New town is turned around by hard sell

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The Independent Online
ONLY SIX years ago, more than one person in ten was on the dole in Stevenage, Britain's first new town. Now the Hertfordshire town is at the forefront of a remarkable turnaround that today sees a string of southern towns celebrating the attainment of full employment.

In Stevenage, the jobless rate has fallen from 12.3 per cent in 1993 to only 2 per cent this year - well below the 3 per cent level counted by economists as in effect full employment. It is not alone. Across the South-east, many towns and cities are now enjoying full employment for the first time since 1980.

The rate is as low as 1.2 per cent in Crawley and Newbury, 1.3 per cent in Basingstoke and Guildford, 1.6 per cent in Oxford and Reading, 2.1 per cent in Cambridge and 2.2 per cent in Stevenage.

But it is in Stevenage that the recovery from the recession of the early 1990s has been especially spectacular. In 1993 the town, whose prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s centred on the aerospace and defence industries, was in serious decline. British Aerospace, the main employer, was shedding jobs and had halved its workforce from 6,500 to 3,000 by the mid-1990s. But the borough council, in partnership with local business, refused to accept the demise of a town that had been designed to provide former Londoners with a more prosperous way of life when it was founded in 1946.

The partnership launched a marketing campaign to lure hi-tech companies to the town. It appears to have paid off, as a string of big names, including GlaxoWellcome, Marconi Instruments and UIA insurance have set up in the town, lured by the promise of good communications, a well-qualified workforce and an attractive, spacious environment.

GlaxoWellcome on its own created 2,000 jobs at its new research centre in 1995. David Scholes, forward planning group leader at the council, said: "Stevenage is showing signs of sustained economic growth, without the heavy reliance on some sectors of the economy we had in the past. We now have leading-edge hi-tech and other prestigious businesses in the town, which demonstrates the case for Stevenage."

The prosperity being registered in many towns in the South-east surpasses even that seen in the boom years of the late 1980s, according to the independent research body Incomes Data Services. Unemployment across the region was 6 per cent in 1987 and 2.8 per cent at the height of the previous boom in 1989. But the North-South divide is not yet dead, the latest figures suggest. In the North-east, Hartlepool, for example, has a jobless rate of 11.5 per cent.

If economic success has proved achievable for Stevenage, acquiring that elusive quality, "charm", may prove more difficult. The town had little to divert attention away from the oppressive heat yesterday, and locals appeared distinctly divided over whether it was an attractive place to live.

Arriving at the functional red-brick rail station, visitors are greeted with an arts centre and leisure park that bear more than passing resemblances to a collection of DIY sheds. The crumbling concrete shopping centre, built in 1959, is little better. Hans Vonk, 49, a Dutch computer programmer who has been living in the town for three years, described Stevenage as a "wonderful" place to live - though he said the shopping was "terrible".