December 7, 2022

Amid the celebrations of the Queen’s 70 years in the top royal job, the sporadic ritual whereby towns are upgraded to cities has once again reached a conclusion. As ever, the winners and losers of the jubilee civic honours competition do not necessarily make much sense. Reading, for example, lost out to Douglas on the Isle of Man. Particularly in the era of levelling up, the exercise seems true to that national tradition whereby flags and badges are pinned to things, but almost nothing actually changes: city status might deliver a boost to local morale but brings no new funding, functions or powers. But this time, in the case of at least one of the winners, it is worth suspending any cynicism and saluting its achievement.

Milton Keynes – or “MK”, as many local people call it – has been trying to get city status for more than 20 years. Born via a “new town designation order” in 1967, this large patch of Buckinghamshire – just 33 minutes from London by train – is now the home of 230,000 people, and the population continues to grow. Like such postwar new towns as Stevenage, Harlow, East Kilbride and Telford, in a country arguably more mired than ever in nostalgia it remains a fascinatingly anomalous creation. What hit me when I first visited was the future-facing ambition Milton Keynes once symbolised: politicians, planners and architects conceived of a new kind of British metropolis and then made it a reality, as the place filled up with people who then brought everything to life.

Rents in Milton Keynes used to be cheap. Gradually, as home-building stalled during Margaret Thatcher’s time in power and council housing was nudged aside by right to buy, they increased. But if you speak to people who were among the first arrivals from London, they often recall marvelling at amazingly spacious homes, purposely surrounded by green space. “I’d always lived in a flat,” one proud MKer told me last year, “and the first house we saw, my dad was bowled over – it was a three-storey townhouse with a car port and a garden.” That sense of room to breathe remains. Milton Keynes is now full of so-called Redways: “shared-use routes for people walking, wheeling, cycling and scooting”, where traffic is often nowhere to be seen. And contrary to the idea that its modernist architecture and grid-based street system make it somehow “soulless”, it is a place brimming with community spirit, where 84,500 people are estimated to be volunteers.

As you may already have sensed, I am a fan. MK has obvious problems: often impossibly high rents and house prices, homelessness, knife crime and in its older corners, a sense of decline being belatedly tackled by a regeneration programme. But for thousands of people, its founding promise of a better life is still meaningful. Those who run the place have serious aspirations to increase its population to 500,000 by 2050. Demand, moreover, seems to justify that kind of target – because just as it initially offered a better life to the Londoners of the 1960s and 1970s, Milton Keynes continues to do so, something reflected in its ever-evolving demographics. Between 2010 and 2020, for example, the proportion of its school population classified as black, Asian and minority ethnic grew from 31% to 45%.

MK’s air of modernity is also reflected in its politics. Although it voted for Brexit by pretty much the same margin as the country as a whole, on the many occasions I have spoken to MKers I have rarely picked up the fury and resentment that boiled to the national surface in 2016. For most of the Blair-Brown years, before boundary changes and successive Tory wins, Milton Keynes was represented by two Labour MPs, though its two constituencies are still fiercely contested. By way of pointing to Britain’s possible political future, the borough council is currently run by a coalition split between Labour and the Lib Dems, branded by both parties as a progressive alliance. To some extent, MK was an early example of the modern, newbuild Britain now exemplified by all those recent housing developments that ring our towns and cities, whose political makeup is still too little understood. People there are rarely staunch leftists, but nor are they in the market for culture wars and Brexity fanaticism: neither of the main parties in England seems to confidently speak to this growing part of the electorate, but it is probably going to decide our political future.

In that sense, Britain is increasingly smattered with neighbourhoods that have at least some of MK’s optimistic, light-footed original spirit. But they get nowhere near its history of ambition and grand design. Back in 2018, the government said it wanted to turn the area running between Oxford and Cambridge – including Milton Keynes – into a “new Silicon Valley” that would supposedly include up to a million homes, but as with so many of the grand projects that have flitted across Boris Johnson’s desk, the idea seems to have died. There are plans for a handful of so-called “garden communities” in such areas as Merseyside, Cornwall and the southern Midlands. But the total budget is a measly £69m, covering “up to” 16,000 homes a year from 2025 onwards – and in any case, the usual talk of only some of them being classed as “affordable” suggests that millions of people will be priced out.

Besides an ingrained Tory aversion to big, state-led projects, the smallness of current efforts to create new communities highlights many regrettable national traits. As endless sneering at our new towns proves, we still have a strange loathing of cutting-edge architecture and modern urban planning. As Brexit perhaps proved, plenty of us now find the future such a terrifying prospect that we shrink from it, preferring to limply rejoice in the old rather than focus on the new. But we could do things differently if we could somehow find the will. Imagine the kind of money spent on London’s new Elizabeth rail line – £19bn, at the last count – being used to create places characterised by community, sustainability, strong transport links and expansive public space. In the age of mass working from home, when many people are grasping the opportunity to leave our biggest cities, that idea surely ought to have no end of appeal.

According to the government’s official announcement, MK’s new city status is partly based on its “royal associations and cultural heritage”, which makes it sound like a place whose significance is mostly to do with its history: a showcase, perhaps, of the kind of postwar optimism that has long since faded away. In fact, amid a housing crisis, the post-pandemic sense of many people wanting to radically reshape their lives and an urgent need to model new urban environments, whatever its flaws, it remains a shining example of how we could build our way into the future. We did it once. Why not again?

  • John Harris is a Guardian columnist. To listen to his podcast Politics Weekly UK, search “Politics Weekly UK” on Apple, Spotify, Acast or wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes every Thursday

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