Two striking murals in Stevenage have just been awarded Grade II listed status, joining several other heritage sites on the national register in Britain’s first post-war new town – designated in 1946 and one of eight such towns in the Greater London area.
However, C20 Society is now raising wider concerns about the level of preservation for key buildings in Stevenage, calling on Historic England to reconsider these sites for listing and to urge the Secretary of State to use their powers in expanding the scope of the Conservation Area in the new town.
The colourful tiled mural by Hungarian born artist Gyula Bajó (1907-84) adorns one side of the former Co-operative House in the Town Square, the first major retail premises to open in Stevenage Town Centre (in June 1958). It depicts the ‘four cornerstones of a balanced economy – Industry, Commerce, Transport and Agriculture…’ with a spinning-wheel and products representing Textiles and Consumer Goods, a steelworker representing Heavy Industry, a teaching figure representing Science and Technology, and scenes showing Agriculture and Family Life.
Bajó joined the Architects’ Department of the Co-operative Wholesale Company around 1953, with the mural being installed between 1956-58. It is the earliest of the four major surviving Co-op murals of the 1950s and 1960s, the others being: Ipswich (1963, by Bajó with Endre Hevezi, not listed), Hull (1963 by Alan Boyson, listed at Grade II in 2019), and Scunthorpe (1963 by Derek W Brown, not listed).
‘Scenes of Contemporary Life’, by innovative sculptor William Mitchell, is a two-part sculptural wall mural at Park Place underpass, built as part of the dual carriageway redevelopment of St George’s Way in Stevenage in 1972. The mural’s decorative panels depict British social, political and cultural events of the day alongside scenes of everyday life in Stevenage; contemporary vehicles and the developing town; political demonstrators, including the Women’s Liberation Movement; a group of figures representing the ‘Flower Power’ movement; and a United States Air Force space rocket and cosmonauts in a Soviet landing capsule.
In correspondence with Stevenage Development Corporation around 2015, Mitchell wrote that sculpture played an important role in giving an area character and making the surroundings ‘less severe’. Representations of the football team, buses, cars and people dressed in the fashionable clothes and hair styles of the day were intended to be “an instantly recognisable pastiche of time and place… the panels were meant as a time warp for the future and a recognisable landmark for the then present”.
New Town heritage at risk
While news of the mural listings is very much to be welcomed, the proposed regeneration plans for Stevenage New Town risk undermining the coherence and integrity of the historic town centre. It would see a significant number of important buildings demolished or drastically altered, where a conservation-led programme could help adapt these buildings to better serve the needs of the town, in a far more sustainable and sensitive manner.
Of particular concern to C20 Society are the following buildings and features, all currently unlisted:
- The central platform in the Town Square, described in the book as “an integral part of the original town centre plan, as set out by Leonard Vincent and his team” and location of the Grade II listed ‘Joy Ride’ statue by Franta Belsky (1958-59), currently threatened with demolition.
- The main shopping precinct buildings around the Town Square (Phases 1, 2 and 3). Although the conservation area designation seems likely to discourage wholesale demolition and redevelopment, recent refurbishments have not in succeeded retaining the fenestration pattern and timber canopies which are so crucial to the distinctive character of core of the town (despite the fact that the conservation area management plan calls for this).
- An outpatients’ clinic at Danestreet Health Centre (Peter Dunham, 1961) with high quality precast concrete panel cladding and tile decoration in a ‘quilted’ pattern, currently threatened with demolition.
- A ceramic mural map of the town in Daneshill House, also earmarked for demolition. there are plans to relocate this, but without listing there is no guarantee that this will be carried out in a carefully and sympathetic manner, and that its new location was suitable.
- A sculpture of three seated figures by David Noble (1963), in The Towers private garden.
- The Bowes Lyon House youth centre by Vincent, Gorbing & Partners (1965) and Swimming Pool by Leonard Vincent (1962) currently threatened with demolition.
Conservation Area Expansion
The Conservation Area for Stevenage New Town was designated in 1988, the boundary is currently tightly drawn around the Town Square, Market Place and Queensway. This covers less than 20% of the main town centre area and excludes many of the key buildings and features listed above.
The power to designate or extend Conservation Areas in England and Wales generally rests with the local planning authority (LPA). However, in cases where the local authority won’t act themselves, it is possible for the Secretary of State to step in, under section 69(3) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. Historic England have these powers too, but only in Greater London.
Given the significance of Stevenage as Britain’s postwar first New Town and the quantity of heritage buildings currently unprotected, C20 Society is now urging Historic England to advise the Secretary of State on an expansion of the Conservation Area.