The Stow Design Guide SPD Consultation Draft
3. Baseline Analysis
3.1 Historic Environment
What is now known as Moot House (Community Centre) was a former Vicarage associated with St Mary-at- Latton Church (400m to the north-east). This property is thought to have been built in the 1840s and is now a grade II listed building. Adjacent to Moot House is a late 18th. century stable range.
The first quarter of the new town to be completed would be the Mark Hall/Netteswell neighbourhood cluster, with the Stow at its heart becoming the town's first neighbourhood centre designed to serve a neighbourhood population of 20,000. Across First Avenue from The Stow lies Mark Hall Conservation Area which includes Mark Hall North, the first completed housing area.
Gibberd began work on The Stow's design as early as 1949. Opened in 1952, the ideas would act as a precedent for the town centre, in particular the lively and inclusive concentration of uses alongside the shops, including a cricket field, tennis club, church hall and service garage. The shopping centre at the core was designed with open spaces at either end of a north-south axis orientated to maximise sunlight and a with a Z shape which helps enclose views. Two key design principles were continuous shop front display and a canopy/recess for weather protection which also distinguished the shops from the dwellings/offices/ hall (now leisure club) above. Against Gibberd's wishes a road originally ran through the shopping centre with on-street parking. However, this was considered a failure, resulting in it soon being converted to the pedestrianised system seen today.
The area to the west of the shopping centre was one of the first examples of service industry bays planned to relate to a shopping street, with small single storey units for people to 'start it off ' and larger sites including petrol station (now Aldi) on the perimeter. Service bays were intended to provide self-contained modest premises at affordable rents for small businesses of varying character, purpose and tidiness, which might include working trades, workshops, crafts, retailers, offices and manufacturers.
3.2 Land use, Ownership and Tenure
The original planned land uses of the Gibberd plan remain largely intact, forming three main character areas:
The Shopping Centre - This is the focus for retail (primarily convenience though with some comparison) and services, with residential, offices and leisure space above. A recent planning approval, if implemented, will see 3 of these office units (59-60 and 71-72 The Stow) converted to 5 flats.
It is thought there are currently 56 dwellings above the shopping centre, with access splitting accommodation into four areas - northern block section (11 units), western block section (31 units), south-eastern block (5 units) and eastern block (9 dwellings). The majority (47) are thought to be 2-storey maisonettes accessed via rear stairs, communal paths and often benefitting from front roof gardens, though there are also some flats (9). Most dwellings are still in public ownership, though 10 (with another pending a decision) have been bought out by residents. Residential values and living conditions are adversely affected by anti-social behaviour within the shopping centre, maintenance issues, lack of parking and inadequate self-policing/ security to the rear.
Service Industry Bays - These still provide affordable premises to a range of small business, though with a growing proportion of fast food outlets, some vacancies and an out-dated physical environment.
Community Area - Community uses are focussed to the south of the study area, including the Moot House community complex, health facilities, St Andrews Church, library and loosely related to the Recreation Ground. Moot House generously provides seven halls/large rooms for hire (including occasionally for weddings), other rooms dedicated to particular community groups, a social club, café and gardens.
The neighbourhood centre previously lacked an anchor supermarket able to cater for weekly bulk buy shopping, though this is now provided by the new Aldi, albeit on the former service station site, somewhat detached from the core retail area. Other important anchors/attractors include the post office, health centre and other services. Night time uses include a pub and five restaurants spread loosely across the neighbourhood centre.
3.3 Urban Design
The neighbourhood centre is inward-looking in nature, generally presenting a hidden, inactive and/or unappealing edge to adjoining main roads. However, the new Aldi now actively addresses the (gateway) roundabout and has noticeably improved the centre's outward profile. The proximity of Aldi to Our Lady Fatima Catholic Church, on the other side of the roundabout, also helps integrate the latter within the neighbourhood centre. Similarly the relatively new and outward looking Nuffield House Health Centre helps positively highlight the key turning into the neighbourhood centre from Howard Way. In contrast it is difficult to see the neighbourhood centre from the gateway junction of First Avenue and Orchard Croft, whilst the blank wall of the library provides an uninviting scene approaching from the south.
3.4 Building Design
The shopping centre, designed by Gibberd, provides a reasonably attractive townscape, highlighted by projecting concrete window surrounds and balconies, added tiling (to underpasses, colonnades and unit dividers), and feature curtain walling; though the utilitarian and standardised block form lacks the variety of use and expression often experienced in traditional centres where smaller plots have developed over time.
