Stevenage town centre plan gets go-ahead - on paper

A �250m plan to make Stevenage town centre the premier shopping destination in the area was given the green light by council members last night - but a timetable is still unclear.

The outline scheme which would transform the area between Town Square and the railway station was approved by the borough council’s planning committee on Tuesday night, subject to legal agreements with the developer. But five years on from an original plan - twice as ambitious as the current proposals at �500m – a date for work to begin is still not known.

The vast majority of the 16 proposed new buildings would be for retail, including a department store, but also include a cinema, hotel, restaurants and between 50 and 120 flats – much reduced from the original scheme for over 1,000.

The plans also include a new magistrates’ court to the south of the railway station and a relocated bus station beside Lytton Way. Two multi-storey car parks and an office block are proposed at the southern end of the town centre.

Structures in the conservation area which protects the 1950s modernist vision for the town would remain. These include the original buildings surrounding Town Square, and the clock tower and Joyride statue. The platform under the statue would be remodelled with a restaurant underneath.

The Matalan store, magistrates’ court, council offices, Mecca bingo hall, bus station, buildings fronting onto the bus station and surface car parks would be demolished to make way for the new buildings.

Council leader, Sharon Taylor, said the decision represents a key milestone in the authority’s efforts to secure investment from private investors.

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“Planning permission for the outline scheme establishes agreement in principle for the content and scale of the redevelopment, and in this challenging market goes a considerable way to reducing risk and making the investment more attractive to developers,” she said.

The council admitted there was no clear timetable to deliver the plan in the current economic conditions, but promised to do so “as soon as possible”.

The decision was welcomed by town centre manager Tracey Parry who said it was a step in the right direction, but added: “I think we have to be realistic and accept that, in the current economic climate, a development of this magnitude could still be some way off.”

Originally submitted in February 2010, the latest plan by Stevenage Regeneration Limited – a partnership between developers ING and Stanhope, has been subject to consultation with stakeholders including residents and property owners in the town.

Concerns with the scheme were raised by Hermes Real Estate Investment which until last year owned a large part of Queensway. The company said the scale of development would result in “large numbers of vacant units” around Queensway and The Forum, polarising the town centre into new and old. The level of retail capacity anticipated - based on taking away trade from surrounding towns was also described as “extremely ambitious,” “unrealistic and undesirable”.

The Rank Group, owners of Mecca Bingo called on members to reject the plan. A representative said permission for the hall’s loss would not be given unless an “equally convenient” site could be found.

Councillors took up objections from residents calling for the inclusion of a new museum in the plans, originally incorporated in the �500m scheme, and the need for a mobility centre in a central location for the elderly and immobile.