I spent an afternoon exploring Milton Keynes. Here’s everything I learned

Milton Keynes Village Church. How quaint. Image: Jonn Elledge.

For much of the last two and a bit years, I’ve been trawling the Centre for Cities database, looking for stories to tell about Britain’s cities. In that time I’ve learnt that the north-south divide is way worse than I thought. I’ve learnt that the rich south east is actually the rich south middle. And I’ve learned that, whatever way you cut it, Sheffield is stuffed.

Throughout this experience, though, the name of one city kept popping up in strange places. Milton Keynes has among the best paid workers in the South East, outside London:

Wages in the cities of Greater South East, excluding London. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

Yet it has surprisingly affordable housing:

House prices as a multiple of wages in the cities of Greater South East, excluding London. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

All of which means that – in a country where most of us are forced to choose between a city where we can have a well-paying job, and a city where we can afford a house – Milton Keynes, remarkably, may be able to offer you both.

It’s possibly both a cause of and result of this that the city has roughly doubled in population since 1981, making it by far the fastest growing city in the region:

Population growth in the cities of Greater South East, excluding London. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

What was this land of milk and honey?

I’ve never been to Milton Keynes. I decided it was time to correct this oversight.

On arriving at the station (just 30 minutes by train from London Euston, fact fans) the first thing I noticed was an enormous plaza, surrounded by office buildings on three sides. You’d think the sense of space this creates would be nice, but for reasons I have never quite understood, wide open spaces in cities often feel desolate rather than spacious, and this was no exception.

 

The second thing I noticed was that none of the trains to London were running because of a nasty incident at Bletchley, and that it was possible that I lived here now.

Luckily, I also spotted this sign, reassuring me that – whatever I may have heard – there are plenty of things to do in Milton Keynes.

There was also this slightly confusing map, warning me that the commercial centre was a good 15-20 minutes’ walk away.

Oh well.

I decided to set off up Midsummer Boulevard, a name which I fear was rather overselling the reality. It’s a wide multi-lane highway, wih a tree-lined central section. On either side, there there are office blocks, with a sea of cars before them.

Oh, lovely. Image: Google Maps.

The whole thing felt oddly un-British to me: everywhere you turn in central Milton Keynes (“CMK”, as the maps and signs brand it, for some reason) there are hotels and office blocks and restaurants, set behind seas of cars. These commercial plazas are a sight common along the suburban highways of most American cities, but which looks strange and alien when transposed to a city a few dozen miles from London.

There should be a bagel bakery in one of these, surely.

This sense of a vaguely American form of urbanism was only increased by the shopping district, which is built around a covered-but-open mall. Here’s the central square, back when it had a tree:

Image: Chris Nyborn/Wikimedia Commons.

And here’s one of the side... what do we even call this? It’s not a side road. A side alley?

Then there are the street names, and the smaller entertainment districts, which in one case combine to form this:

Even the city hall – no sorry that's Christ the Cornerstone Church, my bad, thanks to Tom Ryan – and the park-like path leading up to it, looked like something which would fit right in in upstate New York.

 

Sorry about the thumb.

The most striking building in CMK (honestly, guys, that’s not a place, it’s a brand of perfume) is The Point, an entertainment complex shaped like a pyramid. It used to be a cinema, but is now a bingo hall, and frankly, it’s seen better days:

Sadly, Historic England has refused to list it on the grounds that it is “in essence, a light industrial shed”. Spoilsports.

One thing to be said for Milton Keynes is that it has good facilities for pedestrians: an entire system of protected paths paralleling the street, which drop into subways so that you never have to cross a road. One thing to be said against it is that everything is bloody miles away from everything else: it had taken me an infuriatingly long time to get this far and I felt like I’d barely seen anything.

Luckily, despite the fact it’s obviously been built around the needs of the car, Milton Keynes is also a surprisingly good city for cycling in. It has a 273km system of shared cycling/walking paths called “red-routes”:

A map of Milton Keynes cycle routes. The red routes, confusingly, are not all in red. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Open Street Map.

It also has a system of hire bikes. So, to cover more ground, I hired one, and went off into the residential bit.

And suddenly, I could see the appeal. Most of Milton Keynes is made up of quiet, pleasant streets, with lots of different architectural styles and plenty of green space.

There’s a nice big park, Campbell Park, right next to the city centre, where you’ll find this view:

There’s even an old bit. Milton Keynes was formed by the merger of three existing towns (Bletchley, Wolverton and Stony Stratford) and a bunch of villages. It’s from one of these which the city took its name, and Milton Keynes Village is still surprisingly pretty:

I know, I know, thumb again.

Oh – and it’s still building houses

None of this was my thing, exactly. I prefer cities to suburbs; I don’t live in central London because of all the clean air or space it offers. But I could see why it might appeal. In Milton Keynes, you can get a decent size house with a garden and streets your kids will be safe playing in, at a relatively affordable price. Of course there’s a market for that.


It was only after I’d abandoned my bike by the Xscape indoor skiing and skydiving centre (yep, really) and gone back to the station, that it hit me. The thing I’d liked about Milton Keynes and the thing I’d hated came from exactly the same place. It has a horrible, spread out city centre full of bland offices and parking lots. But it also offers big houses in quiet suburban streets with lots of neat parks. It’s basically a midsized American city – Lexington, Kentucky, perhaps or Akron, Ohio – dropped into the landscape of southern England.  

It’s not my thing. But I can see why it’s other people’s.

I managed to fight my way onto a train doing its best impression of the last flight out of Saigon, so I didn’t have to live there after all. If I did, though, I think I’d choose to live in the district of Monkston Park. No reason.

If you’d like me to come and poke aimlessly around your city, for some reason, drop me a line.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.   

All uncredited images courtesy of the author.

 
 
 
 

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.