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.

 
 
 
 

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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