Richard Black is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford.
It is no secret that a small corner of Buckinghamshire proved to be a vital military asset during the Second World War. Based at Bletchley Park, a group of brilliant code breakers, led by Alan Turing, cracked the Enigma codes that concealed the movements of the German war machine. In another respect, this modest patch of England could, once again, prove to be of national significance in the present day.
In 1967, more than two decades after the war, the local village and surrounding area were transformed by an Act of Parliament into the less dramatic development of Milton Keynes. The town now celebrates its 50th birthday, one that marks an important social experiment, for better or worse, in the history of modernist architecture and post-war urban redevelopment.
Milton Keynes’ reputation for banality is the subject of many a joke. After all, it regularly appears in lists of the UK’s ‘crap’ towns. Nevertheless, this revolution of town planning could help us to confront another national crisis, the crippling shortage of affordable housing.
Strategically situated between Birmingham, Northampton and London, Milton Keynes has grown to include 22,000 acres and 260,000 inhabitants. The town’s genesis was very much a product of the utopian thinking shared by post-war Conservative and Labour governments. Its wide open spaces and uniform buildings owe as much to American-inspired commercial enterprise as they do to socialist state planning. This idealistic view of post-war democratic state building was echoed by the establishment of the Open University, a contemporary institution devoted to democratising knowledge, whose headquarters are still based there.
This is all very well, but how does Milton Keynes exactly relate to today’s housing crisis? The Government has recently announced its intention to expand its already existing garden towns and cities programme by supporting the construction of 14 new garden villages across the country. The hope is that these developments will eventually lead to 200,000 new homes. Nonetheless, a lasting solution to the housing crisis cannot be purely driven by supply and demand economics. Sustainable towns and cities need to balance communal living space with the aesthetic desire to want to live there in the first place. It is not for nothing that the Transport Minister, John Hayes, has called for an end to the Ballardian nightmare of modernist and brutalist buildings, citing what the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has termed ‘the cult of ugliness’ and the ‘cult of utility’.
Milton Keynes’ successes and failures can provide us with some valuable insights into this dilemma. Although many of its buildings are bland and have not always aged well, the town’s overall design structure has broadly encapsulated the true meaning of a ‘garden city’. The original architects were keen to ensure that noise pollution and traffic congestion did not blight the activities of those who came to live there. A number of straight roads and roundabouts arranged on a loose grid formula have ensured that the spread out residential communities are easily navigable. Although some inhabitants have recently complained about the narrowing of pedestrian areas and the closing of underpasses, the overall preservation of vast parks, woods and cycle paths have maintained the green and semi-rural character of the area. To this day, Milton Keynes embodies the notion that practical mobility need not come at the expense of comfortable habitation and the natural environment. This provides a profound lesson for our deeply overcrowded major cities, especially London, Manchester and Birmingham.
The housing crisis is also closely related to the increased cost of living. The rather depressing term ‘social cleansing’ is now in regular parlance. Gentrification, planning restrictions and foreign investment are forcing increasing numbers of middle and working class families to flee from the oppressive environs of the M25. The London Mayor Sadiq Khan has even considered restoring the widely discredited policy of rent controls.
Milton Keynes itself is not immune from families living in temporary accommodation. However, this should be seen within a much bigger picture; it has some of the most affordable housing in the South East of England, excellent transport links and impressive levels of local business growth. For a long time, the town’s rapid expansion depended on the financial support of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation. This entity borrowed loans from central government to purchase and develop cheap agricultural land, and increased its value in the process. Since the Development Corporation was wound down in 1992, private developers have stepped in and continued to build infrastructure and more affordable homes. Foreign visitors, especially from China, continue to view Milton Keynes as a model development.
Nearly 13 per cent of England is covered by a protected green belt which restricts urban development. Whilst local councils must be entrusted with the responsibility of reviewing land for development, it is imperative that thousands of acres are developed in the near future. Milton Keynes shows us that it is possible to meet housing demand and respect outstanding natural beauty at the same time.
One of the original members of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation has presciently argued that the developmental model championed at Milton Keynes could be applied to the rest of the country. If operated transparently and supplied with ample private investment, this could help successfully manage Britain’s housing deficit by allowing for sustainable organic growth.
In short, it would be sensible to emulate Milton Keynes’ development if not the architecture of its buildings. To refer once more to the Bletchley analogy, the example provided by Milton Keynes could very well be the Colossus to overcome the government’s own housing enigma.