If asked what the greatest achievement of the British government over the last 50 years was, people will give a wide range of answers.
Perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s Right to Buy policy would get your vote, or maybe joining (or now leaving) the EU.
I doubt many would give you the following answer however: Milton Keynes.
And yet, the creation of a thriving settlement from nothing other than the raw materials of demand and imagination should rightly be, if not at the top of your list, then very close to it.
Normally the government in this country doesn’t do grand projets well, but in the case of Milton Keynes, there are some important lessons to learn from its success – in particular as it relates to London’s growing housing demand.
The dominant theme from the recent Conservative party conference was housing reform. The election debacle and Jeremy Corbyn’s surging popularity with young people has elevated housing to what is now a central electoral priority of the Tory party.
About time too. Home ownership isn’t just a bulwark against populism – it has also historically been a portent of Tory voting intention. That the party has seemingly sleep-walked into a situation where, according to Localis research, 58 per cent of people who don’t own a home are saving nothing per month toward a deposit, is damning.
At least the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, February’s housing white paper, and the diligence of communities secretary Sajid Javid show that the government is trying to make a fight of it.
And there is the faint outline of a credible policy response in the government’s pronouncements to date. Specifically, support for new settlements across England and a more creative use of land. Key to its success is whether May is prepared to spend the political capital necessary to build homes where they are wanted.
And this is why the Milton Keynes lesson is important.
The town of over 250,000 people has a GVA per worker approximately £8,000 higher than Cambridge and £5,000 higher than Oxford. It also generates the most economy taxes per worker of any English city outside London. It’s one of the most entrepreneurial places in England, with a startup rate twice the national average, and is ranked third overall for startups out of the UK’s largest 63 cities.
This 1960’s “New Town” isn’t just a fast-growing economic success, but is also increasingly seen as desirable place to settle. As the late Alexander Chancellor remarked: “concrete bungle? The town is cultured, contemporary, and wonderfully content.”
This success didn’t happen by accident. The state had to plan and intervene. Back in 1967, government made the difficult decision of taking planning control away from the local councils and centralising it under a development corporation.
This took a number of existing towns and villages under the Milton Keynes umbrella, and a masterplan was made for a “city in the trees”, directed by government order, but with local and county councils, business representatives and other professionals on board.
Most vitally, the development corporation allowed significant land-purchasing by the state at a price close to the value of a farmer’s field – as opposed to what value might be achieved when that field has planning permission (which today, outside of London, is estimated to be around 100 times more, and which current legislation demands the state must pay when compulsorily purchasing land).
For any new towns programme to be successful, similar boldness will be necessary. It is ironic that we have a political class consumed by the economic importance of productivity, yet few ask how we could use our land – arguably our highest value asset – more productively. In this regard, it seems clear that green belt policy should be reconsidered.
I don’t ask for huge swathes of identikit estates to be built across our green and pleasant land, just for a sensible review of a policy that was created when London was an imperial capital and that protects too much land that is neither green nor open to public access.
All the powers are there to make this change. What’s lacking is the political vision and will.
The government should forget the fantasy house building targets and learn from the successes it can point to. It could do a lot worse than start with Milton Keynes.