing when a 21-year-old Londoner stepped out of his adopted Hertfordshire home and took a TV crew for a stroll. It was '67, the year Sir Francis Chichester completed his solo round-the-world yacht trip, Sandie Shaw won Eurovision and Bobby Moore got an OBE for helping England win the World Cup.
It was also the year Stevenage new town turned 21. But it's coming of age saw it under renewed scrutiny from those intrigued to know how Britain's first new town had fared as a trailblazer for a new kind of urban planning.
That's where Russell Beecheno came in. Flanked by an Anglia TV team, he gathered his thoughts on the town he had called home for 14 years, having fled what the presenter called the bustle and noise of Earls Court, to become part of the "overspill" exodus from a London struggling with a housing crisis after years of wartime bombing to find "a real house of their own with a garden and a chance to breathe fresh air".
He went to Roebuck Juniors and his father got a job with ICT computers.
He recalled going to school through open fields; a rural idyll backed in the grainy black and white footage viewers saw with images of smiley children horse riding and fishing.
But then the development began in earnest and, gradually, the green fields gave way to building plots and the woodlands in which he recalled playing as a boy gradually disappeared.
He described the town, which had by then become home to 57,000, in less than nostalgic terms. The houses, he said, "completely lack character, just a series of rabbit hutches; just small boxes with no character whatsoever. Stevenage seems to be practically devoid of any real community feeling such as we used to get in London."
David Harris was another celebrating his 21st. His family had also left the capital in search of a better life. They had arrived from Wembley a little later, in 1958, and moved into what was then a new build in Wildwood Lane. His father worked at BAE and he got a job in a bookshop. But his views were hardened almost from the beginning.
"What struck me," he said, "was the large expanses of concrete and leafless trees... it was completely clean but completely soulless".
His family enjoyed a large house and large garden. The shopping centre was adequate but he too had seen it change in a way that didn't impress. He said: "Stevenage has grown with me. Where I used to watch wild birds and pick wild flowers, it's now large housing estates.
"Walks into the country mean a bus ride. There is absolutely no sense of community in Stevenage at all. [There are] efforts to bring people together but I think they have all failed miserably... I think it's mainly the fault of the little box mentality; moving from the home to the factory... it doesn't leave you with the feeling that you really want to know anybody".
Two years before the Anglia cameras arrived, another crew had been in town, this time filming for their Focus On series. It began a little more optimistically, opening with bright music, lively people dashing about, traffic-free carriageways and lots of images of computers, albeit reel-to-reel ones with clunky typewriter keyboards and tickertape.
This, we were told, is no ordinary town. It's one full of new ideas. A town geared for "the life and challenge of our times".
Focusing on ICT, at the time the biggest producer of computers in the UK, the presenter, talking over twangy sci-fi music, spoke of "those wizard machines of this, the space age" and the "pioneering work" being done to keep pace with the US.
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But while describing the town as one "at the centre of an impressive experiment in planned environment", he did admit: "Critics have described new towns as concrete jungles; soulless sorts of places whose workers tend to suffer from the disease they call new town blues".
Even a local vicar chimed in, bemoaning lack of tradition. "There's a certain sameness about the place which means it's nice to get away from it on a day off," he said.
We were told of efforts to organise welcome meetings for newcomers, an international club for foreign immigrants but reminded that the sameness leaves "no relief from the modern world and roots seem difficult to put down".
In what was described as a unique experiment, a £140,000 super youth centre was built where local youngsters could enjoy climbing, sailing, canoeing, table tennis and - wait for it - "places where the girls can come to wash their hair or run-up a new dress on the sewing machines".
The films, all held at the East Anglian Film Archive and available via the BFI player, depict a town at odds with what the then minister for town and country planning Lewis Silkin, had envisaged as somewhere "gay and bright" that would pave the way to solving the UK's housing crisis.
The controversial 1946 New Towns Act that sanctioned it had aimed to free people from overcrowded cities and move them into leafy, close-knit, towns in the shires. Stevenage soon boasted the country's first pedestrianised town centre, a super-efficient road network and huge a cycle network backed by 50 underpasses.
At first it worked. But over the years, its ageing concrete façade didn't wear well and a series of regeneration plans failed to get off the ground, leaving it tired and neglected, something not helped by the demise of the Stevenage Development Corporation in 1980.
Until recently that is. Now with £1 billion pledged to totally rethink and reshape it, the next 20 years will see a new town with a new face, starting with the town square, spreading out into neglected streets and replacing empty shops with bars, gyms, restaurants and even modern flats. The epic project, known as SG1, will transform a total of 14.5 acres of town centre land.
It's a plan that has prospects. Internationally-renowned developer Mace Group Ltd, who worked on The Shard in London, has been appointed by Stevenage Borough Council as its partner for the project. Its aim is to celebrate the new town's post-war heritage and design, while moving it forward into the 21st century
Already, there's a palpable feeling of optimism and it's now estate agents welcoming the Londoners; typically, twentysomething couples with children looking for a realistic alternative to areas such as Enfield and Cheshunt where they grew up but can't afford the homes their parents had.
Callum Souter of Connells said such families feel the need to "take a step out in order to get what they want."
He said: "It's an interesting position geographically, sitting as it does, close to the likes of Welwyn Garden City and Hitchin. In a way, it represents a rather odd bubble of affordability.
"We get a lot of inquiries from first-time buyers, obviously, but they're people who know what they want and know they can come here and get all they need."
And those new town blues?
"We've come a long way from that," he added. "In fact, you can feel the town changing all the time. Everywhere you look, it's being upgraded.
"There's new paving, better signage everywhere, play areas popping up and those old council-built flats of the '60s that hadn't been touched for years are being modernised. The place is getting a complete revamp which is great in terms of kerb appeal.
"And there's more of a buzz about the place. If you look at the pictures of sports stars on the station walkway you'll see the likes of Lewis Hamilton, people who've helped put us on the map. It's all good."
It is indeed. Earlier this year, Stevenage bucked house price trends by enjoying increases of 3.3 per cent while those in pricier St Albans and Welwyn Hatfield fell, according to the UK House Price Index.