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25 September 2006

Return to Milton Keynes

It was always supposed to be the town of the future, and now it is to get its very own TV station. S

By Zoe Williams

Milton Keynes has always brought the middle classes out in a kind of lugubrious fatalism. I remember going on a walk with my mother in the not far-off hamlet of Battlesden, and her pointing at the somewhat samey countryside and saying: “Soon, all this will be town.” I misheard “town” as “towel”, but I was young enough to assume that she must have been making sense anyway. So that would put me at about five, the town of Milton Keynes at ten. In 1978, it brought right-thinking people out in a rash.

It was the artifice more than anything else: the concrete cows, the fake American car-friendliness. A city that could be created from nothing, that had no organic authenticity, was capable of anything. Who said the plants were even real? There was the odd flash of grudging respect for its modernity – the solar-panelled housing which didn’t, in the end, become the beginning of anything. But it was never really a great white hope, and before long it had been relegated to a module of GCSE geography.

The truth was, though, that this new town was more than a monstrous blot on a cutesy sensibility. New things still happen in it. All of its cables are underground, and so it’s the only place in the country where you’ll never see a TV aerial. It has so many trees that it could technically be classed as a forest (it was originally known as the city of a million trees – now there are more like 23 million, but I think that’s also counting shrubs). Traditional notions are overturned – pedestrians are totally segregated from cars, by yards of this afore-counted shrubbery, and when you do walk beside the road, wondering where the devil the pavements are, young, totally modern Millies scream, “Crazy bitch!” from their Polos. And now Ofcom has licensed Milton Keynes Television (MKTV).

It is run by Jawad A Siddiqui. “The station will reflect the core values of Milton Keynes,” he says. “It will be innovative, informative, entertaining and family-oriented.” Siddiqui is also vice-chair of the Milton Keynes Racial Equality Council. Are those really the core values of Milton Keynes? How can you tell when a place is family-oriented? Just how successful has this planning exercise been? Siddiqui claims that the channel is a “vote for the place I am proud to call my home”.

Siddiqui won’t actually talk to me without a load of badgering, because he doesn’t want MKTV written off as a “regional channel”, and wants to stress that it is a proper entertainment channel, with the same digital licence as the BBC. “I want to make this clear,” he clarifies. “MKTV is a national television channel.”

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And frankly, if this all sounds like so much Noughties bilge, there is nothing so fitting as that it should come from Milton Keynes.

And yet, there is something about this place that is a success. It has not imploded, or turned into the Twilight Zone, or cannibalistically subsumed its surrounding countryside. It has its own TV station. It has a low crime rate, and a billion pounds’ worth of government investment going in. It will be the first place in the UK with WiMax, the meaning of which, amusingly, the Lib Dem head of the council, Isobel McCall, is not totally sure . . . and nor am I. (It’s like wifi, only better – you’ll be able to connect to the internet from anywhere in town. And this is all from private investment.) Coutts, bankers to the Queen, are opening a branch there, having established it as the most likely place to find the modern entrepreneur. The place is not unworkable. So, in the absence of history and organic growth and atmosphere, you have to wonder what makes it work.

Double-edged swords

It depends, naturally enough, on your perspective. Kevin Wilson, a Labour councillor, lives on the annoyingly named Coffee Hall estate. He moved to Milton Keynes in the Seventies, on the understanding that it would be really easy to find a house there. (“It seems amazing now,” McCall remembers, “but back then, everyone who wanted to rent a house could have one.”) Coffee Hall lies down a curve of the earliest estates in the south-east of the city, all built in the Seventies, and, to be honest, this is the downside of new build writ large – all the houses are deteriorating at exactly the same rate. Wilson lives in Trubys Garden, the posh street of Coffee Hall, but he’s an old Labour man and is powerfully aware of the poverty round here. Between his ward and the neighbouring one, a distance of a mile, the difference in life expectancy is 13 years. “That’s pretty much the difference between the developed and the developing world.”