The shopping centre has an urban character with 3-4 storey continuous block forms and active frontage, which together with the Z shaped layout and colonnades/canopies presents a strong sense of enclosure. Modernisation, including UPVC replacement windows, traditionally styled canopies to maisonette entrances and pigeon protection measures (including netting to balconies), have slightly eroded the centre's architectural integrity, though much remains intact. Publicly accessible streets immediately behind the shopping centre mean the unattractive visible backs of properties are exposed to public view and are vulnerable to unwanted intrusion. Furthermore, as housing is set back behind roof gardens, these rear areas suffer from poor natural surveillance which might otherwise help deter crime and anti-social behaviour.
The Service Industry Bays consist of a number of quite basic and small-scale industrial-type one-storey buildings, offering little or no architectural quality, often appearing run-down and largely back onto The Stow Road, but in places still offer interest considering the range of businesses, freely expressed individual shop front design/displays and winding close-knit site layout.
Moot House and the catholic church provide distinctive and relatively prominent local landmarks, though the latter's presence is undermined by the adjoining square's poor condition and overgrown vegetation.
The approach road from Howard Way to the shopping centre currently suffers from some relatively inactive development edges including an enclosing high wall to part of the Moot House complex.
3.5 Public realm
'The public realm describes the publicly accessible streets and spaces including car parks. There are two main spaces within the neighbourhood centre.
The space outside Moot Hall is the main space, given it is where the area's strategic pedestrian routes converge and where the shopping centre meets the area of community uses. The space is formed by the set-back to Moot House which forms the showcase building. It is also reasonably well framed by the shopping centre, though poorly framed to the west, where blank walls and untidy parking areas prevail, and to the north, considering the building's relatively unresponsive uses and design. The landscape treatment has deteriorated and is poor, with uneven and often filled in concrete paving, excessive overshadowing from trees, outdated raised beds providing the only seating opportunities and being too perceptually split by the road running through.
The other square, designed into the northern section of the shopping centre, is reasonably framed by strongly enclosing active development frontage which nevertheless allows for good access (and reasonable activity) in all directions. As with the rest of the shopping centre, raised kerbs are retained from its days as a trafficked road, creating the need for regular ramps and, protecting the ramp edges, some unappealing and often unplanted concrete planters. The square is reasonably well paved though generally lacks a coherent landscape scheme, with trees within the space appearing too dominant and counter to the sense of building enclosure, raised planting beds poorly maintained and blocking view lines, out-dated and poorly arranged seating, and where the potential attraction of the 'Not in Anger' sculpture is lost amid the clutter. Such issues affect the rest of the pedestrianised public realm, though have a lesser detrimental impact.
Despite being in close proximity, the neighbourhood centre poorly relates to the Recreation Ground to the south, seemingly turning its back on this attractive space and with the Minchen Road Car Park cutting off views and blocking safe access.
Aside from the streets and spaces mentioned above the public realm treatment is fairly standard, being predominantly bitumen roads and pathways. This is generally in reasonable condition, though service and rear parking areas are often in poor condition and poorly lit, typically a patchwork quilt of deteriorating/ broken/infilled materials, including sections of in-situ and concrete paving nearest the shopping centre.
Howard Way and First Avenue are well landscaped routes, designated as green wedges in the local plan. Green verges and street trees also give an attractive green character to The Stow between Howard Way and the Recreation Ground.
3.6 Transport and movement
The Stow is centred on the neighbourhood's strategic pedestrian network (converging in the space outside Moot House). Strategic pedestrian and vehicular networks are separated, which is consistent with the segregated transport thinking of the post-war era. First Avenue and Howard Avenue, running around the periphery, still provide main road vehicular access to the centre, though do not pass through. Originally the shopping centre was also trafficked, to lend vehicular passing trade and on-street parking, though problems led to it reverting to the pedestrianised layout preferred by Gibberd.
Pedestrian access through the neighbourhood centre is generally adequate, though some routes are poorly overlooked and therefore self-policed. The new Aldi has improved pedestrian access to the shopping centre, though does not provide a direct link to the core area of Service Industry Bays.
Cycle access to/from the neighbourhood is reasonable, though not focussed on it. The excellent strategic/ neighbourhood off-road cycle network instead converges on the nearby Stow Recreation Ground, whilst First Avenue also provides a signed on-path route running east-west. Cycle parking is not provided in the neighbourhood centre, though sign/lamp posts etc appear to provide ad-hoc potential for this.
The neighbourhood centre is generally provided with good and convenient bus links, though the stops on the main road are isolated from development and therefore might appear vulnerable to crime.
