Milton Keynes is bidding to be the 2023 European Capital of Culture. We should take it seriously

Look at this cultural hotspot: Milton Keynes in January. Image: Getty.

The British city of Milton Keynes is probably not the most obvious contender for the title of 2023 European Capital of Culture. It hasn’t exactly got a reputation for being a cultural hot spot: jokes about the blandness of Milton Keynes are entrenched in the popular imagination.

In his travel notes, popular writer Bill Bryson’s began by saying “I didn’t hate Milton Keynes immediately” and ended with a plea for the government to order its evacuation in favour of “real cities”. Author JG Ballard’s cleverer barb, “I always suspected that eternity would look like Milton Keynes”, wasn’t meant as a complement either.

Even the local tourism body, Destination MK, resorted to switching the negatives in their latest campaign, to challenge people’s preconceptions about the place.

Destination MK: turning things around. Image: DestinationMK/author provided.

But as researchers in sociology and design who live and work in the city, we think there’s a case to be made for Milton Keynes. It was one of the last “new towns” to be built in the 1960s and as such it represents the political commitment to social justice and mobility which emerged at the end of World War II. This makes it a part of the same social democratic settlement which produced the National Health Service and the Open University.

Because it is new, Milton Keynes doesn’t have the long history of well-funded town hall bureaucracies and city benefactors, which help to create the infrastructures of “high culture” – the galleries, theatres and concert halls. But this shouldn’t knock it out of the running – in fact, it’s one of the reasons that its bid should be taken seriously.

Cultural or corporate?

Milton Keynes Council decided to bid for European Capital of Culture back in July 2015. Since then, a steering group of business, arts and civic and community leaders have held a series of public meetings to shape the bid. At one of these meetings with local artists, the debate circled around how to extend the city’s cultural reach, explore its diversity and improve its reputation.

Many lamented that the early efforts of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation to build the town around the unique artefacts, architecture, archaeology and people that were here first have been abandoned in recent years. Instead there is a Nandos. Then another Nandos. And another.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Image: David (MK)/Flickr/creative commons.

The dominance of global mega-brands in the city’s retail centre is hardly unique to Milton Keynes. It is, though, one of the glorious paradoxes of this place, that locals worry a lot about these things. They worry precisely because Milton Keynes wasn’t an accident – it was built with particular aims in mind. It started, just like the Open University that is also based there, as a means to achieving collective, social democratic ends.

Yet in order to survive, both Milton Keynes and the Open University have had to adjust their strategies in response to different government policies over the decades. First there was the monetarist economic theory that came with Thatcherism which prompted a cutback on civic planning and social housing in favour of market-driven individualism. More recently, the government has led a swing toward the principles of capital-driven digital governance, promoting a focus on development in smart cities, apps and self-driving cars.

The Open University: changing with the times. Image: The Open University/Flickr/creative commons.

These changes from one set of priorities to another are feverishly contested by local communities and have been deeply painful for residents, university staff and students. They are the local consequences of the slow decline of government planning, regulation and international cooperation which have also been manifest in global developments such as the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the refugee crisis and Britain’s decision to leave the EU.


The city is culture

These political, economic, social and personal catastrophes are integral to understanding culture in a meaningful way. As the late Stuart Hall, formerly professor of sociology at The Open University, argued in his opening editorial to the New Left Review in 1960, the experience of culture in all its forms is “directly relevant to the imaginative resistance of people who have to live within capitalism – the growing points of social discontent, the projections of deeply felt needs”. In other words, culture is everywhere; in the commodities people buy, in the laws that govern corporations, in the ways people develop their identities.

Rather than looking at the culture that takes place in the city, Hall showed that the real task is to understand the city itself as culture. Milton Keynes was meant to be different: it is, as the Capital of Culture bid proposes, “different by design” – and yet that design has come to represent many of the battles between capitalism and culture which are taking place in cities across the world.

The ConversationThe city of Milton Keynes is then, a kind of petri dish, where the sometimes discomforting mixtures of art and commerce, culture and financial capital are laid bare for all to see and experience. As such, it is a powerful guide to the ways that capital is always cultural, and a reminder that culture is always capitalised.

Liz McFall is head of sociology, and Darren Umney a visiting research fellow in design, at the The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

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.