From Silkin's vision to regeneration: How our town has evolved through the years

Stevenage town centre being constructed in 1958

Stevenage town centre being constructed in 1958 - Credit: Stevenage Museum

"Our towns must be beautiful. Here is a grand chance for the revival or creation of a new architecture. The monotony of the interwar housing estate must not be repeated. The new towns can be experiments in design as well as in living"

It was May 8, 1946 and the Minister for Town and Country Planning, Lewis Silkin, was addressing Parliament about the New Towns Bill – legislation which would see the draft designation of Stevenage on August 1 that year as Britain’s first new town.

The children's playground at Leaves Spring in 1956

The children's playground at Leaves Spring in 1956 - Credit: Stevenage Museum

The wave of new towns which began with Stevenage was intended to help alleviate congested urban areas and provide homes for people displaced due to the Second World War. 

With its proximity to the mainline railway and Great North Road, as well as its excellent infrastructure, Silkin strongly favoured Stevenage's designation as a new town, and the final Designation Order for it was made on November 11, 1946, setting out an intended population of 60,000.

Silkin's enthusiasm, however, was not shared by people living in the Old Town, which then had a population of around 6,400. Expressing feelings of powerlessness, residents changed the railway station boards at Old Stevenage to Silkingrad for his arrival one December night in 1946.

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The vision for Stevenage New Town was bold and experimental in its approach, embracing radical ideas including a pedestrianised town centre, neighbourhoods with their own shopping precincts, and an extensive network of cycleways that both encouraged sustainable transport and made travel safer.

The cycle path in Six Hills Way in 1958

The cycle path in Six Hills Way in 1958 - Credit: Stevenage Museum

The first houses were completed in 1951 in Broadview, not far from the Old Town, and the first of the new neighbourhoods to be developed was Bedwell, built in 1952-3, with the last Pin Green from 1962.

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Stevenage New Town pioneer Andrew Robson explains how his parents married in 1948 and moved to Stevenage, living briefly in Haycroft Road before moving to Brox Dell - now Broxdell. He says, "I have only happy memories of my young life in Stevenage. I had a group of five or six friends of similar ages to me, some from Brox Dell and some from Broadview, the next street, and we played together a great deal.

"'Living in Stevenage during the 1950s meant we were around when the new town centre was being constructed, and there were new housing developments springing up all around the area, notably around Bedwell Crescent and new roads like Plash Drive and Cuttys Lane.

Stevenage town centre being constructed in 1958

Stevenage town centre being constructed in 1958 - Credit: Stevenage Museum

"The half-built housing estates became a regular playground, and we spent many happy hours playing in what was destined to become someone’s living room or bedroom. Of course, we weren’t supposed to be there, but that never stopped us."

Beginning in autumn 1956, the first part of the town centre to be developed was Town Square. Stevenage was the first town in the country to have a completely pedestrianised town centre, with first floor canopies unifying the architecture. Her Majesty The Queen officially opened the new shopping precinct in April 1959 and visitors travelled to Stevenage specifically to see the pedestrianisation.

By the end of the 1950s, Stevenage's population had reached 30,000. In 1959, a new final population of 80,000 was agreed - up 20,000 from the original estimate - before a bombshell decision by the government in 1962 to increase the population to 150,000. This ambitious target was dismissed three years later in favour of expansion through natural growth.

Today, Stevenage is home to world-leading companies such as MBDA, Airbus and GlaxoSmithKline, which in July announced a £400m investment plan to create one of Europe's largest life sciences campuses in Stevenage.

The town centre has been expanded and developed in recent decades, including additions of the Westgate Shopping Centre in 1988 and The Forum in 1996-7. Now a 20-year regeneration programme worth nearly £1billion is under way. As well as 7,300 new properties by 2028, the scheme promises improved transport and connectivity links and new shops, bars, restaurants and sports and leisure facilities.

Sharon Taylor, leader of Stevenage Borough Council, was born and bred in the town and says, "The great strength of Stevenage has been our ability to be innovative and flexible, quickly adapting to changing times and keeping our focus clearly on achieving the best for all the people who live, work and visit here. Long may that continue."

The full version of this story is available in Hertfordshire Life magazine.

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