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.

 
 
 
 

Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.


He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”