Like many Londoners, Kimberlee Perry began eying properties outside the M25 when she was expecting her first child. She and her husband chose Harlow, the new town in western Essex, because of the transport links to London, and its urban-rural feel.
As it turned out, the London link wasn’t that important. Kimberlee didn’t return to her sales job after her maternity leave ended; and five years on, she’s fully invested in Harlow. She founded the global fitness franchise company Bounce – styled “((BOUNCE))” – when her son was a few weeks old, and has since established its 8,000 square foot headquarters – complete with a 100-trampoline studio – in the town.
Over 35,000 people now attend Bounce classes every month in the UK, New Zealand and Kimberlee’s native Australia – and soon the U.S, too. Many of them are mums who bring their children to class. This child-friendly attitude is part of Bounce’s DNA, and, according to Kimberlee, something she inherited from her adopted home.
“Harlow has a lot to offer,” she said. “It’s a great option for families, with lots of mummy groups and free activities for kids – and it’s very friendly. That’s true in business as well: local businesses, we help each other out, tag each other on social media. I don’t think I would have had anywhere near as much success if I’d started somewhere else.”
Sir Frederick Gibberd would be pleased to know that the features of the town he masterplanned are still attracting and inspiring talent like Kimberlee. Born in 1947 out of the idealism of the post-war Labour Government, Harlow was one of eight new towns designed to provide decent housing for survivors of London’s Blitz. Despite the very real austerity of the time, the New Town programme was underpinned by a belief in the power of planning to address wider social issues such as public health and social justice.
Reflecting the pioneering spirit of the early days, Harlow quickly chalked up a series of firsts: the first high-rise residential tower block, the first pedestrian shopping precinct, the first health centre. Mag Barret, a journalist who moved to Harlow in the 1960s, covered many of the openings for local papers including the Harlow Citizen, Harlow News and Harlow Star – all now defunct. “Mary Peters, an Olympic runner, came for the opening of the first purpose-built sports centre in the country,” she says. “And the first post war Odeon opened here, with a big fanfare.”
In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the young and ambitious were drawn to the town, with a feeling that things could be done in Harlow that weren’t possible elsewhere. So many families were started here – at one point 20 per cent of its population was under 5 – that Harlow earnt the moniker “pram town”.
From a peak in 1974, however, its population began falling. A lack of high-quality jobs and higher education offerings meant the town began to lose its youngest and most affluent, and with them went a number of large employers.
After the Development Corporation was wound up in 1980, the town centre was sold off to private owners. In common with other new towns, Harlow struggled with the fact that, because everything had been built at the same time, it all needed renovating at the same time. But because the assets had been sold off, the town council had few income streams to pay for maintenance.
A period of economic and social decline set in, reflected in the very fabric of the town. Potholes appeared in the extensive cycleway system that was part of Gibberd’s original masterplan, and were not filled in. Several of Gibberd’s landmark buildings, including the original town hall, were demolished and replaced by less imposing structures.
Then, in the tense aftermath of the 2016 referendum, a Polish man called Arkadiusz Jozwik was killed in a late-night altercation. The incident was labelled initially as a potential hate crime, although a court would later find this not to be true. The self-examination that followed would prove a turning point. Harlow came together, first to mourn the death of Jozwik, then – in a series of celebrations to mark its 70th birthday – to show to itself and the world that it’s a much nicer than even many of its residents had come to believe.
The Discover Harlow project was launched by the council in 2018 to bring together people and businesses as ambassadors for the town. It’s an attempt to challenge perceptions of Harlow. At an economic development conference last year, some professionals expressed surprise after discovering some of Harlow’s gems, from the beautiful Town Park designed by landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe, to the town’s many sculptures: works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Rodin and Barbara Hepworth are on permanent public display around the town. Discover Harlow wants newcomers and existing residents alike to know and appreciate these assets.
It is also working alongside other organisations to improve the town. Although the council doesn’t own most of the property in the town centre, it is trying to galvanise business owners into starting a Business Improvement District, where they collectively pay for upgrades to common spaces. And it funded a facelift to Market Square, which it does own.
One of the reasons Harlow began losing its youth was a poor higher education offering. That is being addressed by Harlow College, which has enlarged its offering to fill the skills needs of local employers with Stansted Airport College and the Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Centre, as well as accreditation from Apple as a Distinguished School.
On the map: Harlow lies just to the north east of London. Image: streetmap.co.uk.
Job numbers are growing again – from 42,000 in 2009 to 48,000 in 2017, according to Office of National Statistics data – and are likely to increase further with the development of three science parks. On the site where fibre optics was invented – a discovery that earnt Sir Charles Kao the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009 – will be a new 15-acre campus called Kao Park. Phase One is completed, housing a brand-new data centre and the offices of defence contractor Raytheon, Arrow Electronics and Pearson Education.
Nearby, also enjoying the planning and business rate advantages of Harlow Enterprise Zone, is the council-run Harlow Science Park. When completed, it will include a 15,000-square foot ARU Innovation Centre built in collaboration with Anglia Ruskin University.
Also in the works is the £400m move of Public Health England to the former site of GSK, a major pharmaceutical company who left town in 2010. PHE will create a centre for public health research, health improvement and protection employing 3,250 people, many of whom it says will be recruited locally.
New homes are planned – 23,000 of them – encouraged by the rationale that the reasons Harlow was chosen as the location for a new town in the first place make it an attractive place to live and work. With good road and rail links to Cambridge and London – only 30 minutes away by train – Harlow is also near Stansted airport.
It is hoped that the Harlow and Gilston Garden Town, delivered by Places for People, will fix some of the failures of the New Town programme, notably creating income streams to pay for future maintenance and ensuring stewardship remains with the community. It will also address the historic lack of diversified tenure, which made it hard for Harlow to attract people in higher income brackets.
“It’s about supporting the growth of Harlow,” said Mary Parsons, Group Director for Placemaking and Regeneration at Places for People. “Harlow has a lot of great things about to happen. I’d like to hear more people saying they feel proud to come from Harlow.”