Where have all the good times gone?: The new towns thought the boom would go on forever, but now they are slowly dying. Kathy Marks reports (CORRECTED)

CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 11 OCTOBER 1992) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

STEVENAGE has several modest claims to fame. It was the first new town designated by the post-war planners; the first town in Britain to get a pedestrianised shopping centre; the first in the world to get an integrated cycle track. And it has only one set of traffic lights.

Until a couple of years ago, it was also very prosperous. Proximity to London, a pool of skilled labour, and Hertfordshire's green and pleasant land attracted light engineering and hi-tech industries away from the capital.

The recession of the early Eighties barely grazed Stevenage and the other new towns along the A1(M) corridor - Hatfield, Letchworth, Welwyn Garden City. A few years ago, the talk was of overheating and skills shortages.

The turnaround has been swift, and savage. The run-down of the defence and aerospace industries, which were almost the raison d'etre of these towns, accompanied by the longest recession since the war, has bitten deep into the local economies. Unemployment in Stevenage - 2.4 per cent three years ago - has risen to nearly 11 per cent.

'It was absolutely boom city,' said Clive Wilmot, chairman of the Stevenage Chamber of Commerce. 'When you're in a boom, you always think it will go on forever. The bubble had to burst. But when businesses which have been built up over 30 years go bust, you know something is badly wrong.'

It is difficult to overestimate the influence of British Aerospace on the area. In the mid-Eighties, BAe employed 7,500 people at its civil aircraft plant in Hatfield - one in three of the town's workers - and 12,000 at its missile and space divisions in Stevenage.

Defence cutbacks and global problems in the aerospace industry have forced a major restructuring on the company. Only 2,000 workers remain at Hatfield; last week they learnt that the plant is to close next year. The announcement has devastated the town, which has produced aircraft since 1934. BAe workers in Stevenage, where thousands of jobs have already gone, fear for their future.

John Hill, 50, picked up his redundancy cheque on Friday morning after 10 years as a tool designer in the space division. Wandering through the town gardens in Stevenage, he said: 'I've lived here for 35 years and I don't want to move. But it's the younger ones I feel sorry for. A lot of people will be chasing the same jobs.

'People round here are very demoralised. They're turning off the TV when the news comes on; they can't take any more bad news. The aerospace industry will never recover; the government is just not prepared to sponsor it.'

The knock-on effects of BAe's decline have been severe. Al Rainnie, an economist at the University of Hertfordshire, estimates that for every 10 jobs lost in defence and aerospace, six more disappear in the engineering and service sectors.

BAe has not been the only big name adding to dole queues over the past few years. Marconi Instruments closed its Stevenage plant and the computer company ICL shut down two factories in Letchworth. Rank Xerox cut back massively in Welwyn, and Hawker Siddeley is doing the same there. At Hatfield Jobcentre, David Bryant, 32, was looking for building work. 'I've been out of work more times than I care to remember over the past three years,' he said. 'All the optimism has gone. The town is dying and I can't see it picking up.'

Perhaps the most potent symbol of decline is the Galleria shopping centre straddling the A1(M) in Hatfield. The pounds 150m development was conceived in the boom years and modelled on a centre in Houston, Texas. It opened last September. Two weeks ago, the Galleria went into receivership. The units are still trading but their fate is uncertain.

The future of the area, according to Simon Smith, an economist in the planning department of Hertfordshire County Council, lies in pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, financial services and computing.

Several big insurance companies such as Confederation Life moved to Stevenage during the Eighties. The pharmaceutical sector, in the new towns since the early days, continues to thrive; Smith-Kline Beecham has a big site at Welwyn, while Glaxo is building its European research headquarters in Stevenage. 'We're at rock bottom now, but we do have a clear vision for the future,' Mr Smith said. 'As we lose our manufacturing operations, we have to retain and seek investment in other activities.'

(Photograph and map omitted)

CORRECTION

Marconi Instruments has not closed its plant in Stevenage, as was incorrectly reported last week. We apologise for the error.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
John Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
business
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Sport
Germany's Andre Greipel crosses the finish line to win the sixth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 194 kilometers (120.5 miles) with start in Arras and finish in Reims, France
tour de franceGerman champion achieves sixth Tour stage win in Reims
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face
books
Arts and Entertainment
filmSir Ian McKellen will play retired detective in new film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Technical Support Analyst (C++, Windows, Linux, Perl, Graduate)

£30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A global leader in trading platforms and e...

Junior IT Consultant (SQL, Java, C++, Oracle, Graduate)

£28000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A fast growing consultancy to the financia...

Technical Support Analyst (Windows, Linux, Unix, Graduate)

£30000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Support Analyst - Liverpool Stre...

Day In a Page

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

Hollywood targets Asian audiences

The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
10 best girls' summer dresses

Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

Westminster’s dark secret

Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

Naked censorship?

The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil