Down town

August 1 2002 / The Guardian

When I lived in Harlow, in the 1970s, a trip to the town centre - known locally as The High - was always something to cherish. Built on the highest part of the town, it seemed to offer everything an energetic young boy could want in those days: department stores, an Olympic-size swimming pool, a hi-tech sports centre, a dry-ski slope, a skating rink and a golf course set in a landscaped park through which a river meandered. It even had its own water gardens, at the gateway to which was a Henry Moore sculpture of a family - which, my father told me, symbolised all the new families that had started in the 1960s when Harlow was known as “pram town”.

I remember how, on one autumn afternoon, some friends and I slipped illicitly into the high-rise town hall and took the lift up to the observation tower that afforded superb views across the surrounding landscape. There, laid out before us, was the hard geometry of the town in which we lived, with its centrally planned network of roads and avenues, its dense housing estates and abundant green spaces. We stayed up there for the whole afternoon, until it was almost dark, watching the amber glow of the lights as they came on in the distant houses below.

In those days Harlow was a vibrant place, with utopian yearnings. It was one of the new towns built after the war, centrally planned but with its own distinct local identity. It had new model housing estates - many built using experimental materials and modish techniques - a “central business district”, designated “green wedges”, pubs named after butterflies and roads named after political heroes (Mandela Avenue, and so on). It had a leftwing council, a progressive, liberal intelligentsia, which congregated around the excellent local playhouse, eight comprehensive schools and a well-funded network of children’s playschemes and recreational sports facilities (Glenn Hoddle emerged from the Harlow leagues). It was a well-organised town, with a tough, resilient, wised-up local population, many of whom were aspirational former East Enders.

Just outside the town centre was a football stadium, the home of Harlow Town, who, for a brief period in 1979, became the most celebrated non-league club in the country by beating Leicester City, among others, on their way to the fourth round of the FA Cup. Harlow eventually lost 4-3 away to Elton John and Graham Taylor’s Watford in a thrilling game that was shown on Match of the Day. I was in the crowd that afternoon when, for large parts of the game, my home team dominated.

In retrospect, that match was the high point of my time in Harlow. Not long afterwards, my parents moved away, already alarmed by what they saw as the precipitous onset of decline. Today, Harlow Town football club operates in straitened circumstances, forlornly struggling to recapture the promise of the late-70s, when many locals believed that the team, once they had moved to a new stadium, would one day find their way into the Football League. It never came close to happening.

In a powerful sense, then, the fortunes of the football team closely reflect those of the west Essex town itself: Harlow, according to a report by MPs published this week, has, like so many postwar new towns, suffered from decades of underfunding and neglect. It is a town in trouble. It has ageing infrastructure, an ageing population, acute housing shortages and entire estates that need either urgent repair or demolition.

Never go back, they say, but this week, having read the MPs’ report, I decided to return for the first time in more than a decade. I wanted to find out why the dream had failed. To find out what exactly had gone wrong. I wasn’t shocked by what I found, but I was disappointed. The town, built to a master plan by Frederick Gibbard to provide cheap, efficient housing and a pleasant semi-rural environment for the urban poor of north-east London, today feels like the kind of place you want to pass quickly through on the way to somewhere else: a place that has been forgotten, shut out from the swagger and affluence of the Blair years.

The town centre is no longer a place to cherish. I return to Harlow on a Tuesday, which used to be market day, a riotous, bustling occasion. But there are very few stalls operating here now, and the once vibrant shopping precinct is sluggish. Where there were once major department stores and stylish independent shops, I discover only amusement arcades, budget stores, fast-food joints and an obligatory table-dancing bar. “A friend of mine tried 12 years ago to set up a stall selling electrical goods on the market,” says local security guard Brian Payne, gesturing towards the desultory marketplace. “The demand was so great he couldn’t get a site. He could have 10 stalls there now, if he wanted.”

What had gone wrong?

“The out-of-town shopping centres killed the town centre,” he says. “That and the fear of crime, particularly at night.”

