Local elections in depth: Stevenage is among the “new towns” that has quietly been turning away from the Labour Party

12 Jan

Source: Election Maps.

Case study: Stevenage

Control: Labour

Numbers: Labour 22, Conservatives 11, Lib Dems 6.

Change since last local elections:  Labour -5, Conservatives +4, Lib Dems +1.

All out or thirds: Thirds

Background: Before the War, Stevenage had been quietly prospering and slowly growing for several centuries. In 1281 it was granted a Royal Charter to hold a weekly market and annual fair, still held in the High Street. Road pricing proved advantageous. The Great North Road was turnpiked in the early 18th century and many inns in the high street of Stevenage served the stagecoaches. 1946 heralded the brave new world. Stevenage was designated the first New Town under the New Towns Act. The modernist plans were not popular as Lewis Silkin, the Minister of Town and Country Planning, discovered on a visit. Some local people had changed the signs ‘Stevenage’ to ‘Silkingrad’. Silkin told the protestors:

“It’s no good your jeering, it’s going to be done.”

It was. Concrete slabs all over the place. A modernist town centre, a modernist clock tower, even a modernist church. It all looks a bit decayed now. But that is a familiar paradox. Classical buildings have a timelessness in their appearance. Modernist ones soon feel outdated. Transient structures to be thrown away and replaced every few decades under the label “regeneration.” A complication is English Heritage is determined to protect the hideous shopping precinct – commending it for its “uniformity.”

Stevenage Borough Council has been run by Labour since the Council was created in its current form in 1973. The Stevenage constituency has traditionally been more favourable for the Conservatives. It includes some lovely surrounding villages such as Knebworth – which comes under North Hertfordshire District Council and is known for its open air pop concerts. During the Thatcher era, it was held by Tim Wood for the Conservatives, in the Blair years by Barbara Follett for Labour. Since 2010 it has been held by Stephen McPartland for the Conservatives. In a previous incarnation, the constituency was Hertford and Stevenage and represented by Shirley Williams.

Results: As with other “new towns” Stevenage has been trending towards the Conservatives for some time. These seats are the precursors to the “red wall”. Working class voters would leave London and other cities to live in them. They would be less likely to be trade unionists – without the large scale steel works, coal mines, or car factories. By contrast, local employers embrace high tech making weapons systems and space satellites. There is also the pharmaceuticals firm, GlaxoSmithKline. They would be more likely to become home-owners. Voters in the constituency voted Leave by a margin of 14 per cent in the EU referendum.

The Conservatives can point to proposals from the Labour council to end free parking in the Old Town – which would harm high street businesses. They also note the failure of the Council to achieve value for money. One example is a refusal to join other councils in a Joint Waste Partnership for refuse disposals that could save millions of pounds a year.

Planning is inevitably a local controversy. The council proposes thousands of unattractive new flats in the town centre. The assumption that high rise is needed to achieve high density is flawed. But easing Green Belt restrictions would certainly make it easier to provide beautiful new homes with gardens. Not that it would be without controversy – a proposal for hundreds of homes of farmland where EM Forster used to live has prompted anxiety about increased traffic.

At present, many of the talented, well-paid employees of the assorted life sciences companies in the town choose to live elsewhere – one of the villages in Hertfordshire is a more attractive prospect. Despite its architectural challenges, Stevenage does have a strong community spirit. The crime rate is low and many appreciate the lack of traffic. But regeneration should be carried out in a way that corrects rather than repeats earlier mistakes. The concrete jungle was yesterday’s future. The way to move forward is to embrace tradition.