Harlow Town Centre Area Action Plan - Issues and Options Consultation

Ended on the 10th August 2018
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Historic overview

Before the planned development of Harlow New Town, the area was largely fields with dispersed farmsteads and manors. The commercial centre grew around Old Harlow's medieval market square and the more informal Churchgate Street to the south-east. The population grew from 1,514 people in 1801 to 3,471 in 1931, small in comparison to the 60,000 people for whom the new town was planned (later this increased to 90,000).

Frederick Gibberd's vision and masterplan for Harlow New Town reflected the New Town ethos of the 1940's, drawing inspiration from the earlier Garden City movement and the drive to provide high quality and spacious homes with access to clean air and open space.

The 1952 masterplan was based on three fundamental principles - an essentially human environment (that the design should be based on the pedestrian); an urban atmosphere;

and the principle of evolution. According to Gibberd, "the third predicted a flexible approach. The first two were basic to the concept of new towns."

1952 masterplan of Harlow New Town

Pedestrianised public realm


Green space

Gibberd's vision of rationalising and separating the town and industry from surrounding residential neighbourhoods

Evolution of Town Centre

Since the conception of Harlow New Town, the Town Centre has undergone several stages of expansion. The diagrams below show its evolution from 1952 to today. The original plan intentionally separated residential areas from the Town Centre. This now has a negative impact on the current operation of the Town Centre, in contrast to historic market towns which are activated in the evening by people living in the centre.

Town Centre position and context

Harlow Town Centre is positioned in close proximity to major transport corridors, including the A10, M25, A414 and the M11, which stretches from London to Cambridge and beyond towards Peterborough. Stansted Airport is located to the north of Harlow. The Town Centre is served by Harlow Town Railway Station alongside a network of local buses. The integration of transport planning with efficient mixed land uses and improvements to the public realm are essential for the regeneration of the Town Centre. Harlow has a strong relationship with Cambridge which lies just 50km north of Harlow and is part of the 'Core Area' within the London Stansted Cambridge Corridor (LSCC).

Regional context


Retail sector context and trends

Harlow has large shopping population in its catchment but the Town Centre has experienced a decline in retail ranking from 168 in 2012 to 185 in 2017 (Harlow Town Centre Market Analysis Final Report, May 2017). This could be due to a lack of inward investment and changes to the national retail sector and shopping habits, alongside the relative improvement of directly competing centres in the wider area including Bishops Stortford, Brookfield and Welwyn Garden City. Competition from sub-regional shopping centres also has an impact.

As set out in the recent Market Assessment for the Town Centre (2017), recent studies indicate a significant expenditure leakage to competing centres. The centre has a lack of major occupiers and a relatively poor evening economy offer. The proximity of the Town Centre to a strong out-of-town retail offer, notably Queensgate Centre, also affects the performance of the Town Centre retail economy. A number of retail sector trends have affected the town centres and high streets across the UK.

These include the following:

  • Online shopping;
  • Down-sizing and polarisation of national retailers;
  • Importance of scale, flexibility and variety of store sizes;
  • Smaller format grocery stores likely to be more common;
  • Leisure uses becoming more important with focus on consumer experience;
  • Creating right conditions to attract new modern retail e.g. high quality public realm;
  • Demand for co-working spaces, homeworking and serviced offices;
  • Transport / accessibility;
  • Increase of private rental sector; and
  • Use of permitted development rights to convert office to residential.

Town centre performance ranking

Nearby neighbourhoods

The surrounding neighbourhoods are separated from the Town Centre by green wedges and major connector roads.

Wider context - Town Centre location

AAP boundary

Green infrastructure

Natural landscape and green space can be easily reached by foot from the Town Centre, although the centre itself lacks planting and open spaces. The Green Wedge network was an essential part of Gibberd's vision for Harlow and often accommodates cycling and walking routes.

Wider context - Green space

AAP boundary


The Stort Valley runs to the north with land rising gradually to the south, reaching a ridgeline of about 70 metres above the valley level to the south of existing settlement.

Harlow was planned to be contained within the cradle of Rye Hill, with this distinct topography offering expansive views of the surrounding countryside.

Wider context - Topography

AAP boundary


Views of landmarks aid legibility across Harlow. A row of poplar trees at the former Woodbridge Farm and the southern water tower are clear features on the horizon and can be viewed from The Water Gardens looking south. The view back is shown in the photo opposite.

