One of the later generations of post-war new towns, Milton Keynes was designed to be a modernised interpretation of the garden city movement that emerged in the early 20th century.
The town is broadly regarded as an economic and social success yet is also generally viewed as a leading light when it comes to incorporating green spaces into conurbations. The city can boast 230km of redways (or shared use, red-coloured paths for cyclists and pedestrians), more than 20 million trees and shrubs and three river valleys, 15 lakes and 11 miles of canals, as well as making good use of the River Ouse. More than 40 per cent of the town is green space. The council declares itself a ‘global leader’ for low carbon living and was the first place in the UK to require all new developments (homes and buildings) to be carbon neutral.
‘When Milton Keynes was planned, the reckoning was that people would want to move out of London if they were told they were moving into the countryside,’ says David Foster, chief executive of the Milton Keynes Parks Trust. ‘The reality is this was pretty uninspiring land. It’s windy, the clay is cold, wet and flat.’
The picture today is rather different. Foster and I have climbed to the top of the Belvedere in Campbell Park, a mile or so east of the city centre, where a white pyramid-shaped obelisk marks the high point of the town. On the rolling land below, sheep are grazing avariciously on 100 acres of greensward. The park is naturalistic, rather than formal, shaped by the spoil from the construction of the town and intended to resemble the downland of southern England.
A church spire peaks out of woodland to the northeast; the skyline to the east is dotted with the buildings of Cranfield University. We can pick out the M1; but in mitigation, between us and it is a hinterland of marshy land, original hedgerows, ancient woodland, wildflower meadows and – you have to look hard to catch a glimpse of them – a great deal of low-density housing laid out in grid formation.
It’s a generally pleasing view, though it helps that my back is turned on the retail centre of Milton Keynes. If I turn my gaze in that direction I can pick out a snow-dome that provides year-round skiing and one of the UK’s more discreet and low-key shopping centres. I have the same big skies that I see in the opposite direction.
Earlier I had walked from the train station via the shopping centre and been struck by how easy this was: no traffic lights but instead bridges and underpasses of the kind that gently dip under roads rather than plunge pedestrians deep into the concrete bowels of many UK cities.
The trust also owns the road corridors, the V (vertical) and H (horizontal) thoroughfares that carve Milton Keynes into a series of grids. The roads are densely planted with trees so you don’t notice housing that fills much of the hinterland. Collectively these create more than 100 miles of continuous linear woodland, producing the green corridors for wildlife to move around that so many cities lack.
‘The intention was that the city would benefit by building housing for everyone and avoid the mistakes of other new towns that built big estates for the masses and saw the bosses live in the countryside,’ says Foster. That aim has been broadly achieved but the city has to report mixed results, with four local authority wards classified as being among the 100 poorest in the UK. A long-held mantra that ‘no building should be higher than the highest tree’ has also been ditched, though for more practical reasons of urban geography. ‘It’s been relaxed because you need some high-density building to give city centres a vibrancy and you need that density to make public transport economical,’ says Foster.
The Milton Keynes Parks Trust was set up in 1992 as an autonomous body, independent from the council, to oversee almost all landscaping. The trust is self-financing and was given an endowment worth around £20million in the form of shops, offices and factories, from which it draws rental income. Foster says this has enabled the trust to resist pressures to build on the parks over time.
‘We don’t have to compete with other council services for a piece of the pie,’ he says. ‘We know what income we can expect for years to come and that helps retain good staff – highly trained horticulturalists and arboriculturalists – who can plan their work confidently. That’s not the case in local authorities.’
This income is topped up in other ways, such as fees for canal mooring (the Grand Union canal runs along the eastern edge of the park) and even cricket bats, carved from the willows that fringe Campbell Park.
The business model that underpins the Parks Trust is proving particularly beneficial in a time of public sector cuts. ‘It’s difficult for local authorities,’ says Foster. ‘They have to keep care homes open, repair schools. Landscaping is well down the list, it isn’t statutory. You can cut quite a lot before people start noticing. It’s not like a library where people notice the day it closes. You look around the bits the local authority is responsible for and you can see what they are up against. It’s really quite serious.’
The design of Milton Keynes took inspiration from towns in the Netherlands that adopted a naturalistic approach to landscaping, using native species in housing areas. Now, in an age of austerity, other UK towns and cities are looking at the Milton Keynes parks model to see if they can emulate it. The sticking point, however, says Foster, ‘is persuading local people that parks are not being sold off, that you are not going to get private companies deciding who can and who can’t go into them.’
Milton Keynes’ population, 248,800, has now reached the original 1960s projected target and will be expected to expand over the next 20 to 30 years. One projection has this rising to 325,000 by 2037 and the town is facing pressure from central government to pack in the houses.
‘Developers and landowners are quite a powerful bunch,’ says Foster. ‘We want to ensure that the original concept of a generous quantity of green space is maintained – any new development shouldn’t be short-changed in that regard.’
Brexit looms on the horizon too and leaves hanging in the air a question over the single farm payments from which the trust currently benefits.
‘We are a charity and we look after the parks, lakes and woods forever,’ says Foster. ‘The “forever” bit is important. We need to be financially sustainable in 100 years’ time, not just today.’