Fifty years on, has Milton Keynes lived up to its utopian ideals?

A Milton Keynes underpass, yesterday. Image: Getty.

A thousand years from now, when historians gaze down at the ruins of ancient Britain, they might learn there was once a city that tried to change the way urban spaces looked and functioned. 

Milton Keynes turned 50 yesterday. Carved into the heart of Buckinghamshire, it has attracted admiration from abroad, even while it was being derided at home. For the Chinese and Spanish, it is an example to be followed, a beacon of progressive urban planning. For Brits, it provides good material for standup comedy routines.

At its foundation in 1967, the city’s original goal was to ease London’s overcrowding. It promised a slice of the British dream: the opportunity to raise a family amongst a tight-knit community, in good-quality housing at a price people could afford. 

I had never been to Milton Keynes: in over a decade living in London there had never been a reason to go. And when I arrived at the city's central train station, one of the first things I noticed was the vastness of the place. Its founders had had a fascination with two things: American cities and cars. They thus created a US-style grid system, one which allows for unusually wide roads.

But what the city lacks in sidewalks, it more than makes up for in parking spaces: more than 20,000 of them. And let's not forget the ubiquitous roundabouts for which the city is known: an estimated 130. Its traffic, however, is almost free-flowing.

Still, for all the lofty principals Milton Keynes was founded upon, there is something eerie and drab about the place. The lack of people out on the streets, the concrete structures, the colourlessness, the grey weather: the city would make the perfect setting for George Orwell’s 1984

“Community without propinquity.” That was the mantra of American planning theorist Melvin M. Webber, widely regarded as the “father of Milton Keynes”. It alludes to the advent of telecommunications and cars, making people boundlessly mobile. Against this backdrop, the notion of a compact city with a well defined centre was no longer thought relevant.

The locals I spoke to know their city is not able to compete with places like Liverpool, Nottingham or Hull when it comes to history. Perhaps it never will. But they also know they have a lot to be thankful for. 

Gill Prince is a local photographer involved in the Unexpected: MK project, which aims to challenge pre-conceived notions of Milton Keynes. Born in Bath but an MK resident for the past 25 years, Prince speaks with something akin to reverence about the city where she was able to set up her own business and raise a family. 


Milton Keynes “is an ongoing process, but I think we are a lot better than what people give us credit for,” she tells me. “We do have a sense of community. There are so many clubs and so many activities going on that it becomes very easy to find like-minded people.”

As the country grapples with a severe housing shortage, ministers have announced the development of 14 new garden cities. Based in part on the model set out by Milton Keynes, which contains an estimated 23m trees within its city boundaries, the new developments could provide 48,000 new homes in the coming years. 

But the city’s council leader, Peter Marland, warns that emulating Milton Keynes' vision won't be done easily, if at all. “Milton Keynes is unique and will remain unique,” Marland tells me when we meet at his office. “It was built on a disperse grid system, it’s low density, so the number of houses we created would probably be below what is needed now.” 

This concept of the ideal city is as old as history itself, but as my day in Milton Keynes comes to an end I find myself thinking about it. Other than greatly improving people’s living conditions, what else has Milton Keynes done for the people in it? Is material wealth all a city should aim to provide its residents? And if everyone is prospering, and driving nice cars and living in nice houses, is there a reason to create a community, especially in the age of the internet and social media?

The old village of Milton Keynes in 1968. Image: Getty.

Lee Scriven, 58, remembers moving from London back in 1974 with only “the promise of a brand new city.”

“Just couple of rows of houses,” he tells me. “The reality was that I had made it to Milton Keynes but Milton Keynes had not been made.” The writer and photographer speaks fondly of a Labour government who felt “duty-bound to provide its citizens with a new city to ease the housing shortage then”.

Fifty years on, the housing crisis is back. Milton Keynes, however, has evolved from “a couple of rows of houses” to a city of more than a quarter of a million people. 

So has the city fulfilled what it set out to accomplish?

“If you expected Milton Keynes to provide a better way of life for families, then it completely succeeded,” Scriven tells me. “If you are expecting it to become a city like Bristol, Liverpool, or Hull, that’s going to take years.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.