Milton Keynes and Me

Richard Macer is a recognised documentary film maker. Although not a household name, he has a number of successful credits behind him, created over a twenty year period. He was also raised in the new development of Milton Keynes at the very time that bulldozers were scraping the land and new developments were sprouting, apparently randomly, across the North Bucks landscape. Both he and Milton Keynes reached the age of 50 this year and he would seem well-qualified to make the film Milton Keynes and Me, which premiered on BBC4 on August 17th.

I am sure that there are those who will admire the film, but as one who spent 25 years of his life growing up in the area before Milton Keynes, I found it unsatisfactory. During the film we learned that Mr Macer’s parents, both Londoners, decided to settle in a new house near Great Linford and raise their family there, while Mr Macer senior commuted every workday to London. He seems to have had a conventional and happy childhood and he received his secondary schooling at Stantonbury Campus, at the time the outcome of a belief that bigger could only be better.

Curiously though, the ‘me’ part of the film was a very small part of the essay. There were interviews with his parents, his sister, and a boyhood friend, but this was such a small part of the documentary that the personal part was, in my view, almost irrelevant. The bulk of the footage wanted to explore the experience of newcomers. There was, however, little enlightenment on this aspect.

He started by tediously recycling the old jokes about concrete cows and roundabouts. Is this the only way to introduce Milton Keynes. Aren’t are we not all past that? Much attention was paid to the terraced and block housing developments of the 1970s and to the new city centre on Bradwell Common, which was to accommodate a major shopping centre and many other central amenities. One or two settlers from the 1970s  (other than his parents) were asked for their opinion. We saw old footage of a Fred Roche interview and two of the pioneering architects offered their views. It was a mishmash and I was left with these questions? Was the film a personal memoir about growing up in the new Milton Keynes? If so, it failed to deliver. Was the film designed to reflect on the maturity of a town that started 50 years before with only the planner’s pencil? If so, it was only partly successful.

My principal gripe was that the film paid no heed to the North Bucks that predated the arrival of the first bulldozer. There were settled communities in the area. Some towns like Newport Pagnell, Stony Stratford and Fenny Stratford had long histories. Wolverton was a Victorian new town and the post WWII sprawl of Bletchley was a major development in its own right. All of the villages within the designated area had ancient histories of their own. Yet those watching this documentary without this prior knowledge could be forgiven for assuming that there was nothing in the area prior to 1967.  It could have been built on Dartmoor!  There was already a significant population and infrastructure in the area before Milton Keynes and the truth is that it may have been 20 years before the number of incomers matched the pre-existing population. Did they not recognise one another? Was there no interaction between the two groups? History and common sense should tell us otherwise. Young men joined the established football and rugby clubs, some women sought out the Women’s Institute. Choral societies, history societies, horticultural societies attracted new members and those with an interest in politics joined their local parties. Not everything was invented in 1967.

What was also missing was any acknowledgement that anything happened outside of Central Milton Keynes. Apart from a visit to his parents’ home in the Great Linford area, there was no recognition that a great deal of MK development was not merely block housing complexes but many tracts of individual houses in a variety of architectural styles, spread across the landscape. There are small local shopping and service centres in many districts, as well as recreational facilities and other amenities. One of the great provisions in Milton Keynes (in my view) was the ‘redways’, cycle and walkways that link all parts of the city free of road traffic. That surely was an idea that was ahead of its time! I would also observe that many incomers moved into settled past of North Bucks, like Wolverton, Bletchley, Sony Stratford and Newport Pagnell. This was another feature that was absent from the documentary.

As  I said earlier, Richard Macer needed to have a clearer idea of the story he wanted to tell. Had he stuck to his personal story, I think the film would have been more interesting. The other thread to his documentary – how have people settled into the new town after 50 years – was largely unexplored. Milton Keynes is by no means a homogenous city and with time will become less so. There are already great differences between, for example, Stony Stratford, Fishermead and Wavendon, and I expect that in another 50 years, these differences will be even more pronounced. Any telling of the story of a mature Milton Keynes should consider some of these aspects, I would have thought.

