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Utopia and Reality in Stevenage

The New Town of Stevenage exemplified the post-war compromise, and is now being reassessed — but the truth is it was neither a ‘crap town’ nor a utopia.

Chief architect and planner Leonard Vincent pictured walking around Stevenage centre, still under construction, September 1958. (Geoffrey Day / Mirrorpix / Getty Images)

After decades of being maligned as ‘crap towns’, post-war new towns are seeing a resurgence of interest and investment. Like the current trend for mid-century modern design, the idea (perhaps more than the material reality) of new towns is attractive, because they’re associated with a perceived utopianism and optimism of the post-war period in Britain.

Proposed by Sir Patrick Abercrombie in his reconstruction plans of 1944–45, new towns were a bold solution to overcrowding and poor housing through decentralisation of inhabitants from London and the other big cities. Attlee’s Labour government passed the 1946 New Towns Act among the other key pieces of legislation framing the welfare state. Stevenage was the first new town to be chosen.

Published for the 75th anniversary of Stevenage’s designation, Historic England’s guide celebrates the design and planning of its town centre. Architectural investigators Emily Cole and Elain Harwood and Historic Places advisor Edward James emphasise the heritage significance of two key features — the unity of design of the buildings and the pedestrianisation of its shopping streets. The Town Square is still a showcase of modernist egalitarianism, with a centrepiece of a concrete open-framed clocktower and fountain designed by principal planner and architect, Leonard Vincent. Next to it stands the now Grade-II listed figurative sculpture, Joy Ride, by Franta Belsky, representing an ideal of public art for all. Cole, Harwood, and James attribute the coherence of the buildings and street layout to Vincent’s singular vision. With more than a nod to the great man tradition in architectural history, they note approvingly, ‘Only Frederick Gibberd [chief planner of Harlow in Essex] enjoyed an oversight of a new town comparable to Vincent’s.’

Stevenage was the first pedestrian town centre in England. Not even the nearby garden cities of Letchworth and Welwyn, with their carefully planned green space, prioritised the pedestrian shopper over the car user. Indeed, the proposal by Clarence Stein, the American planner and consultant to the Development Corporation, for a pedestrian town centre was met with opposition, not least from retail traders. It was only when a new chairman of the Development Corporation, Sir Roydon Dash, arrived in 1953, that the plans were implemented. The borough council were finally convinced after a visit to the newly reconstructed Lijnbaan shopping street in Rotterdam. Cole, Harwood, and James are keen to emphasise the influence of the post-war new towns internationally. For example, their planners contributed to exhibitions at Ingelheim, Berlin, and Geneva in 1961–62, while Stevenage was visited by architects and planners from across the world.

The book is richly illustrated with photos and archive drawings. These include a plan for a stunningly modernist town hall by Vincent from 1951, which was never completed. There are some great illustrations of the shopping and leisure facilities, including the 2,000-capacity Mecca dance hall and the Bowes-Lyon youth centre. The sleek council offices, county library, and health centre showed the benefits of holistic planning in the new age of municipal welfare.

It’s a little disappointing that the guide doesn’t discuss the housing built for the proposed population of 80,000. There’s only a brief contextual mention of the five districts built on the American principle of ‘neighbourhood units’. The focus is solely on the built environment of the town centre, but arguably the amenities can’t really be separated from the housing that surrounded them. The masterplans integrated low-rise houses in zoned areas, which were built first, before the town centre was even started. Other than a discussion of the leisure activities, there is little recognition of the people who migrated to live in Stevenage, east-enders from blitzed London, and the Irish builders who physically built the houses, churches, and community centres, and then stayed put.

The radical novelty of the post-war new towns programme lay in the centralised control of planning and finance through public development corporations. Masterplans were drawn up along principles of zoning commercial, industrial, and residential districts efficiently to produce re-investible profit. Though the planning and landownership were initially centralised, new towns were never meant to be socialist endeavours. The development corporations were always intended to be temporary. Stevenage’s was formally dissolved in 1980 by the new Conservative government, hostile to public corporations.

The guide attributes the decline in the town centre by the 1990s to the lack of private investment as well as more widespread changes in consumer and leisure practices. Fans of ‘supermarket vernacular’ architecture will be treated to photographs of the Tesco superstore built in the late 1980s and the leisure developments erected in the late 1990s. Replacing landmark buildings such as the Head Post Office, the guide argues that these later buildings have eroded the integrity of the mid-century modernism of the town centre.

Under the Stevenage Central Framework of 2015, the borough council produced a regeneration scheme in partnership with the retail development company Reef Group and the construction firm Mace. The council re-purchased part of the Town Square, which the guide suggests has been essential to facilitating the renewal process — an interesting admission of the necessity for public ownership of central assets. Stevenage has most recently been awarded £37.5 million from the government’s 2021 Towns Fund scheme. Historic England’s guide is positive about the regeneration plans. Although the hopeful utopianism of its post-war planning has been modified by economic realities, Stevenage has certainly not lost all of its modernist aesthetics.