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Why policy wonks love Milton Keynes

5 May 2014

How can political parties solve the housing crisis? The vogue a few years ago was to talk about garden cities, although once it became clear that the National Planning Policy Framework had upset a lot of Conservative voters, politicians started to prevaricate over plans for more garden cities, and then eventually published a ‘prospectus’ asking for locally-led ideas.

I spent this morning exploring Milton Keynes, which was a New Town, rather than one of the original garden cities, but which planning policy wonks, including Number 10’s Alex Morton, hold up as an example of a new development built from scratch which has become hugely successful, with high rates of private sector job creation.

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People don’t tend to be particularly complimentary about Milton Keynes (often because they haven’t bothered visiting it), but while its planners clearly made efforts to make it greener than most towns, with trees planted down central boulevards, it’s probably fair to say that town planners might not want to repeat all of its architectural choices. But it is a successful New Town, and those who are interested in replicating this large-scale answer to a housing shortage (the New Towns saw the peak of housebuilding in this country), study its success closely, rather than knocking it for the number of roundabouts it has.

I’ve written about how the Conservatives could become the proud party of housebuilding once again in a chapter for Bright Blue’s new book, The Modernisers’ Manifesto, and two of the clear lessons for future developments of new towns or garden cities is that they do need to be locally-supported, rather than plonked in an area where few people recognise the need for more homes, and that nimbyism is often an affliction that people catch when the wrong sort of homes are built: either badly-designed ones or ones that don’t really answer local demand.

Now there are plans afoot again to make self-build a bigger contributor to housebuilding in this country. The problem with self-build is that most people in England associate it with Kevin McCloud standing outside an expensive glass palace in a Scottish forest, stroking his chin as a well-off couple try to manage their own project.

It’s not treated in the same way in other countries: in Germany, France and Italy 60 per cent of new builds are self-build. These self-build homes could, if ministers managed to distract us from clever glass constructions in Scottish forests and convince us that they’re a sensible way of local people getting the homes that they really want built in their area, become an important element in solving the housing crisis.

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  • ClausewitzTheMunificent

    The solution to England’s housing problems is simple. Rather than building both space inefficient 2 family detached houses, and ghastly tower blocks, 5-6 storey apartment buildings would do the trick. They offer far higher density while retaining a sense of community, and can be very aesthetically pleasing – see early 20th century building styles.

    • ClausewitzTheMunificent

      That and doing something about land costs. Quite frankly it is ridiculous that the State has to build quite so many houses. Sounds rather more like the United Socialist Republic than Great Britain.

  • Clive Mather

    More new towns, like Milton Keynes (or Basildon or Peterlee) – how thrilling! New garden cities, like Letchworth, that pulsating heart of urban life – wonderful! The steady march of that consumer of boring Green Belt farmland, the detached house – just what we need! In London, the return of that aesthetic and social marvel, the tower block – fantastic!
    If we need to revisit old concepts at least we should make sure that they are decent ones. Land in Britain is scarce, demand for housing is high, therefore we need housing that minimises land use. We could also do with buildings that are nice to look at, and which use materials and energy economically. Some of the most sought-after housing in Britain is found in urban areas with a high density of dwellings, for example Hampstead (London) or Clifton (Bristol). The city of Bath consists, in its historic centre, of flats in long terraces and crescents up to around five storeys high. The density per acre is likely to be higher than in those estates of dreary detached noddy-boxes which sprawl all over the Home Counties, or for that matter,in garden cities or in Milton Keynes. Given the choice, how many people would live in Milton Keynes or Letchworth, if they could live in Bath?

    For inspiration, look at Hampstead, say, or Clifton (Bristol), or Bath. Dwellings in these places are highly so often in long terraces or crescents, often grouped around communal gardens

    • Clive Mather

      Ooops! Slight editing mistake. Ignore last paragraph.

  • MichtyMe

    Self build does not necessarily mean having to mix cement yourself or try your hand at joinery, it’s usually commissioning the project and having it built for you.

  • ScaryBiscuits

    This blog would have been better entitled, why policy wonks love theories. Isabel and her spotty Westminster friends should try a trip to the real world occasionally. And no, a morning in Milton Keynes funded by house building lobbyists doesn’t count.

  • kyalami

    Self build is vastly under-represemted in the UK and could help reduce the soul-sapping dreariness of mass-built houses.

  • Mr Creosote

    Ok Isabel – suggest a site for the next New Town ( and please don’t call it a “Garden City”, because it will be no such thing) and see what happens….

  • Alexsandr

    How can anyone discuss housing without mentioning immigration? Without the 4m people allowed in under Labours open door policy and even more since the GE the housing shortage would not be anything like as severe.
    And to discuss building a new town without resolving the runoff problem is plain stupid. Of have we forgotten the February 2014 floods already?

    • Alexsandr

      should have said decent transport links should be designed in at the start. Bizarely Milton Keynes was without a central station till 1982, making do with Blethcley and Wolverton stations. Cumbernauld used to relay on having to change trains at Springburn to get to Glasgow.