My own view is that the new city has been a great success.There are always those who will find fault and there were some mistakes made by the planners, but on balance, I believe that most of the inhabitants are very content. Communications are good and amenities are excellent. The air is relatively clean. Jobs are in good supply. An interesting but little known fact is that 50 years ago the government were considering the area between Portsmouth and Southampton (where I now live) as a potential site for their new city. In the end they chose North Bucks. What I can report 50 years later is that the projected “Solent City” has actually arrived, but instead of a planned new town with proper infrastructure and amenities, we have ribbon development planted by various local authorities, poorly planned roads, bottlenecks which are a daily source of frustration, rotten parking provision and planning departments who make it up as they go along. Milton Keynes residents should be thankful that 50 years ago there were men and women of vision who were able to bring their talents to create a remarkable new town.

The Monorail City

The first plan for the new city was developed by Buckinghamshire County Council and was known as the “Monorail City”. It was the brainchild of Fred Pooley, then the County Architect. He envisioned a series of residential districts, each of about 5000 people. Each district would have its own shops and primary schools, and the whole would be connected by a monorail light railway, which would continuously loop the new city. It was very futuristic.

‘The envisaged city is based on a free public travel monorail system, as it becomes even clearer that traditional cities and streets are now showing themselves incapable of handling the car. A new town must look beyond car saturation point and deal with the problem of alternative means of transport. The plan brings a new lease of life to North Bucks which has for long been regarded as the frozen and forgotten north, and has come about because the south of the county has almost reached saturation point.’

The Pooley Plan was called ‘A City for the 70s’. Housing and industry was to be planned around the Monorail routes. No dwellings would be more than five minutes walk away from work and amenities, and high density housing areas, each of 5,000 people, would be developed around the Monorail stations. Between these areas light industry was to be accommodated with – in order to considerably minimise travel – heavy industry situated within its own areas. Open space would be enclosed by the monorail routes as an amenity, and also to provide sites for schools, clinics and hospitals. No dwelling would be in excess of a 10 minute walk from the school by which it was served, and these areas would be completely free from vehicular traffic. The monorail system would be free to passengers, with 15 minutes as the maximum journey time from outer terminus to city centre. Shopping facilities and the city centre would be built both over the main lines of communication and at the interchange point of the monorail system, and to offer the maximum choice all shops, except housing area corner shops, would be built in the city centre. 

In the 1960s dense high rise housing was seen to be the answer to England’s housing problems. What could possibly be wrong with multi-storey buildings? Most cities were affected by this idea. Old 19th century streets were bulldozed to be replaced by high rise flats. Even Wolverton and Bletchley were not immune from this concept and it was about this time that the Little Streets were flattened to make way for high rise buildings.

We have since learned to our cost that this type of housing is socially disastrous and about 30 years after they were built these new blocks of flats were themselves demolished.

Perhaps we should also remember that car ownership (although increasing at the time) was nowhere near as common as it is today and much of society was still geared to walking to work or taking the bus.

When the Milton Keynes Development Corporation was formed Bucks County Council and the local councils were sidelined. MKDC brought in some top town planners and they quickly jettisoned the Pooley Plan – and a good thing too.

One wonders also how Bletchley and Wolverton, which were left out of this plan, would have fared as satellites of the new city. Hmmmm!

Frank Atter, a leading councillor in Wolverton at the time was scornful of the Pooley Plan.

“They (monorail systems) have never proved to be an economic proposition anywhere,” being only acceptable to “a government of architectural maniacs.” Of Fred Pooley’s three schemes he described the city proposal as “fantastic” whilst the option of a regional centre with ‘satellite housing-only towns’ “really gets my back up.”

As to what to preserve in the area, he said that frankly there wasn’t much worth preserving in Wolverton or New Bradwell.