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.

 
 
 
 

A growing number of voters will never own their own home. Why is the government ignoring them?

A lettings agent window. Image: Getty.

The dream of a property-owning democracy continues to define British housing policy. From Right-to-Buy to Help-to-Buy, policies are framed around the model of the ‘first-time buyer’ and her quest for property acquisition. The goal of Philip Hammond’s upcoming budget – hailed as a major “intervention” in the “broken” housing market – is to ensure that “the next generation will have the same opportunities as their parents to own a home.”

These policies are designed for an alternative reality. Over the last two decades, the dream of the property-owning democracy has come completely undone. While government schemes used to churn out more home owners, today it moves in reverse.

Generation Rent’s new report, “Life in the Rental Sector”, suggests that more Britons are living longer in the private rental sector. We predict the number of ‘silver renters’ – pensioners in the private rental sector – will rise to one million by 2035, a three-fold increase from today.

These renters have drifted way beyond the dream of home ownership: only 11 per cent of renters over 65 expect to own a home. Our survey results show that these renters are twice as likely than renters in their 20s to prefer affordable rental tenure over homeownership.

Lowering stamp duty or providing mortgage relief completely miss the point. These are renters – life-long renters – and they want rental relief: guaranteed tenancies, protection from eviction, rent inflation regulation.

The assumption of a British ‘obsession’ with homeownership – which has informed so much housing policy over the years – stands on flimsy ground. Most of the time, it is based on a single survey question: Would you like to rent a home or own a home? It’s a preposterous question, of course, because, well, who wouldn’t like to own a home at a time when the chief economist of the Bank of England has made the case for homes as a ‘better bet’ for retirement than pensions?


Here we arrive at the real toxicity of the property-owning dream. It promotes a vicious cycle: support for first-time buyers increases demand for home ownership, fresh demand raises house prices, house price inflation turns housing into a profitable investment, and investment incentives stoke preferences for home ownership all over again.

The cycle is now, finally, breaking. Not without pain, Britons are waking up to the madness of a housing policy organised around home ownership. And they are demanding reforms that respect renting as a life-time tenure.

At the 1946 Conservative Party conference, Anthony Eden extolled the virtues of a property-owning democracy as a defence against socialist appeal. “The ownership of property is not a crime or a sin,” he said, “but a reward, a right and responsibility that must be shared as equitable as possible among all our citizens.”

The Tories are now sleeping in the bed they have made. Left out to dry, renters are beginning to turn against the Conservative vision. The election numbers tell the story of this left-ward drift of the rental sector: 29 per cent of private renters voted Labour in 2010, 39 in 2015, and 54 in June.

Philip Hammond’s budget – which, despite its radicalism, continues to ignore the welfare of this rental population – is unlikely to reverse this trend. Generation Rent is no longer simply a class in itself — it is becoming a class for itself, as well.

We appear, then, on the verge of a paradigm shift in housing policy. As the demographics of the housing market change, so must its politics. Wednesday’s budget signals that even the Conservatives – the “party of homeownership” – recognise the need for change. But it only goes halfway.

The gains for any political party willing to truly seize the day – to ditch the property-owning dream once and for all, to champion a property-renting one instead – are there for the taking. 

David Adler is a research association at the campaign group Generation Rent.

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