My second visit to Milton Keynes started at Bletchley, the place where codes and urban designers’ hearts are broken. Having seen the MK glamour zones, I wanted to explore the hinterland and the best way to do it was by bike on the new city’s extensive network of ‘Redway’ cycle paths. Bletchley has effectively been absorbed into greater MK, but I wanted to have a quick look at the Lakes estate, built by the Greater London Council in the late 60s as ‘overspill’ – an insulting term that conveys some of the thinking that is wrong in the New Town movement. Leaving the boxy architecture aside, the Lakes isn’t even in central Bletchley, but stuck on the edge of a town that is itself on the edge of an edge city.
The buffer-zone between Bletchley and MK provides more grist for the anti-New Town mill. It’s a three-mile strip development of retail parks, the full horror of which is exemplified by ‘Stadium MK’. In 2003, Wimbledon Football Club (founded 1889) was transplanted from south-west London to a car-park fifty miles away where they became ‘MK Dons’. Thankfully, the franchising of professional sports teams hasn’t gripped in the UK as it has in the US. but the warning is there – next to, but barely distinguishable from – Asda and Primark.
About 225,000 people live in MK so I knew there must be houses somewhere, even if this isn’t immediately apparent from the city centre. Sure enough, the redways snake through a wide variety of neighbourhoods, or ‘gridsquares’ in the lexicon of MK planning, all with bucolic sounding names, but where social status is encrypted in housing design, from dilapidated cabin-style bungalows, perhaps a relic of Ralph Erskine social optimism, to classic English semis with two cars in the driveway.
After an hour of suburban safari I was in need of coffee and felt a gravitational pull back towards central MK, not for its intrinsic charms, but because having cycled for about six miles through several different subdistricts, I hadn’t seen a single local shop, pub or cafe. I could hear the ghost of Jane Jacobs moaning. In the end I found the ‘local’ cafe (a branded chain) contained within a complex of sports and outdoor pursuits shops which most people had driven to get to. There are more tragic ironies here than I can convey.
New Towns and Garden Cities are in the news because some people think they’re the answer to the housing crisis, while others see them as a threat to the greenbelt. Both arguments are spurious. Given the failure of UK housing policy at every level, the idea of appropriating huge chunks of land and ‘starting again’ smacks of gimmicky desperation, but the ‘we’re a crowded island’ lament is thinly disguised NIMBYism that is often related to racism and class prejudice. The instinct to escape the city and create a utopian idyll is as old as cities themselves and embraces both progressive and reactionary ideologies, but has usually ended in disappointment. I still don’t feel fully qualified to say if this applies to Milton Keynes, but I do agree with the US urbanist Lewis Mumford who said ‘Forget the damned motor car and build cities for lovers and friends’ Whatever else they did at MK, they didn’t do that.