Want to see where Britain’s political future will be decided? Direction Milton Keynes | John Harris

AAmid celebrations of the Queen’s 70 years in the highest royal post, the sporadic ritual by which towns are turned into towns has once again reached its conclusion. As always, the winners and losers of the Jubilee Civic Honors Contest don’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense. Reading, for example, lost to Douglas on the Isle of Man. Particularly in the era of upgrade, the drill seems true to that national tradition of pinning flags and badges to things, but almost nothing actually changes: city status can give the local morale but brings no new funding, functions or powers. But this time, in the case of at least one of the victors, it’s worth suspending any cynicism and hailing their achievement.

Milton Keynes – or ‘MK’ as many locals call it – has been trying to achieve city status for over 20 years. Born via a ‘New Town Designation Order’ in 1967, this large part of Buckinghamshire – just 33 minutes from London by train – is now home to 230,000 people, and the population continues to grow. Like post-war new towns such as Stevenage, Harlow, East Kilbride and Telford, in a country arguably more mired in nostalgia than ever, it remains a fascinating and anomalous creation. What struck me on my first visit was the forward-looking ambition that Milton Keynes once symbolized: politicians, planners and architects designed a new kind of British metropolis, then made it a reality, as the place filled with people who then brought everything to life.

Rents in Milton Keynes used to be cheap. As house building came to a halt during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure in power and public housing was pushed aside by right to buy, it increased. But if you talk to people who were among the first to come to London, they often remember marveling at incredibly spacious homes, deliberately surrounded by green space. “I’ve always lived in an apartment,” a proud MKer told me last year, “and the first house we saw my dad was bowled over – it was a three-story townhouse with a carport and a garden.” That feeling of room to breathe remains. Milton Keynes is now full of so-called Redways: “shared-use roads for people walking, rolling, cycling and scootering”, where traffic is often nowhere to be found. And contrary to the idea that its modernist architecture and grid of checkerboard streets make it somehow ‘soulless’, it’s a place brimming with community spirit, where an estimated 84,500 people volunteer .

As you may have already understood, I’m a fan. MK has obvious problems: often incredibly high rents and property prices, homelessness, knife crime and, in its older neighborhoods, a sense of decline belatedly addressed by a regeneration program. 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 seems to justify that kind of goal – because just as it initially offered a better life for Londoners in the 1960s and 1970, continues Milton Keynes to do so, which is reflected in its ever-changing demographics. Between 2010 and 2020, for example, the proportion of its school population classified as black, Asian and ethnic minority rose from 31% to 45%.

MK’s air of modernity is also reflected in its politics. Although he voted for Brexit by roughly the same margin as the country as a whole, on the many occasions I spoke to the MKers, I rarely felt the fury and resentment that boiled over at the national surface in 2016. For most of the Blair-Brown years, before boundary changes and successive Tory victories, Milton Keynes was represented by two Labor MPs, although its two constituencies were still fiercely contested. To show Britain’s possible political future, the borough council is currently led by a split coalition between Labor and the Liberal Democrats, referred to by both parties as a Progressive Alliance. To some extent, MK was one of the first examples of a modern, new Britain, exemplified today by all those recent residential developments that surround our towns and cities, the political composition of which is still too little understood. The people there are rarely staunch leftists, but neither are they in the market for culture wars and Brexit fanaticism: none of the major parties in England seem to speak confidently to this growing part of the electorate, but that will probably decide our political future. .

In that sense, Britain is increasingly dotted with neighborhoods that have at least some of MK’s upbeat, light-hearted original spirit. But they are far from its history of ambition and great design. In 2018 the government said it wanted to transform the area between Oxford and Cambridge – including Milton Keynes – into a “new Silicon Valley” that would supposedly include up to a million homes, but like so many large projects that have spun off Boris Johnson’s desk, the idea seems to be dead. There are plans for a handful of so-called ‘garden communities’ in areas such as Merseyside, Cornwall and the South Midlands. But the total budget is a paltry £69m, covering ‘up to’ 16,000 homes a year from 2025 – and in any case the usual talk that only some of them are listed as “affordable” suggests that millions of people will be priced out.

Besides an entrenched conservative aversion to large, state-directed projects, the pettiness of current efforts to create new communities highlights many unfortunate national traits. As the endless sneers at our new towns prove, we still have a strange repugnance for avant-garde architecture and modern urban planning. As Brexit may have proven, many of us now regard the future as such a terrifying prospect that we turn away from it, preferring to dimly rejoice in the old rather than focus on the new. But we could do things differently if we could find the will. Imagine the kind of money spent on London’s new Elizabeth rail line – £19billion, at last count – used to create places characterized by community, sustainability, strong transport links and vast public space. In the age of mass work from home, when many people are seizing the opportunity to leave our biggest cities, this idea should surely have endless appeal.

According to the government’s official announcement, MK’s new city status is partly based on its “royal associations and cultural heritage”, making it a place whose importance is mainly linked to its history: a showcase, to be, of the kind of post-war optimism that has long since faded. In fact, in the midst of a housing crisis, the post-pandemic feeling of many people wanting to radically reshape their lives, and an urgent need to model new urban environments, whatever its flaws, this remains a shining example. of how we might navigate our way into the future. We did it once. Why not yet?

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

James C. Tibbs