Milton Keynes turns 55

Why we should all celebrate this New Town as one of the UK’s most successful ever ‘people projects’ and a tried and tested blueprint for how future places should be shaped.

MK55 main
Illustrations by Dionne Kitching

Shane Downer has been at Milton Keynes Council since 2003, working on its strategic heritage and international programme. His role has changed much and currently he works with and supports partners and networks at local, regional, and national level to deliver projects for residents, workers, and visitors to MK.

The article has been written using content from the recent City Status Bid application and contains the words and ideas of many who submitted their content, echoing the collaborative way in which MK works.

On 23 January 2022 Milton Keynes will turn fifty-five, that is fifty-five years to the day since it was designated in 1967 as a ‘New Town’ by then Minister for Housing Richard Crossman. The town is hoping that 2022 will finally bring it City Status at the fourth attempt as it awaits the decision from Her Majesty the Queen and Government Advisors as part of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations. If its credentials as a large, successful and popular place to live are considered along with its stated aspirations for a future vision of an equal city, then this time it should get the royal assent.

Under the 1946 New Town Act, thirty-two new towns across the UK were designated as new towns, commencing with Stevenage, and with Milton Keynes heading the final ‘Third Wave’. But from the start Milton Keynes was different.

It was the National Government which decided to develop a new ‘city’ for 250,000 people at the centre of the UK and envisaged that this city would need to be a powerful enough to be a ‘counter-magnet’ to London. This followed Buckinghamshire County Council’s decision to promote ‘North Buckinghamshire New City’ as the first ever city for Buckinghamshire. There is no doubt that it was the intention of both the Government, and the County Council, that Milton Keynes would be developed at scale as a city. Indeed, the statutory order designated some 22,000 acres, an area far larger than most other British cities to achieve this.

From that point Milton Keynes stands out from any other place in the UK. It represents the pinnacle of Government-led national post-war planning movement which sought to rebuild the UK after World War II, accommodating a growing population against the background of bombed cities.

An economic powerhouse, second only to London in the South East, it is also rooted in strong social and utopian values like all new towns and from the start, it was and is a mosaic of communities, built by people for people who have come from across the globe over the past fifty years to join the original 60,000 or so inhabitants in creating a new place.

Today, the pioneers, their descendants and an ever-continuing diverse influx of new talent and cultures celebrate what has been achieved and look to the future of ‘MK’, as residents affectionately call it.

Milton Keynes has its critics, including from those who live and work here who cite a lack of culture or vibrancy or who highlight large inequalities hidden across many estates, some of which have the highest deprivation in the country.

But this inequality is at least recognised and a plan to address it has been published recently within the Milton Keynes 2050 Strategy. Plus, the real point is that it is widely recognised that this place of 280,000 residents is as yet incomplete.

Milton Keynes still needs both the civic leadership and the resource of its people to deliver the new, more equal, masterplan for a larger city of 400,000 + people by then, which will make it bigger than Cardiff or Liverpool. So, given this knowledge, by any measure, Milton Keynes has been hugely successful and is the culmination of national achievement which should continue to be supported.

But why has Milton Keynes been so successful? What, other than its scale sets it apart from every other new town in the UK, with which it undoubtedly grew out of and shares a unique ‘DNA’. Why is it still after so long still admired so much internationally, with Milton Keynes seeing and welcoming a steady stream of people come here to seek to learn its lessons?

A look into the published City Status Bid would seem to offer these three inter-related answers.

Illustration by Dionne Kitching

First, the design and design approach are everything. Huge expansion expertly delivered by the Development Corporation in conjunction with talented architects and urban planners, held together by an unrivalled green framework. A grid system of roads and 200 miles of pedestrian routes known as ‘Redways’ connect every neighbourhood, each of which has housing based around schools and local centres. Businesses choose to locate across Milton Keynes to take advantage of this easy mobility, access to employees, characterful towns and high-quality green spaces.

And Milton Keynes is a Green Oasis – an unrivalled tapestry of trees, hundreds of miles of wildlife corridors, rare flora and fauna, ancient woodlands, extensive linear parks, local parks, lakes and waterways.

These cover 40% of the land use to envelop, protect, nurture and connect both the place and its rich layers of history.

Milton Keynes also has a 30-mile horse ride without roads, its own tree nursery and millions of trees including the ‘Tree Cathedral’, in the design of Norwich Cathedral. Managing this superb infrastructure is the Parks Trust, a highly successful model, endowed with assets to ensure green spaces are managed in perpetuity; since its inauguration 30 years ago, it has been a leader on climate management, ecology, and biodiversity.

Secondly, this green thread is shown by Milton Keynes innovation and sustainability. The innovative, international expos which have taken place here: Homeworld, Energy World and Future World not only delivered new housing types for people, but they also prompted the BREEAM standards and the National Energy Foundation. These pioneered new approaches to successful place-making.

Milton Keynes commitment to innovation continues as it provides a UK test bed for a range of electric vehicles, delivery robots and digital technology. The 2050 Strategy pledge is to be ‘a leading green and cultural city by global standards’ which is supported by and will be carried forward by the next generation of young people who are committed to zero-carbon growth, and who want Milton Keynes, already the UK’s greenest place, to be the World’s Greenest City by 2050.

Thirdly, Milton Keynes welcomes people. The pioneering residents created a home grown, dynamic and strong social infrastructure, making best use of the unique design and abundant landscape. For over fifty years, Milton Keynes has openly invited new citizens to live here and with that migration still coming from across the globe, it remains a positive story of inclusion for many cultures and faiths. A proud, thriving, and diverse regional centre, Milton Keynes is one of the fastest growing and forward-thinking conurbations in the country. The new Strategy for 2050 states that “all residents will share equally in our benefits, as people have been, and are, the root of our success.”

Those 200 miles of ‘Redways’ access hundreds of pieces of public art, thousands of listed and historic buildings, many conservation areas and sites of historic and natural interest, public leisure facilities and cultural venues.

Illustration by Dionne Kitching

Its beauty, character and enduring popularity make it both ancient and modern, urban and rural, city and village. Sitting alongside long-distance, major transport arteries that have connected the UK throughout the centuries: Roman Watling Street, the Grand Union Canal, the M1 Motorway and the West Coast Main Line Railway and located at the UK’s heart, Milton Keynes is ideally placed as a New City to bring the country together in Her Majesty’s 70th Accession celebrations in 2022.

In conclusion, it is this blueprint of an innovative, socially experimental and integrated historic and future city that models how future cities could be shaped. The amazing parkland on every doorstep has provided particular comfort to residents during COVID, showing Milton Keynes to be a model of health and wellbeing that can help level up society and support those most in need.

The ‘pioneers’ would point to the original Six Goals which have been the guiding principles for development – opportunity and freedom of choice; easy movement and access; balance and variety, the creation of an attractive city, public awareness and participation and efficient and imaginative use of resources. It is therefore fitting then that the Strategy to 2050 has returned to these Six Goals, and ‘tweaked’ and updated them for contemporary and future living.

The commitment to grow the population to over 400,000 has been made to enable Milton Keynes to sustain its prosperity, provide much needed homes, and contribute to Britain’s efforts to address climate change. In making such a promise, it is a model for all cities to follow in the 21st century, and how residents can adapt to continuous growth to embrace the future. In a time of COVID and Climate Emergency, it is truly a model for sustainable placemaking and wellbeing for other cities.

A Celebratory Event Programme runs from 17 – 23 January 2022 and to check out the full list visit and click on ‘What’s On’ You can also follow @CultureMK and @DestinationMK on social media and follow the #MKBirthday tag.

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