The local Labour MP, Bill Rammell, has his constituency office on Market Square. The “B” is missing from his name on the sign leading to his dusty office, but he seems far from unwell: he is candid, robust, but ever alert to any potential slight against the town in which he has lived and worked for most of his life. “What’s the reason for your visit?” he asks, before I have time even to introduce myself.

On the way to his car - he wants to show me some of the most deprived areas in the town - he says: “Look, Harlow might not be Hampstead, but nor is it the accepted cliche of the metropolitan journalist. In my opinion, the new town idea of proving affordable accommodation for working people in an attractive environment worked - I’m a product of it. But successive governments have let us down. They haven’t recognised the extent of our infrastructure problems. If you build everything at the same time, particularly using experimental techniques, then everything is going to go wrong at the same time.”

To support his argument, he takes me to an estate called the Briars, where many of the flats and houses are either falling down or semi-derelict. There is trash and junk sprawled across the pavement and graffiti sprayed on the sides of houses. It is a humid afternoon and young children are out playing, oblivious to the squalor. This is an area as deprived and wretched as any inner-city estate.

When I lived in Harlow, this area was known as the “concrete jungle”, because of the density and claustrophobic concentration of the flat-roofed, box-like estates. The atmosphere was menacing, particularly at night, but it was never that dangerous. I used to come to the concrete jungle with my friends, to let off fireworks in the underground garages and generally to create mayhem. At the age of 15, I bought my first pint in the local pub, the Chequers - on the day of the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana.

In the Chequers today the atmosphere is much as before - edgy and suspicious. But I meet someone I used to know, a former member of the ICF, the hardcore hooligans who follow West Ham. He has been in and out of prison during the past 15 years.

What does he think of Harlow?

“It’s a shit hole.”

Why does he stay?

He doesn’t know. It’s not as if he has no experience of the world: he spent his early childhood in colonial southern Africa, after all. What does he think of some of the local estates?

“The whole town is decaying,” he says, adding, in a strange echo of Rammell: “If you put a load of houses up at the same time, they’re gonna fall down at the same time.”

Across the way from the Chequers used to be my old school, which was closed down in the 1980s and is now a business centre. Once a grammar school, it wasn’t a bad place - discipline was, on the whole, fine. But it was in thrall to an insidious egalitarianism. The senior masters - several of whom were veterans of the Spanish civil war - were authentic socialists. They did not believe in streaming: the human animal, I was once told, is a blank sheet of paper on which anything could be written. Which should have meant that we were therefore free to create our own destinies, to remake ourselves in whichever way we chose. Except that, if that were so, why was no one at my school encouraged to strive academically for the best? I recall how a senior master mocked one of my best friends, Michael Barrett, who today is a distinguished academic research scientist, for saying that he would go to university only if he could go to Oxford or Cambridge. “People like you don’t go to Oxford or Cambridge,” the master chuckled, his fat-fingered hands settled smugly on his swollen stomach.

Poverty of ambition, that was perhaps always the trouble with Harlow, then and now: at my school you excelled if you were “hard” (ie you could fight) or you were good at games. I did all right. I was good at games, and my best friends were hard enough. Today, the Harlow schools have no sixth forms, and at least 15% of children living locally go to schools outside the town. “These tend to be the children from the middle-class families,” Rammell says, sadly.

Before returning to London, I visit the town hall - which is now condemned and soon to be demolished. The water gardens have already been demolished, but will at least be relocated as part of planned regeneration. The Henry Moore statue has disappeared. “I’m afraid the head was knocked off the statue and stolen,” Rammell explains.

Can the town ever thrive again, or is it a symbol of the failed idealism of the socialist planning of the consensus politics of the immediate postwar years? The MPs’ report is at least official recognition that something urgently needs to be done. There is other good news, too: the severed head from the Henry Moore statue has been found and will, I am told, be restored to its rightful place once the regeneration of the town centre is complete. One hopes the wait will not be too long.