Milton Keynes and the edges of Britishness

Milton Keynes and the edges of Britishness

This week, Lauren Pikó (Melbourne University) examines the new town of Milton Keynes and its marked ‘other-ness’.

The new town of Milton Keynes in north Buckinghamshire celebrates the 50th anniversary of its designation this month. Designated under the New Town Act of 1965, Milton Keynes was intended from the outset to be a new town unlike earlier postwar state urban planning, in terms of its grand scale but also its low density, flexible planning philosophy. With its flexible land use spread over a green, low-density grid system, participatory resident feedback models, Milton Keynes was intended to model “freedom and looseness of texture” which would allow the town to evolve over time, rather than to adhere to a single fixed model of urban identity.[i] This was to be a reformed version of postwar reconstructionism, avoiding the paternalism of postwar new towns and estates. In this sense Fred Lloyd Roche, the town’s first General Manager, understood the role of the town’s planners as being to “get themselves out of a job as quickly as possible.”[ii]

Yet since the time of the town’s designation there has been a steady stream of critical representation in national media which has positioned Milton Keynes not only as being overly determinist, but through its formal innovations, as being outside of national norms. A BBC article from this week asserts that “the town has nothing to be ashamed of”: quite rightly, however the question of why there have been such frequent assertions to the contrary is one which has been little explored, including by historians. Looking more closely at the idea that Milton Keynes is outside of national ideals, however, allows a unique perspective on the relationship between ideas of heritage, ideology and nationhood during the past 50 years.

Calling Milton Keynes foreign, whether as being American, as a relic of totalitarian Soviet determinism, or even as alien and inhuman, has been a consistent feature of political, media and popular cultural representations of the town since the time of its designation. This frequently has involved characterising the town as being American, and in particular, like Los Angeles: indeed, The Times’ editorial on the publication of the town’s plan in 1970 was “Los Angeles (Bucks)”.[iii] Much of this was focused on Milton Keynes’ grid system of roads. While grid layouts and straight roads have been a feature of British land management since Roman times, one of the major criticisms of Milton Keynes’ grid has been that its car-friendliness and low-density reflected an extravagance of space and ease with technological development which was more American than British.

This association of the grid with Americanness and with Los Angeles in particular, however, speaks more deeply to postwar anxieties regarding America’s growing geopolitical power and cultural influence at a time when British elite culture was acutely aware of its declining imperial influence. Milton Keynes’ plan was deliberately one which sought not to replicate historical norms for their own sake, but to actively create a new experimental model of urban design which was flexible and non-deterministic. To embrace newness and flexibility in design, was to look forward rather than backward: the product of a particular combination of postwar reconstructionist and “White Heat” ideologies. This created a political moment in the late 1960s, where large-scale national investments in infrastructure and the use of technical expertise to actively shape the landscape was, at least at Westminster, seen as not only desirable but as a necessary function of the state. This embrace of change, however, involved looking forward during a time when British global power and influence seemed less certain; to embrace American forms in Buckinghamshire, and to attempt to improve upon existing models of urban planning, was to participate in Britain’s postwar “decline”.

As the global Keynesian settlement disintegrated during the 1970s, the Conservative Party explained the ensuing economic crises of 1976 and 1978-9 as being due to a failure of the British postwar state itself, while justifying its radical economic policies as the strong medicine which would restore the nation to “greatness”.[iv] This deft rhetorical twist helped yoke together different cultural anxieties into a single explanatory narrative, justifying the “winding back” of the postwar state as a means of restoring a lost state of greatness. This helped create a legitimating narrative for radical neoliberal macroeconomic policies which were fundamentally opposed to the very principles of Milton Keynes’ designation and its future-focused, technocratic plan.

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Milton Keynes Railway Station in July 2015, photograph by the author

This marked Milton Keynes out twofold from the politics of the 1980s; on the one hand refusing to fetishise the idea of heritage, and on the other testifying to the power of postwar reconstructionism to shape the British landscape in ways that could not be neatly erased. Even while the town’s administration adapted to the new economic climate by embracing privatisation and celebrating its new consumer-capitalist landscape at Central Milton Keynes, the problem of the town’s origins continued to mark it out for criticism. Its visible historical newness, and its founding association with increasingly unfashionable ideologies of paternalistic state social engineering continued to mark it out as “alien”, as “American”, as sterile and opposed to ideals of heritage.

Rejecting Milton Keynes as outside of the nation therefore indicates a particular cultural function which the town has come to serve in popular culture. It is a space whose deliberate difference to existing British towns has made it vulnerable to readings of its difference as a failing, while it is also used as an organising symbol to characterise all those values, aesthetics, and ideologies which are also seen as outside of ideal national norms. The BBC is right, that Milton Keynes has nothing to be ashamed of; but it necessarily evokes a historical memory which continues to rankle and inspire criticism in the political present. It is testimony to a set of ideas about the role of the state and the function of heritage which now seem alien and outside the norm, but which also remind us of how recently the British political landscape was a very different place.

[i]Lord Llewelyn Davies, quoted in “Instant City-1990.” Illustrated London News, 1970, 20-22.

[ii]Fred Lloyd Roche, quoted in “Milton Keynes: A Village City” promotional film; viewable at http://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-milton-keynes-a-village-city-1973/.

[iii]“Los Angeles (Bucks.).” Times, March 18, 1970, 11.

[iv]Stuart Hall, “The Great Moving Right Show.” Marxism Today (January 1979): 14-20.

Lauren Pikó is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Her thesis investigates political, media and popular cultural representations of Milton Keynes in Britain from 1967-1992. Her other research projects focus on cultural histories of postwar British urban planning, and the spatial politics of neoliberalism. Follow her on Twitter @book_learning

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