'Back' roads run behind the shopping centre providing access to service industry bays, car parking, upper floor dwellings and enabling servicing. The main back road is also now being used to access the new Aldi considering there is no right hand turn into the site from First Avenue. A lack of natural surveillance from surrounding development together with poor lighting means these back roads appear vulnerable to crime and anti-social behaviour. Car parking is in short supply across the neighbourhood centre and a priority issue for local residents in particular. There are two pay-and-display car parks, whilst the new Aldi car park also caters for short-stay needs. Unmarked roads outside the centre provide free/over-spill potential, though in places and at certain times this can unreasonably conflict with the needs of local residents. To the western and northern rears of the shopping centre there is currently no freely available car parking available for residents except out-of-hours. However, in practice, residents, amongst others, appear to be using the (too) limited parking potential on lined streets without enforcement and largely without unduly affecting servicing. The road to the eastern rear of the shopping centre is unlined, though there is again intense competition for the limited number of spaces, including from the rear adjoining cul-de-sac on Orchard Croft which itself has inadequate on-street parking to the front. A small number of garage courts can also be accessed from this back road, though reportedly these and servicing vehicles are sometimes blocked by inconsiderately parked cars.
The Stow address is not street based and instead, rather confusingly for wayfinding, describes the area. This includes five streets covering the main through road, the pedestrianised shopping centre and the collection of roads servicing the rear of the shopping centre and service industry bays.
3.7 Opportunities and Constraints
- Moot House (historic landmark/community facility)
- Generally unspoilt shopping centre original buildings
- Small businesses (encouraging business starts, the local economy and diversity)
- Dorringtons - classically styled large bakers
- Aldi anchor store
- The Stow Service Industry Bays hubs; niche retail,
- Affordable rents
- Dwellings provide community presence and proximity to amenities means they need less parking
- Trees and general sense of greenery
- Good spaces (potentially) - within pedestrianized area and outside Moot House
- Pedestrianisation - safe/comfortable environment
- The car park is convenient
- Convenient bus stops
- Connectivity to off-road strategic cycle network
- Relatively higher property values
- Buildings adjoining main roads reduce noise
- Restoration of shopping centre and Moot House.
- Better usage and long term viability for Moot House
- Structured well maintained landscaping
- Views focussed on the catholic church
- Improved pedestrian/cycle crossings
- Open up neighbourhood centre to main roads; outward facing development frontage
- Reintroduce road access through/crossing the shopping centre to increase visibility
- Improving the link through to the park
- Improve maisonette gardens and open space
- Improve back parking/servicing areas
- Cycle lanes to green corridors and cycle facilities
- Better desire line pathways between First avenue and the shopping centre
- Filter trees to open up views
- Encourage uses that animate streets and spaces
- Spaces in the shopping centre/outside Moot House
- Permit parking to help manage potential conflict between occupiers and visitors
- Market stalls to complete range of retail, animate spaces and foster new businesses
- Offices and workspace contributing to the neighbourhood centre mix
- Toilets if not already provided
- Public art to help enliven and brand
- Improve lighting and design out anti-social-behavour
- Poorly maintained public realm and planters
- Too 'concretey' in places
- St Andrews Methodist Church looks poorly maintained and has suffered from vandalism
- Moot House appears poorly maintained
- Community uses appear peripheral rather than an integral part of the centre
- Difficult and potentially dangerous to cross roundabouts on foot or bike, with signalised crossings requiring potentially long detours
- Rear parking appears unattractive, mostly illegible, lacks natural surveillance and is poorly laid out
- Pedestrianised centre lacks vehicular passing trade
- Upper maisonettes are vulnerable to public intrusion
- Tree planting sometimes doesn't complement built environment structure
- Park lacks recreational facility and the play area seems small and dated
- Area based addresses can hinder wayfinding
- Too much community space (inside & out) to maintain
- Small (community) businesses priced out, undercut (by big business) and forced out - sterilised centre
- Mixed land ownership and potential for ransom non-cooperation
- Developer buy-out and inconsiderate redevelopment
- Public sector land sell-off without any development controls
- Unwanted uses, e.g. McDonalds and another supermarket
- Local resistance to change and loss of local assets
- Underground utilities may curtail development
- Harlow's relatively low property values
- Road disruption would affect highway network
- Access to Aldi becomes a problem from west
- Revert to street based addresses
- Lack of community groups/residents association representing The Stow
- The balance between residential, private and business parking spaces
- Creating a 'rat-run' route avoiding First Avenue
3.8 Sustainability Appraisal
Planning Practice Guidance states that Supplementary Planning Documents do not require a sustainability appraisal but may in exceptional circumstances require a strategic environmental assessment if they are likely to have significant environmental effects that have not already have been assessed during the preparation of the Local Plan.
A strategic environmental assessment is unlikely to be required where a supplementary planning document deals only with a small area at a local level (see regulation 5(6) of the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004), unless it is considered that there are likely to be significant environmental effects.
A Screening Report has been produced to accomanpany this document to determine whether or not the contents of The Stow Neighbourhood Centre Design Framework SPD will have significant environmental effects and in turn require Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) in accordance with the European Directive 2001/42/EC. For more information please visit www.harlow.gov.uk/spd
3.9 Summary Issues and Opportunities
TO FOLLOW POST PUBLIC CONSULTATION