Milton Keynes is not a city. In 2000 and 2002 the new town, which was founded 40 years ago, made bids to get a royal charter and “officially” become a city, but was rebuffed each time. On the ground, “MK” (as residents like to call it) ceased to be a town long ago – its population of 230,000 can give ancient cities like Nottingham and Plymouth a run for their money. Perhaps this status ambiguity suits a place that encapsulates Britain’s profoundly confused attitude to urbanism.
Britain was the first country to have an urban majority and remains an island of city-dwellers. But the popular imagination shuns hardcore city life and is besotted with dreams of rural idylls or, at least, suburban retreats. Milton Keynes is the crystallisation of this middle-class fantasy: reasonably priced, large family homes and gardens, plentiful retail and leisure opportunities, and not so much car-friendly as car-worshipping. Its wonky grid pattern of broad avenues was inspired by autocentric Los Angeles, and, despite its copious roundabouts, you can drive across the city in 15 minutes. Pedestrians and cyclists are segregated into a separate network of “redways”, trading the dangers of motor vehicles for fear of attackers lurking behind the 20 million trees.
But this pseudo-city has growing pains. The government would like to capitalise on Milton Keynes’ popularity by vastly expanding its population, building a further 70,000 homes and ultimately doubling it in size. But where will these homes go? This is the dichotomy that makes the British dream of low-density semi-rural housing a fantasy – everyone wants to live at low densities, but no one wants to build on the green belt, the housing equivalent of wanting both low taxes and world-class services. Aylesbury district council, protecting its own vision of Eden, has reacted to Milton Keynes’ proposed westwards expansion with horror.
Meanwhile few people, it seems, want the government’s proffered alternative. Under Whitehall guidance, Milton Keynes has been edging away from many of the features that make it special, loosening height restrictions, lifting density ceilings, and creating “city streets” by ripping up trees, filling in underpasses and building to the edge of avenues. Taken to their logical conclusion, these moves would result in the city becoming much like everywhere else – removing the features that make people want to live there.
The arguments for keeping Milton Keynes the same at the cost of its growth are all sentimental, but still strong. The almost-city is a fantasy landscape on a par with the stately gardens of Capability Brown. Brown’s gardens needed ultra-cheap labour to create; Milton Keynes assumes land and oil will always be cheap. Both struggle to look bucolic, but are products of artifice, not nature. Both laugh in the face of the notion that Britain is crowded. They are both follies, and essentially wasteful. No one would rightly bury Blenheim under high-density living units. And there’s something of the same sublime fancy in that tree-lined grid.
Image: Kevin Allen