It’s a real planning nightmare, this homogeneity. The drive is to build up the dilapidated Seventies heaps, but they’re so symmetrical that you can’t really make the most of them without ripping the whole lot up and starting again. It makes you wonder why there isn’t more vandalism: I want to start harassing saplings after about four hours. But pragmatically, this has really played in the city’s favour in attracting investment, public and private – you simply wouldn’t get a 70,000-home development even to discussion stage in a place where developers thought every third building might be listed.

The other big point of planning pride – the open spaces, the water features – are also a double-edged sword. Yes, the place is full of fun. The Ordnance Survey map looks like a colouring- in book, all leaping fishes and windmills and boats and stars (which, for your information, is a catch-all sign for “leisure activity”). It’s popular with stag and hen parties, but the poorest locals are more than averagely excluded from all this, as the sink estates are farthest from the lakes, the public transport is woeful bordering on non-existent and the prices are stiff even if you can get there. Again, it’s a terribly modern evolution of fun: the traditionally English, “you’ll go home with verrucas, but you’ll have some good, honest fun” atmosphere has been replaced with a more strategised, exclusive leisure package. I saw a paraglider on a Wednesday afternoon: I really take that as a sign of a society where the people with money have too much of it.

But then, Milton Keynes’s shopping centre is a flagship of commercial excellence. It’s dead clean and its Woolies makes my local one look like communist Russia with pick’n’mix. The two hoodies I did see were drinking strawberry Frappuccinos. If there is a problem with social exclusion, either the excluded are being very chilled about it, or they really can’t get a bus into town.

No racial tension

On which subject, one of the striking things about the place is that it’s close to Luton and Dunstable, and yet shares none of their problems with racial tension. This is something on which everyone, from every party, agrees. Ruth Jury, a Tory councillor, said: “This is going to sound really racist . . .” “No, no,” I said, delighted at the prospect of getting a racist remark out of a Tory councillor. “. . . but in Dunstable, there are pockets where it would be really unusual to see a white person. Milton Keynes isn’t like that at all.”

Wilson attributes this partly to everyone being an immigrant to Milton Keynes, which means that there is no such thing as an indigenous population. Siddiqui doesn’t really want to talk about it: he doesn’t want MKTV to come across as “Raj TV”. That annoyed me at the time (he’s on the Racial Equality Council!), but I can now see his point. All those new-era buzz-phrases – “recruiting ground for fundamentalism” et al – which are incredibly pressing ten miles away, are totally irrelevant here. They could be happening in a different country.

Milton Keynes really does have so much going for it that it’s hard to say why it’s so horrid. Partly, it comes back to the stupid roads. The “redways”, separated from the roads, aren’t much used, because they feel so eerie. The cars, freed from the burden of having to behave like human beings, have very high speed limits, so the whole place is one craven curtsy to the motor car, which is the opposite of what a modern city should be about. It is not a place a foreigner would choose for a holiday.

“It does take a bit of getting used to,” avers McCall. Nobody has ever satisfactorily explained the point of the concrete cows. But forecasts of a rickety, futuristic dystopia have not been borne out. Something about this strange, unlikeable place is very likeable as a place to live in.

For those of us who don’t like it, maybe we just haven’t been there often enough?

Zoe Williams is a staff writer on the Guardian

A short history of Milton Keynes
Research by Matt Kennard

1967 New Towns Act designates Milton Keynes (MK) as a “new city” to mop up “spillover” from urban overcrowding

1969 The Open University transfers to MK

1979 Milton Keynes National Bowl opens

1981 MK’s population reaches 100,000

1992 Government disbands Milton Keynes Development Corporation. Planning function returns to local authority control

2002 Despite being designed as a small city, MK is not awarded city status

2003 Wimbledon Football Club relocates to MK; the following year it officially becomes Milton Keynes Dons FC

2004 John Prescott announces government plans to double MK’s population by 2025

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