Want to see where Britain’s political future will be decided? Drive to Milton Keynes | JohnHarris
AIn the midst of celebrations marking the Queen’s 70th anniversary at the helm of royal power, the sporadic ritual of upgrading cities to cities has once again come to an end. As always, the winners and losers of the Anniversary Civic Honors Contest don’t necessarily make a lot of sense. Reading, for example, lost to Douglas on the Isle of Man. Especially in the era of promotion, the exercise seems to remain faithful to the national tradition of pinning flags and badges to things, but almost nothing actually changes: a city’s status can boost local morale, but it does not bring new funds, functions or powers. But this time, in the case of at least one of the winners, it’s worth putting aside all cynicism and acknowledging his achievement.
Milton Keynes – or “MK” as many locals call it – has been trying to achieve city status for more than 20 years. Created in 1967 by a ‘New Town Designation Ordinance’, this large part of Buckinghamshire is now home to 230,000 people and the population is still growing. Like new post-war towns like Stevenage, Harlow, East Kilbride and Telford, it remains an intriguingly anomalous creation in a country arguably more mired in nostalgia than ever. What struck me on my first visit was the forward-thinking ambition that Milton Keynes once embodied: politicians, planners and architects envisioned a new kind of British metropolis, then implemented it as the place filled with people who then brought everything to life.
Rents in Milton Keynes used to be cheap. Gradually, as housing construction faltered during Margaret Thatcher’s time in power and public housing was pushed aside by sales law, they rose. but When you talk to people who were among the first to arrive from London, they often recall marveling at amazingly spacious houses intentionally surrounded by green spaces. “I’ve always lived in an apartment,” one proud MKer told me last year, “and the first house we saw blew my dad away — it was a three-story townhouse with a carport and a yard.” That feeling of breathing space remains. Milton Keynes is now full of so-called redways: ‘shared routes for pedestrians, cyclists, cyclists and scooters’, where traffic is often nowhere to be seen. And contrary to the notion that its modernist architecture and grid-based street system somehow make it “soulless,” it’s a community-spirited place, with an estimated 84,500 people volunteering.
As you might have guessed, I’m a fan. MK has obvious problems: often impossibly high rents and house prices, homelessness, knife crime, and in its older corners a sense of decline that’s belatedly addressed by a regeneration program. But for thousands of people, its founding promise of a better life still matters. The operators of the place have serious ambitions to increase the population to 500,000 by 2050. Demand seems to justify such an aim, moreover – for just as a better life originally offered Londoners in the 1960s and 1970s, Milton Keynes continues something that is reflected in his ever-evolving demographics. For example, between 2010 and 2020, the proportion of school populations classified as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic increased from 31% to 45%.
MK’s modernity is also reflected in its politics. Despite voting for Brexit by much the same majority as the country as a whole, on the many occasions I’ve spoken to mcores, I’ve rarely caught the anger and resentment that boiled up to the national surface in 2016. For most Blair – In brown years, before boundary changes and back-to-back Tory victories, Milton Keynes was represented by two Labor MPs, although his two constituencies are still fiercely contested. To hint at Britain’s possible political future, the Borough Council is currently led by a coalition split between Labor and the Lib Dems, branded by both parties as a progressive alliance. In a way, MK was an early example of the modern, newly built Britain exemplified today by all the recent housing developments surrounding our towns and cities, whose political make-up is still poorly understood. People there are rarely staunch leftists, but neither are they in the market for culture wars and Brexit bigotry: none of the main parties in England seem confident in speaking to this growing segment of the electorate, but it will likely decide our political future.
In that sense, the UK is increasingly dotted with neighborhoods that have at least some of MK’s upbeat, light-footed original spirit. But they don’t come close to the story of ambition and great design. Back in 2018 the Government said it wanted to turn the area between Oxford and Cambridge – including Milton Keynes – into a “new Silicon Valley” which would reportedly contain up to a million homes, but as with so many of the big projects the one about Boris Johnsons If you coughed up your desk, the idea seems to have died. There are plans for a handful of so-called ‘garden communities’ in areas such as Merseyside, Cornwall and the South Midlands. But the total budget is a meager £69million and will cover ‘up to’ 16,000 homes a year from 2025 – and in any case, the usual talk of only some of them being rated ‘affordable’ suggests that millions of People will get a prize from.
Aside from an ingrained Tory aversion to large, state-led projects, the smallness of current efforts to create new communities highlights many unfortunate national traits. As the endless mockery of our new cities proves, we still have a strange aversion to innovative architecture and modern urban planning. As Brexit may have demonstrated, many of us now find the future so terrifying that we shy away from it, preferring to elatedly celebrate the old rather than focus on the new. But we could do things differently if we could somehow find the will. Imagine the money being spent on London’s new Elizabeth railway line – £19 billion at last count – being used to create places characterized by community, sustainability, strong transport links and expansive public spaces . In the age of mass work-from-home, when many people are seizing the opportunity to leave our largest cities, this idea certainly shouldn’t have limitless appeal.
According to the government’s official announcement, MK’s new city status is based in part on its “royal associations and cultural heritage,” making it sound like a place whose importance has mostly to do with its history: a showcase perhaps something of the long-gone post-war optimism. Amid a housing crisis, many people’s post-pandemic sense of radically transforming their lives, and the urgent need to model new urban environments, it remains, despite its flaws, a shining example of how we are charting our path to the future. We did it once. Why not again?
John Harris is a Guardian columnist. To listen to his Politics Weekly UK podcast, search “Politics Weekly UK” on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes every Thursday