I’ve written before about my fascination with Milton Keynes, so I was very happy to be invited to a meeting of MK residents to discuss the Housing and Planning Act (which limped through parliament on 12th May). The new Act is a 360 degree danger, but one that will be felt in different ways in different places. In Milton Keynes, as well as the usual threats, an entire city concept is at risk.
MK is the biggest planned settlement in the UK, but with a population now around a quarter of a million people, it’s three times the original projected size and the fastest growing local authority area in the country. The Council is already anticipating a further 28,000 households by 2026, fueled by outward migration – voluntary or coerced – from London and other areas where people are priced out by the housing market or pushed out by the shortage of non-market housing. Providing ‘over-spill’ was always part of the MK concept, but there will now be additional pressure to build more homes there from a government that’s set itself a target of building a million by 2020. That’s a number plucked from thin air, but is the underlying narrative of justification for the Housing and Planning Act.
The key word in the MK concept is ‘planned’. The city is the product of a belief that places work better if some deliberate thought goes into how they function. For some, from free-marketeers to anarcho-libertarians, this is anathema. In practice, most places are shaped by a combination of forces, but the Housing and Planning Act embodies the contradictions and power imbalance of our planning process. A government that allegedly believes in ‘localism’ is dictating the future of local communities from Whitehall. Within the multiple outrages of the Act are the increased ability of the Secretary of State to over-rule local planning decisions.
The MK group I met last night are particularly concerned about how the authoritarianism of the Act will impact on what were already threatening clouds hanging over the future of MK’s 11,000 council homes. Seven estates are currently being lined up for ‘regeneration’, a term that now strikes additional alarm. Against the background of Cameron’s moronic ‘sink estates’ statement, council housing like that in Milton Keynes represent the prime target of the Act’s requirement that councils maintain a ‘brownfield register’ of suitable sites capable of accommodating five or more homes and that 90% of those sites have planning permission for development by 2020. Eric Pickles and the government’s housing henchmen Savills have already made it clear they consider some council estates ‘brownfield’ sites, so the malevolent intent of the Act is clear. ‘Regeneration’ will continue to be the code name for displacement and privatisation it has long been, as described by the Joseph Rountree Foundation report released on the same day the Act became law, but with renewed velocity.
MK people hope that because their homes and communities were built on ‘virgin soil’, they won’t be deemed ‘brownfield’ and suitable for redevelopment, but this is where various threatening policy agendas collide. Milton Keynes Council has already begun a familiar process of commissioning reports preordained to smash-up council estates in the spurious name of ‘mixed communities’. Common threads of this cynical process are that council housing is beyond economic repair, socially dysfunctional and built at too low densities, all things that are now buttressed by government policy and rhetoric and are particularly relevant to Milton Keynes. However, giving written evidence to the House of Commons, MK council said that it is committed to building council housing and is concerned not only by the danger of over-development, but by the harmful impact of the ‘Starter Homes’ that are a key feature of the Act and in MK, as elsewhere, will further reduce the amount of genuinely affordable housing.
The Act in general and Starter Homes in particular are a direct challenge to the ethos that underpins Milton Keynes because they place the future of the city in the hands of private property developers, not local people. Milton Keynes is unique in many ways, but in this it is not. Which is why it was so good that, at the end of our meeting, this group of MK residents committed to building the campaign to ‘Axe the Housing Act!’