Stevenage, the UK’s first New Town is delivering a 20-year, £1bn regeneration programme that’s designed to transform the town centre and improve what it can offer to residents, businesses, and visitors, both now and in the future.
Stevenage Borough Council has worked with partners to develop a vision for regeneration that enhances the look and feel of the town centre whilst bringing forward long term change. This includes SG1, a programme covering 14.5acres of the town centre with Mace Developments, and the recent successful bid through the Towns Fund that secured £37.6m of funding, creating culture, leisure and commercial opportunities and highlighting the scale of the town’s ambition and achievement.
Stevenage Town Centre was largely built in the years following 1946, when it was named the UK’s first New Town. Like many other New Towns, there are real assets that benefit local people: over 40km of cycleways, outstanding parks and open space, family homes and local facilities and space for local businesses. But, as time has passed, there are significant challenges too. Many of the buildings in the town centre have aged at the same time and at the same rate, leaving a tired environment in need of investment, and struggling to secure new, aspirational investors.
In addition, due to a number of factors including the decline of physical retail and the simultaneous growth in online shopping, the town centre needed a major intervention. We have drawn upon a number of high-level studies to develop the regeneration of the town centre. The vision is to transform it from a solely retail-led area, to a mixed and thriving space where retail, commercial, residential, cultural, leisure and other facilities are based in the same central spaces, increasing the demand for services based here now and in the future and bringing life back to the area. Like other towns, sectors like commercial space, leisure and retail have been deeply impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and a strong local partnership approach is needed to draw in funding to kickstart regeneration and bring vibrancy.
Our aim is to capture the opportunities presented by the regeneration of the town and some of the thriving STEM businesses – including a world-class life sciences cluster – to help create jobs and skills opportunities for local people, as well as to help create a thriving local economy.
In order to drive the programme in the early stages we have utilized public sector land ownership and funding to leverage private investment. This included assembling land previously in 3rd party ownership and building a strong local partnership across public and private sector.
Long-term regeneration can take time to bear fruit, so it is vital to balance this against also delivering quick improvements to benefit local people in the short term. This includes the transformation of Market Place; a previously underutilized shopping street where new, universally aged play equipment was introduced in the centre of the walking space. We also launched a number of residential developments which increased the number of people living in the area, thereby increasing the demand for services in the short term. These schemes were joined by our other early projects, including Queensway North and the Town Square and Town Square North Block, the latter of which has benefitted from a fit-out from our partners, CoSpace.
This approach also gave us the opportunity to start to shift the perception of the town and to form strong partnerships with both external partners and those with public sector interests, including major firms like Mace.
The main impact can be seen in the ongoing transformation of the town and, despite the obvious challenges of the past 18 months, that we have continued developing and securing investment and commencing our signature ‘SG1’ regeneration project with Mace Developments which was granted planning permission in late 2020.
The ongoing success of our programme has also directly contributed to the £37.6m we were awarded by the Government through the Towns Fund in March 2021. This funding was allocated to Stevenage following the submission of our Town Investment Plan, created by the Stevenage Development Board, a partnership of businesses (including Airbus, MBDA and GsK), educational institutions and other key stakeholders from across the town. It identified a number of important projects that will provide opportunities for local residents and supercharge our businesses, with a vision for Stevenage to be a STEM city, building on our world-leading life sciences, aerospace and engineering industries.
The projects include potential work on the Station Gateway area, a new bioscience-led development in the heart of the town, a sport & leisure hub and improvements to both the Gunnels Wood road roundabout area and the cycling infrastructure, amongst others. More information about the potential benefits to the town is available on our website.
How is the new approach being sustained?
We are two years into a 20-year programme and are aiming for sustained success. The Towns Fund award provides us with the security to push forward with other projects and we are working closely with a range of partners to identify new ways to continue to advance the progress of the town. We now have, and are always building, partnerships to continue to deliver progress to Stevenage.
We’ve learnt a number of lessons; firstly the value and importance of strong, strategic partnerships across both the public and private sector, including with Hertfordshire County Council & Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership. Strong and decisive leadership, with the ability to make challenging decisions is also key; the benefits of investing in regeneration are not felt in the first few years, when assembling land and procuring developers – meaning shorter-term, positive interventions are also needed as part of the overall direction of travel. Our direction has allowed us to adhere to our values as a co-operative council which is fundamental to the ongoing success of the programme. We have placed a significant focus on engaging with residents and launching large-scale public consultations in order to ensure that our plans are aligned with what our residents, businesses and other stakeholders really want. Their feedback fed directly into the successful Towns Fund bid which highlights the importance of working well together.
Tom Pike – Assistant Director, Stevenage Borough Council