The ‘New Town’ offers a vision of how to breathe life into the UK’s ailing high streets

It was built as a post-war utopia for families seeking to escape bomb-damaged areas of London, but nearly 80 years after it was founded, the ‘new town’ of Stevenage is in desperate need of regeneration.

After two failed efforts in the past decade that relied on attracting big-name retailers, the city is trying an approach that reflects new thinking about how to breathe life into Britain’s ailing provincial high streets.

“We’ve had two previous attempts at regeneration in the last 20 years, but they were based on retail,” said Richard Henry, leader of the area’s Labour-controlled council, recalling a string of brands leaving the town centre, leaving gaping holes. behind.

“The new approach is based on building new housing downtown and bringing new job opportunities,” he added. “We have to be more than a commuter town where workers come and go from London, we want to create a place where investors want to go.”

Councilor Richard Henry
Richard Henry, head of the council: “We have to be more than a commuter city where workers come and go from London, we want to create a place where investors want” © Louis Delbarre/Hans Lucas/FT

This more holistic approach is found in an industry called More than Stores report by planning consultancy Marrons, which highlights why successful high street regeneration cannot rely on an increasingly vulnerable retail sector.

Instead, city centers looking to reinvent themselves need to combine their retail space with mixed-use residential, flexible office space, leisure and entertainment, health and historic heritage that transform high streets into lived-in spaces.

The pressure to become more resourceful comes from the growing shift to online shopping and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen more than 17,000 UK stores close in 2022. Based on the Center for Retail Research think tank.

Regenerating high streets was a key part of Boris Johnson’s Equalization programme, with a £3.6bn City Fund and a £1bn Future High Streets fund, which awarded between £5m and £15m to more than 70 successful towns.

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However, fragmented funds, which often need to be spent quickly and whose complex applications eat up valuable council time, have called for a more strategic approach to encouraging private sector investment and more targeted use of limited government resources.

Shevaun Haviland, head of the British Chambers of Commerce, warned at the lobby group’s annual conference that derelict shops were creating “ghost towns” that needed to be brought back to life.

The BCC argued that the fragmented Whitehall funding sources covering the balance schedule needed to be consolidated and streamlined.

“Urban regeneration means that town centers can offer more, making them places for people to access work, retail, health and leisure,” said Jane Gratton, head of policy at the BCC.

“This means better transport links, simpler planning processes and more flexibility for the private sector,” he added.

Previous attempts at regeneration in Stevenage have focused on retail
Previous attempts at regeneration in Stevenage concerned retail © Louis Delbarre/Hans Lucas/FT

The Marrons’ UK ‘Regeneration Index’ illustrates the need for a broader perspective. It uses cross-referenced data on affordable housing, population growth and job availability in 300 small UK towns to identify which had the deepest underlying resilience.

“Resilient town centers are those that are built for private investment and have all the right ingredients for a diverse high street experience. The underperformers tend to rely heavily on retail,” said report co-author Alex Smith, partner at law firm Shakespeare Martineau.

The authors argued that their results provide guidance as to which cities are most in need of public support to initiate regeneration, and which are weakest in spending public resources.

The results showed that there is a long-standing north-south divide in the UK, with more northern and central rural towns in need of government intervention, but also deep divisions within regions, with some towns in the south-east and south-west of England also in need. aid.

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Stevenage, less than 30 minutes by train from London and home to a cluster of technology and life sciences brands including pharmaceuticals group GSK, Airbus and IT provider Fujitsu, is among the 20 provincial towns in the UK requiring government input is included.

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The town has won £37.5 million from the UK Government’s Towns Fund, part of which has already been spent on a new bus station and multi-storey car park outside the town’s station, with electric charging points, to make it easier to get to Stevenage.

But despite these early signs of progress, Stevenage Development Council chairman Adrian Hawkins, who grew up in the area, accepts the town still has a long way to go to reinvent itself as the advanced industrial cluster its founders dreamed of. to.

For example, the city needs to find £60m to refurbish the station, Hawkins added, gesturing towards the tired entrance. “If you came from Airbus headquarters and had an executive landing from Boeing headquarters in Seattle, that’s not exactly cutting edge vacation,” he said.

Despite the need for a makeover, there are signs of structural change in the settlement, starting with plans for almost 3,000 new homes in and around the centre.

Hawkins has raised more than 100 flats above the retail space, which previously housed a Marks and Spencer store, which exited the high street in 2014. The flats have contributed to a branch of PureGym, a 24-hour gym and NHS-affiliated high street optician with more work.

March 3, 1972
What Stevenage looked like in 1972 © ANL/Shutterstock

The new branch of Co-Space, the co-working company, now occupies a recently abandoned business premises next to the city’s main square.

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“It definitely seems like the pace of change has picked up, we’re seeing a huge amount of construction going on,” said Robert Isherwood, an independent financial adviser who runs his business from Co-Space.

From his window, he can see diggers preparing the ground for another housing development of 536 affordable homes delivered by the Guinness Partnership housing association.

The council hopes it will get a further boost when Autolus Therapeutics, a gene therapy company, opens its headquarters in the space behind the town square, creating a further 400 high-quality jobs.

“The residential building was the catalyst. We need to reinvent the city around inner-city housing,” said Piers Slater, boss of Reef Group, a developer that also has planning permission for a further development. cluster life science facilities at an adjacent site.

According to Henry, the head of the council, the ambition is that after more and more high-end jobs, cafes and restaurants will gradually displace the discount stores and bookies that currently dominate the high streets.

“We’re creating more opportunities and more jobs and we want to create more cafe culture,” he said, warning that money from the government and the private sector are both essential to building critical mass.

Given previous failed attempts to restart Stevenage, it may take time to convince the skeptics. On the main street, Louis Lobjoit is about to open a fishmonger and luxury grocery store selling nuts and seeds, Turkish delights and other delicacies.

For now, he says, Stevenage’s newest residents travel to London by train to shop and go out. “Where would you rather hang out, Stevenage or Soho?” asked. But he accepted that over time his new store and others like it would attract such customers.