  • Bill Brinsmead

    Perhaps unwise to generalise from one visit to one ‘new town’.

    Have a look at Skelmersdale and Cumbernauld and your conclusions might be different.

  • JB

    Sorry to be a pendant: but don’t you mean ‘procrastinate’ rather than ‘prevaricate’?

  • swatnan

    If they’re anything like these IKEA flatpacks then we’ve got big troubles ahead; there’s bound to be a few screws missing. But having said that we could dom with another 10 MKs.

    • Alexsandr

      i know someone who bought a self build off the self builders when it was about 10 years old. They have had to spend quite a lot on remedial works to fix the sub standard workmanship.

  • vfr100

    Curious to know what the land prices are in Germany, France and Italy?
    Whilst self build is a tempting prospect the price of land tends to be prohibitive in the UK, even where I live in the north east of England.

  • Ulysses Returns

    You are pushing water uphill young lady. You are talking about a so-called Conservative government, admittedly hobbled to the worst sort of libtards, who have: delayed on HS2 and on more runways for the south-east, who have waited for 4 years to get fracking underway, and spend all their energies playing catchup to Miliband and Farqge. Only the ineptitude of the Mupppets in opposition can deliver a Conservative victory in 2015 but I won’t hold my breath. As for building more houses, let’s begin by having fewer people.

    • telemachus

      We need more people to fund the old age of crusty old f…s such as yourself

      • Colonel Mustard

        “A new analysis privately drawn up by City economists seeks to set the record straight, highlighting in simple factual terms the scale of the Labour debacle from 1997-2010. Harold Wilson used to decry the 1951-1964 Tory governments as 13 wasted years. 1997-2010 were 13 wasteful years, wasteful on an industrial scale.

        Some highlights:

        Labour collected £5 trillion in taxes and borrowed half a trillion more.

        Labour more than doubled the national debt to over £1 trillion.

        Labour left the UK with the highest budget deficit in the world barring Greece and Ireland.

        Labour increased UK public spending over 1997-2010 faster than any country on earth.

        In 1997 Britain was ranked 22nd in the world for public spending as a percentage of national output; by 2010 it was up to sixth.

        The annual welfare bill doubled to £186 billion at a cost of £6,400 a year for the average worker.

        Immigration soared. Total net migration under the Conservatives from 1979 to 1997 was 265,000; under Labour is was ten times bigger – 2.5 million

        But despite this spending boom (in fact because of this spending boom), things only got worse:

        Unemployment increased by 444,000.

        Public sector productivity fell nearly 4 per cent.

        Value for money in the public sector fell 13 per cent (nearly 25 per cent in education).

        2.5 million jobs were created under Labour of which 1.9 million went to foreigners.

        Unemployment among young people rose by 285,000.

        One in five young people were left without a job.

        More than five million people of working age lived in workless households.

        Numbers in poverty rose by nearly 400,000 and numbers in severe poverty rose by nearly 800,000.”

        • telemachus

          Which achievements make the public most proud?
          Top of the list of responses was the National Minimum Wage – which has offered millions of people across the country a fairer wage. Writing to us, one person described its introduction as “the single biggest achievement of the Labour party. It is a seismic event”. In particular, members were proud of Labour’s increases in the National Minimum Wage over the last twelve years.

          Labour’s improvements in health and education were the second and third most popular achievements. On the NHS, one person wrote “As someone who has worked in the NHS since 1984, I am most proud of the positive changes that have occurred within in its system since 1997”.

          One parent expressed his pride at improvements in the education system – while sounding a note of warning about Conservative plans for public services: “Two of our children are now teachers and are aware daily of the immense improvements of the last decade – not just in GCSE results, but more importantly in raising the expectations of children for their futures. I am desperately afraid that the Tories will vandalise our NHS and Schools and we should not stop shouting these achievements at every opportunity.”

          Other achievements included help for pensioners, the creation of Sure Start, Tax Credits, help for the unemployed, the creation of civil partnerships, increases in international development funding, the Northern Ireland peace process, free museum entry and action on child poverty.

          Diverse as these achievements are, they share in common Labour’s commitment to making sure that everyone can play a role in Britain – whether they are those in need of help during difficult times, or simply people looking for a level playing field to make a better life for themselves.

          • Andy

            Lets not mention all those people the Fascist Labour Party murdered in Mid Staffs.

          • Colonel Mustard

            The usual trick of passing off Labour party activists and supporters as the “public”.

          • Andrew Smith

            You have just proven the Colonel’s point. All these improvements happened and were great. But they were funded on pump. First rule of economics: If you spend money that you don’t have, you will wake up with a sore head. To misquote LBJ – its like pissing down your trouser leg – feels hot at first, but you’re in trouble afterwards.

          • La Fold

            The minimum wage is always zero no matter what any politician says. The minimum wage has priced hundreds of thousands of people out of the work market especially the poorest, the least skilled, the least educated and the youngest.

        • Andrew Smith

          Do you have a source for this or is it private information?

          • Andy

            It is published. I read it earlier today.

      • ScaryBiscuits

        Telemachus, talking to yourself again?

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