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.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.