View north towards Harlow Town Centre

Wider context - Landmarks

AAP boundary

Growth potential

Based on the evidence base, demand for housing in Harlow is likely to increase in response to buyers being pushed out of London. This is a general trend in towns close to London, but the existence of employment opportunities associated with Public Health England and Enterprise Zone status have significant potential to establish greater momentum in Harlow. Other positive drivers for growth include the Town's strategic role in the LSCC and investment in sustainable transport modes and an integrated cycle network.

Significant housing growth will be required to support the level of forecast population growth (19.6% increase by 2032). The SHMA identified need for 7,409 new homes in the next 20 years with demand mostly for 2 and 3 bedrooms.

The award-winning Newhall development at Harlow offers an innovative approach to accommodating new homes and future developments should take a cue from its form, density, scale and layout.

Forecasting year





Comparison goods floorspacecapacity (sq. mnet)





Conveniencegoods floorspace capacity (sq. mnet)





Existing retail floorspace: 82,000 sq. m net

Forecast Retail Capacity - Medium Housing Growth / 'Baseline' Scenario (figures are cumulative)

Source: Retail Needs Study, GVA.

The Town Centre is not understood to be an established office market due to size, quality of existing stock and high vacancy rates.

However, significant growth opportunities exist within the Enterprise Zone for new office space with a focus on Med Tech, Life Science and ICT sectors alongside SME manufacturing space and the emergence of a national science base for Public Health England.

The encouragement of conversion of office to residential within the Town Centre maybe undermining good quality growth and impacting upon the amount of employment space needed to help meet wider economic needs associated with the new homes proposed for the District.

Residential growth and employment generation are expected to go hand-in-hand with a growth in future Town Centre consumer demand for Harlow Town Centre.

The table below illustrates the forecast level of retail capacity over the plan period.

Harlow Town Centre will be impacted if a strategic decision to relocate Princess

Alexandra Hospital (PAH) from its current site is taken. In planning for future population

growth and increasing demand, PAH is working with partners exploring relocation options as well as redevelopment on the existing site. The hospital is the largest employer in the district and serves an extended population of up to 500,000; relocation away from the existing site is likely to impact the town centre and daily footfall.

The existing site has been identified for c650 new homes, which will support the town centre. The loss of c2,500 jobs close to the town centre will be a strategic issue for the town and the AAP will consider how some of these jobs may be reprovided.

Growth context showing the number of new homes coming forward in the Plan period within the Housing Market area (Harlow District Council, Epping Forest District Council and East Herts District Council)


AAP boundary

The adjacent drawing illustrates the Town Centre boundary and the AAP boundary. The previous iteration of the Town Centre boundary is shown as a dashed line, which is drawn more tightly to the roads which form an edge to the core Town Centre area.

Harlow Town Centre and its environs have changed over the years and the Town Centre boundary has been amended to reflect and align to the natural boundary that exists today but also to take account of potential changes in the future. The new boundary incorporates the contemporary pattern of commercial, civic, leisure and educational uses and recognises sites of future change that are likely to have significant impact on the town centre. There is recognition that Princess Alexandra Hospital has an impact on the Town Centre, however with discussions ongoing regarding the future of the existing site (adjacent to Harlow Town Centre) it has not been included in the AAP boundary. The new areas incorporated within the updated boundary include:

  • Harlow College campus, which is an important education site incorporating Harlow College, Harlow Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Centre and BMAT STEM Academy which is a major trip generator for the town centre
  • Harlow Leisurezone, which is both a very popular leisure centre in the town and serves as a town centre car park for many visitors
  • Sainsburys to the north of the town centre, which could have a stronger relationship with the centre and could come forward for redevelopment in the Local Plan period, up to 2033.
  • The Clarion Housing site which has recently been demolished, has planning permission for residential development and likely to progress within the Plan period.

This expansion is significant as has a number of potential benefits from a planning policy perspective:

  • The wider boundary encourages greater emphasis on the potential regeneration opportunities of sites beyond the immediate core Town Centre. By including them within the boundary, there is potential to encourage a more joined up approach which is integrated with the broader direction of travel for the Town Centre as a whole.
  • The AAP is likely to include a number of integrated proposals for improvements to the roads such as Fourth Avenue and Velizy Avenue which form a collar around the Town Centre. The wider boundary might assist in achieving a comprehensive context for movement and public realm projects which could assist from a delivery perspective.

Town Centre and Area Action Plan boundary

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