Newtown was not only the name of the fictitious Merseyside metropolis in which ‘Z-Cars’ was set; it was also the name of a track on ‘Cut’, the debut album by reggae-fied punkettes The Slits. In the case of the former, the backdrop was supposed to reflect the Utopian housing developments of the early 60s (despite the apparently high crime-rate); whereas the latter chronicled the dull urban deserts such idealistic schemes had descended into by the late 70s – a cultural vacuum where everything was closed, boarded-up and abandoned as the populace stayed indoors and watched the telly.
The New Town was an innovative solution to Britain’s post-war housing crisis that spanned the first twenty-five years after the end of the Second World War, the New Jerusalem envisaged in the wake of the 1945 General Election; and it’s telling how quickly the powers-that-be got on with it. Stevenage in Hertfordshire was the first designated New Town in 1946, swiftly followed by the likes of Crawley, Corby, Basildon, Cwmbran, Cumbernauld, East Kilbride and numerous others up to 1970.
One of the final pieces in the New Town jigsaw was designated as such half-a-century ago today, a shiny space-age settlement occupying what had previously consisted of several small towns, villages and farmland in rural Buckinghamshire. It was named after one of the old villages it swallowed-up: Milton Keynes.
It’s interesting to recall that the last time the country experienced a housing crisis (courtesy of Adolf), the Government actually tried to do something about it by embarking on an unprecedented building programme that not only swept away both slum housing and bombed-out neighbourhoods in existing towns and cities but also created fresh hamlets from scratch, many of which would house the overspill population from densely-populated areas. Taking their cue from the pre-war ‘garden cities’, on the drawing board these New Towns embodied the optimistic determination of the Attlee administration to provide homes for heroes.
Shopping centres and workplaces were distanced from housing, with wide open spaces to compensate for the loss of the Greenbelt land as well as offering those relocated from cramped urban environments a facsimile of the country. The design faults in the original housing that was constructed with haste and inevitably led to corners being cut wasn’t evident to begin with; most of the citizens of the New Towns had come from overcrowded Victorian tenements and felt as though their new homes, with indoor bathrooms and all mod cons, were little palaces. Cinema newsreels of the time, acting almost as PR for the New Town scheme, extolled the benefits of these residential Nirvanas and painted a bright picture of a nation looking forward rather than back.
By the late 60s, the project was close to winding down, but experienced one great last hurrah with Milton Keynes. 21,850 acres were set aside for Buckinghamshire’s very own Brasilia, with a target population of 250,000; the aim was for Milton Keynes to be the biggest New Town of them all and architects were allowed to let their imaginations run riot in the distinct Modernist design of the buildings, viewing the town as a unique opportunity for an experiment on a grand scale that the limited space and invariable compromises in existing cities prevented.
A revolutionary grid system for the plans was imported from the US to add a further alien sheen to the ambitious operation, and though skyscrapers were initially opposed, tall buildings eventually rose in the central business district. Milton Keynes, above all its New Town predecessors, eschewed the traditional layout of British towns and accurately anticipated an increase in car ownership as the motorway network gradually began to link-up the major cities.
Milton Keynes was an ongoing work-in-progress throughout the 70s and 80s; eager to acquire culture, it opened its first music venue, The Stables, sponsored by the premier couple of British Jazz, John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, in 1970; but perhaps the most well-known addition was very much out-of-doors – what was originally known as the Milton Keynes Bowl, opening in 1979. The national sport belatedly came to Milton Keynes in 2004 with the controversial formation of Milton Keynes Dons FC; by putting the town on the pools coupon, it seemed as if it was finally accepted by outsiders as a ‘proper town’, though for a location that was the culmination of Labour’s New Jerusalem vision, as soon as Milton Keynes became a Parliamentary constituency in 1983 it ironically voted Tory.
By the 80s, Milton Keynes was widely derided for its somewhat sterile and faceless ambience; The Style Council famously mocked it in their 1985 hit ‘Come to Milton Keynes’, and the factors that for many make the best British cities so special – the mix of old and new, the sense of history and character, seemingly random accidents such as narrow side-streets veering off on a tangent, the Medieval dirt beneath the manicured fingernails, if you like – are utterly absent from Milton Keynes.
Yet, for such a daring break with the characteristic British town, the aesthetic elements of Milton Keynes have proven to be the blueprint for virtually every redevelopment and extension of major towns and cities across the UK ever since. The Lego-like add-ons that spring up like a bland barrier encircling today’s metropolis are undoubtedly created in the Milton Keynes image.
For all its faults, however, the concept of the New Town was an ingenious and effective means of solving an acute crisis in housing; and what have we done on such a scale since? Considering how acute the current crisis in housing really is, bugger all.
© The Editor