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 one 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.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.