Happy birthday MK

Originally posted on January 25 on my blog for Inside Housing. 

Even if 50 is the new 40 (I rationalised that one long ago) this week’s anniversary of the birth of Milton Keynes is a significant moment in the history of housing – and what was once its future.

MK, as locals call it, has come a long way since it was designated a new town in January 1967 with a brief to become a city. The population is now 250,000 and rising and it has even imported its own football team.In much of the birthday coverage this week it’s called “Britain’s last new town”, probably because it was the biggest and the last to be finished.

In fact, it was the first of the third wave of post-War new towns to be designated: Peterborough celebrates its 50th birthday in July, with Northampton, Warrington, an expanded Telford, and Central Lancashire to follow over the next three years.

But in a week when Theresa May’s cabinet met in Warrington for the launch of her industrial strategy, it’s worth asking why no more have followed. After all, one of the key problems that all three waves of the new towns programme were partly designed to address – how to cope with population overspill from London and other major cities – has not gone away.

If anything it has got worse. London’s population passed its 1939 peak of 8.6 million in 2015 and it’s expected to grow by another 1.5 million by 2039. With its borders constrained by green belt you could argue it’s no wonder housing is in short supply and prices have soared.

But it wasn’t always like that. Between 1961 and 1991 the population of the capital fell by more than 1.5 million to below seven million.The London I first moved to in the early 1980s was a completely different city where you could simply queue up for a hard-to-let council flat or get help to do up a rundown house.

That decline was at least partly down to planned dispersal to the new towns and overspill estates, alongside a more general trend of suburbanisation, so maybe it’s not so surprising that the politicians of the 1970s and 1980s thought the job was done.

Housing was no longer the political priority it had been, spending was being cut, and the end seemed to have come when the new towns budget was diverted into urban renewal.

There was also a perception that the new towns were drab concrete failures to be lumped together with tower blocks as post-War mistakes. Some of this is undeniable but it’s not the full story (read John Grindrod’s brilliant Concretopia for that). In any case, the ideas of building homes in open spaces outside cities, and streets in the sky inside them, could hardly be more different.

But as the new towns vision faded, London’s decline went into rapid reverse. As the population rose in the 1990s and 2000s, so too did house prices, rents and waiting lists and our current idea of a housing crisis.

The years since Milton Keynes’ birth have seen a succession of proposals for new communities: developer-led in the 1980s and 1990s; eco towns in the 2000s; and the garden towns and villages touted by this government in the 2010s.

So far they have three things in common: many have featured the same sites over and over again (often a redundant Ministry of Defence site is involved); they are on nothing like the scale of the original new towns, still less Milton Keynes; and they have got precisely nowhere.

And perhaps those two factors are connected. New communities need scale and infrastructure if they are not simply to become dormitory suburbs or soulless housing estates. That infrastructure needs to be paid for and the new town model provides a proven way of doing that by capturing some of the land value for the benefit of the community.

There have been no new towns in the past 50 years but there are plenty of examples of the development corporation model being used for major schemes – think London Docklands and the Olympics for starters. And new towns have also pioneered many innovations in housing along the way.

Milton Keynes was actually markedly different from its siblings, planned almost as an idealised English version of Los Angeles, with low-density development and wide boulevards for cars (and those 130 roundabouts) plus lots of open space.

For various reasons the city did not quite turn out as it was planned, and even its fans concede that it’s too dominated by cars (listen to Monday’s You and Yours for an interesting interview with Michael Edwards, who worked there as a young planner) but at 50 a city is still a toddler and thousands of people want to live there.

If its vision of the future seems strangely dated now – full of 60s ideas about transport and shopping and the way we would live – at least it was a vision. As faith in architects and planners has given way to faith in the market, the results have been what you might expect.

As I blogged last year about Peterborough, even the new towns are not immune and Milton Keynes has had to resort to leasing an entire block of flats in Luton as temporary accommodation for its homeless people.

There are some isolated examples of new communities in the UK. Poundbury in Dorset is in some ways the opposite of Milton Keynes – an urban extension that harks back to the past rather than looking to the future, and it’s much smaller in scale – but it also shows the potential and flexibility of the idea. Developers and housing associations are also now much more aware of the need for place-making rather than simply building ‘units’ and government agencies have got much better at working inside cities. But there are not enough places being made and urban regeneration is too often happening at the expense of existing communities.

And new towns have continued to be built in other countries. English housing ministers are fond of visiting Almere in the Netherlands but return impressed by custom build, rather than what a vision and long-term strategic planning can achieve.

A vision is what’s desperately needed here now. There is a debate to be had about whether to go for freestanding new towns or major extensions to existing towns and cities (as the winning entry in the 2014 Wolfson Prize suggested before it was instantly disowned by Brandon Lewis).

And that’s before we get to the vexed issue of where in the Conservative-dominated home counties they should go. That will take leadership from central government but why not start with the two counties that did not host one of the original new towns: Surrey and Kent?

In the absence of a long-term vision, we are doomed to continue to tinker with initiatives that at best slow down the rate at which things get worse. Garden villages and towns are a welcome start, but a small one.

Otherwise the emphasis continues to be on cutting red tape for housebuilders (the rumoured cut in space standards is the latest example) without any evidence that they will deliver.

Milton Keynes’s birthday comes a few days before publication of the Housing White Paper (assuming it does finally appear). Is it too much to hope for something that looks beyond the next five years to the next 50?

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