Renewed interest in house building is an important aspect of boosting construction in a post-recession in economy. The drop in construction in the 2008 period was marked, yet it did not tell the whole story of Britain’s modern relationship with house building. The post-war enthusiasm for building has been eroded by an antipathy towards government intervention, reduction in social housing and successive property market booms. The result is we are now building fewer homes than at any point in peacetime for a century. It has also left a critical shortage of affordable homes, a toxic ingredient for generation rent with the current cost of living crisis.
New towns are part of the solution, just as they were a response to post-war housing crisis of unfit, poor quality buildings and an undersupply of decent homes. Labour has rightly championed ‘brownfield first’ development as an important principle, but this alone will neither meet housing demand or provide flexibility nor reflect other policy priorities, such as creating breathing spaces in older towns or reclaiming nature habitats. For progressive politicians and policy-makers this means understanding the role – and limits – of creating new communities and not just boosting construction. A good starting point is looking at Britain’s relationship to its existing new towns.
Milton Keynes stands as the largest and most ambitious of the post war new towns. Founded in 1967, midway between London and Birmingham, it represented the entrepreneurial spirit of its era, a hunger to showcase modernity, a connected city; a New City for a new age, a city of innovation. The project attracted some of the best town planners, designers and architects in the world to work, not for the local council, but for the New Town Corporation; an organisation that had at its heart a powerful founding vision but also the legislative and financial buying power to deliver the whole of its vision: a true city. New housing, infrastructure, roads, a new railway station, schools, a hospital, green parks that run through the town, and a network of cycle ways. Even in the more progressive era of the 1960s, this vision had its critics, as does the suggestion of establishing a next generation of new towns today. The strength of the vision was underpinned by political leadership and a determination to establish something new.
Milton Keynes is undoubtedly an economic success. However, is it sustainable? The definition of sustainability will be critical to any discussions around new towns of the future. Milton Keynes measures fantastically on some scales, it is well connected, easy to move around; it incorporates linear parks, a vision of social-mix innovative new home designs that maximise ‘green credentials’ and renewable energy, its industry and competitiveness led it to being classified as one of the most ‘recession proof places in the UK’. However, the reality of Milton Keynes is sometimes a divided city; it’s greatest advantage also being one of its weaknesses. Its pioneering grid squares allow those with access to cars to move freely, to access all that the city has to offer. However, the wide dual-carriageways, the roundabouts and the beautiful tree-lined verges mask self-contained estates, poor bus transport, and masking the decay of estates which to some residents are considered ‘no go’ areas; social deprivation that is hidden behind the city’s walls.
What kind of new towns do we want?
There are three characteristics from Milton Keynes that I offer to policy-makers as lessons for a new generation of new towns: the centrality of vision; the democratic value of space and the environment; innovation as a product of partnership.
The sustainability of Milton Keynes comes from the enduring values of its founding vision. Whilst these may have become blurred in recent years, they represent the coherent ideology – for want of a better word – at the core the city’s identity. This was vision on a big scale, about creating a new city with a pioneering and egalitarian heart that would endure rapid population growth and development.
This vision set out a framework that has allowed the city to grow as demand for homes and infrastructure has increased. These values – opportunity, easy movement and access, balance and variety, good communications, an attractive place people want to live, public participation and innovative use of resources – have created a durable and sustainable framework for growth. Public art was central to the original vision and remit of the development corporation. The early city pioneers helped define an imprint of these values on the landscape and psychology of the city that has largely been followed since.
Core to this vision was a sense of public engagement and a democratic value of space and the environment. Trees and parks were integral to the original vision. Green spaces transferred to a new Parks Trust after the abolition of the development corporation in 1992. The Parks Trust is an independent charity that is now in charge of 5,000 acres of woodland, parks, lakesides and landscaped areas, around 25 per cent of the new city area. Over 20 million trees have been planted in the city now with a network of parks and canals are as important to its identity as the grid roads. The redway network of paths represented a secondary tier of veins throughout the city alongside the grid network of roads. Control over land was vital to this sense of public space. This level of accessible green space would not have been possible without a strong ethos of the democratic value of the public realm, and a development corporation with the power to enforce decisions.
The third theme is around partnership. Ed Miliband has asked the Lyons Commission to look at the financial incentives and freedoms new towns will need to succeed: to purchase land and direct its use; to put in place the infrastructure; to attract the pioneers and innovators that give life and identity to a new town. Furthermore, we no longer exist in a world where public and private investment is separate. These freedoms will be necessary to provide the incentives for private investment in new towns and to ensure that a coherent vision is retained. The Milton Keynes Development Corporation, which existed from 1967 to 1992, provided an effective referee and arbiter over land use and development. The fact that the development corporation was different to the local authority helped shape an enduring, long-term vision in the early years of the city with the power to deliver and build partnerships with investors. This combination of private investment and public good has helped shape the partnership approach at the centre of the city’s economic success. In turn, the sustainable vision, green spaces and quality of life has attracted residents and businesses to locate in the city.
Not that this means there aren’t challenges. Even with its guiding principles, the city suffers from many of the same challenges that affect other towns, dealing with deprivation, quality of housing and finding its feet after the financial crisis. Not every idea succeeded. Early plans for a monorail failed to materialise and the innovation of a grid road system favours a car culture. The Parks Trust is a guardian for our green spaces but it does not provide a direct link to residents. Despite the focus on modernity, 12 areas in Milton Keynes are in the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods of the country. The recession led to some developers trying to reduce quality standards. For example, residents in the iconic, award-winning Oxley Woods development continue to fight Taylor Wimpey’s plans to finish the estate by reducing the quality of homes built to standard house types. Public transport remains a problem, although the city is pioneering pilots of electric cars and buses. One of the things that make the city sustainable is its willingness to change and adapt. Urbanisation and rapid growth bring new challenges around shared opportunity and social justice, and enhancing the natural space and urban environment in the face of greater demand for development. Underpinning all these challenges, is the need to renew the founding vision to meet the expectations and needs of the city for its next 50 years.
Andrew Pakes grew up in Milton Keynes and is the Labour & Co-operative Parliamentary Candidate for Milton Keynes South. He tweets at @andrew4mk