Queensgate, parkways and Ferry Meadows - how Peterborough grew from town to city

Queensgate Shopping Centre under construction ENGEMN00120120630091834
Queensgate Shopping Centre under construction ENGEMN00120120630091834
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Peterborough is a fast-growing and increasingly vibrant place to live, but the picture was vastly different 50 years ago when it had a population of just 85,000.

The big change from market town to the city we see today was largely down to the work of the Peterborough Development Corporation which formed in 1968 after Peterborough was designated a New Town to take some of the strain away from London (sound familiar?).

Kem Mehmed, formerly of the development corporation EMN-180618-172527009

Kem Mehmed, formerly of the development corporation EMN-180618-172527009

The following 20 years - until the Government shut the development corporation down - saw 26,000 new houses, 25,000 new jobs and 26 miles of a new parkway system created.

The population increased by 50,000 and booming Peterborough had a new shopping centre to enjoy (Queensgate), 2,500 acres of green space (Nene Park Trust, including Ferry Meadows which turns 40 this year), and new art, including Antony Gormley’s Places to Be which now adorns three roofs on the city centre.

David Bath was director of marketing and planning at the development corporation. He said: “I’m proud of what we achieved. Peterborough is now a really good and exciting place to live. It’s good for homes, jobs and leisure.”

David’s assistant Kemal Mehmed lives in Orton Wistow, one of many development corporation officials who have remained in the city (David said he lived in the Fulbridge area).

“It’s a vote of confidence that senior officers still live here,” Kemal said.

The Ortons was one of the townships created by the development corporation, including Bretton and Werrington, although never Castor as planned after concerted opposition.

Armed with the powers of compulsory purchase, and to issue planning permission on its own, the development corporation was quickly able to start building alongside private developers.

Kemal added: “Almost everybody who wanted a house with a garden got one.”

Peterborough City Council leader Cllr John Holdich lived through the time the development corporation was operating. He said: “If you look at the work they did, it transformed Peterborough into a city.

They did some forward thinking stuff.

“I’ve got to mention the road system - otherwise we would be like Cambridge and not be able to move.”

Queensgate and parkways - two legacies of the development corporation

Out of the development corporation’s biggest achievements was Queensgate which opened in 1982. “The most significant development since the cathedral,” was how Kemal described it.

He added: “People came in coach loads from 100 miles away to visit it. The one that everybody talked about was John Lewis. It was the biggest John Lewis store in the country.”

David said: “Queensgate was one of our greatest achievements. It won the European Shopping Centre of the Year award and was opened by Queen Beatrix of Holland.

“It was a fantastic design and it fitted into the city centre which is a very different thing to do.”

Another significant achievement was the parkway system. David said: “For a number of years until recently it was possible to predict your journey around to within two to three minutes, no matter where you were.”

David added: “We needed a significant parkway system to distribute traffic around town and not through housing areas.”

More success stories from the development corporation

There was more to the development corporation than Queensgate and the parkways.

The opening of Nene Park, which both Kemal and David believe is the “jewel in the crown,” and the train line handed over to Nene Valley Railway, were just two of the many highlights.

Kemal said: “We had a number of big success stories right at the beginning. One was Thomas Cook at Thorpe Wood - that was the first big firm to relocate.

“Molins made tobacco machinery and was in Bretton.”

Lynch Wood business park was opened in 1988 by the Queen, while Showcase Cinemas also came to Peterborough.

David said: “I was over in America on a marketing mission and went to Showcase with the chair of the development corporation Jeremy Rowe. We were shown around.

“We were persuading them Peterborough was the best place to come. Before long they had made a decision they were coming to Peterborough.”

The failure to get the Castor township off the ground disappointed David, as did the Government closing the development corporation before it could tackle one more big project.

“The biggest regret I have is we did not go fast enough to acquire the land at North Westgate. That was next on line but we were closed down before we could acquire the land.

“Consequently it’s been a derelict site since then.”

More on Peterborough’s development:

The history of Peterborough’s development - 2008 Peterborough Telegraph article.

Elsewhere - Peterborough Development Corporation 50 years ago - Peterborough Society article from July 2017.

Related Peterborough nostalgia in pictures:

- Celebrating 900 years of Peterborough Cathedral

- How well do you know Peterborough’s streets? How well do you know Peterborough streets?

- 12 things you never knew about Peterborough’s lost tram network

- Peterborough under construction - do you recognise these city centre sites before they were finished?