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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 January 2007, 09:57 GMT
Redeveloping Essex's fallen utopia
By David Sillito
BBC News

Continuing a series looking at the decline of the British high street; David Sillito visits Harlow to see how planners hope to regenerate a crumbling new town once hailed as being at the cutting-edge of urban design.

Happier times

It has Britain's first pedestrian shopping precinct; the first post-war residential tower block and it is celebrating its 60th birthday with plans to knock parts of itself down.

Much of Harlow's town centre is in a sad state.

Empty shops, closing-down sales and a warren of bleak little corners of neglect and decay, blight what was once upon a time a visionary social experiment.

On the street, I stopped people and asked them to sum it up in one word.

The words used are: disappointing; unloved; okay; dirty; shabby; ruined; excellent; shame; crap.

For Gordon Hewlett, one of the original architects who helped build Harlow, it's very depressing.

"I'm really saddened. It should never have been allowed to get like this."


When it was being built, earnest holidaymakers from the continent could be found wandering round the town centre marvelling at this new utopia.

It had everything, shops, a theatre, a church and open space filled with works of art by Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink and others.

The future was here in Essex. Gordon was proud of the marketplace he designed with its overhead walkways and public art.

Harlow has fallen into a state of neglect

"We wanted to build a place that wasn't just another housing estate."

We walked past a nightclub.

"That was originally a community hall with concerts, I had Alan Ayckbourn sleeping on my floor when he came with Stephen Joseph's theatre to put on a performance."

"We got a string quartet to go round the schools to inspire the children," he adds.

Sixty years on Harlow town centre is showing its age and wondering what to do with itself.

'Pram town'

And it's not alone. Basildon, Hatfield, Peterborough, Stevenage, Telford, Crawley, Bracknell, and Skelmersdale are all earmarked for major town centre redevelopment.

Harlow was once considered the cutting-edge of urban design

The planned schemes will involve huge changes and the investment will run in to billions of pounds.

But in Harlow with its walkways, subways and 1950s shop fronts, there are those who are keen to protect its architecture from too much change.

It might look a bit shabby, but John Curry from the Civic Society is still proud of the buildings and its original plan.

"We are running out of oil and with global warming Harlow is coming in to its own. It was meant to be a place where you could walk everywhere," he says.

And that was indeed the original vision. Sir Frederick Gibberd has left Britain with an interesting architectural legacy; Heathrow Airport, Liverpool's Catholic Cathedral and Harlow.

Harlow wasn't meant to be cold and forbidding; it was supposed to be a modern version of a bustling market town.

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Neighbourhoods were built within walking distance of the shops and services and early footage of the town shows why it was sometimes called 'pram town.'

Every street is filled with women and children.

Back to the future

So what's happened?

The view is that the mix of the car and neglect has undermined the original plan.

So a new plan has just been unveiled and the council want neighbourhoods to once again be linked to the centre by better, clearer pedestrian routes.

Millions are set to be spent redeveloping the town centre

The wall of car parks, ring roads, subways and service areas that surrounds the shops will be turned in to inviting gateways.

There will be public squares, places for the townsfolk to meet, talk and hold public events. It will be a return to what Frederick Gibberd first set out in his plan in 1947.

Of course, back in 1947, people couldn't drive to Bluewater or Lakeside Shopping Mall.

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