Discussions about the latest proposed expansion of Milton Keynes come some 40 years after the concept of the self-styled new 'city' was first conceived. Buckinghamshire County Council came up with the idea in the 1960s to ease development pressures on the leafy Green Belt in the south of the county. The county's planning chief, Fred Pooley - later to become the chief planner for the Greater London Council - promoted the idea of a new town for 250,000 people near Bletchley, on poor-quality farmland. People would live in high-rise homes linked along spines of mass transit.
With the government facing up to projected large-scale population growth in the South East, ministers were pleased to take up the idea and in 1967 used the New Towns Act to create a development corporation to make it happen. The Open University was established to kick-start the development.
To Pooley's dismay, the development corporation commissioned a fresh masterplan from consultant Llewelyn-Davies. Pooley was relegated to 'adviser' and invited to annual review seminars.
The Llewelyn-Davies masterplan was approved after a public inquiry in 1969. Iconic features for the 155km 2 site include a lazy grid of cross-city transport corridors creating 'grid squares' for development; a network of generous linear parks designed in part to provide stormwater attenuation areas; dispersed employment sites so that people could choose to live near their work; and a new city centre and train station on a high plateau in the middle of the site.
Paying the price Land was bought by negotiation, backed with the power of compulsory purchase, with compensation paid a little above 'no new town' values. Money borrowed from the Treasury was repaid with interest, with income received from selling serviced land.
Then Margaret Thatcher killed off the development corporation, and the Commission for the New Towns (CNT) took over, selling land to the highest bidder and sending the profits to the Treasury. It was an unhappy period of low quality and slow-paced development, sometimes wilfully destructive of the design principles previously established.
Today the CNT's agent, English Partnerships, is completing the task in a much more considered way, and the original masterplan is nearing completion.
Milton Keynes' public transport system is still embarrassingly bad, for reasons that are far more complicated than the commonly heard 'densities are too low'. However, easy walking and cycling, some community transport, easy driving and demand-responsive taxi and mini-cab services keep Milton Keynes on the move.
The forest canopy of the 'City of Trees' is maturing well, and now has the effect of making the city sink deeper into its vegetation each year. More than 30,000 people commute into Milton Keynes every day for work. There is full employment, statistically. House prices are high and homes are in short supply. The propensity for further growth is evident and, aside from Nimby arguments from dormitory villagers in the surrounding area, there is mostly a positive attitude towards further expansion.
Milton Keynes council, supported by the Chamber of Commerce, suggested further expansion when regional planning guidance for the South East (RPG9) was reviewed in the late 1990s, and the city found itself at the heart of a huge 'Milton Keynes and South Midlands growth area' as a result.
In September 2002, a secretive study led by Roger Tym & Partners confirmed Milton Keynes' potential to add a further 70,000 homes to its first 100,000.
In May 2003, a very hasty 'growth area assessment' by Tym confirmed this figure, proposing it should be achieved by backfilling the recently completed new town with a few peripheral 'extensions'. This thinking was immediately embedded in the Draft SubRegional Spatial Strategy for Milton Keynes and South Midlands, published in July 2003, which was subject to an 'Examination in Public' (EiP) earlier this year.
The panel that conducted the EiP confirmed the potential of Milton Keynes' expansion but not the peripheral blobs proposed by Tym. Instead, and properly, the panel suggested that there should be a comparative analysis of all possible forms of extension through a proper public planning process.
John Prescott will let us know whether he accepts the panel's recommendations when he produces his version of the sub-regional spatial strategy in October/November.
Room for improvement?
In the meantime, English Partnerships has been put in charge of Milton Keynes' expansion, operating through a subcommittee involving the council and a handful of worthy citizens. This 'MK Partnership Committee' is talking of commissioning a 30-year plan. This is excellent news, as it is the correct way to pilot the next stage in the the city's development. In contemplating this huge expansion of Milton Keynes - nearly doubling the size of the population to possibly 500,000, larger than Nottingham - the first consideration must be an assessment of its 'urban capacity'. Surely this city, which has such a reputation for profligate use of land and 'low-density, car-dependent' development, has room for many additional homes and workplaces before new green fields must be taken at the edge?
Indeed, the work of the council, pushed along by English Partnerships, confirms that 'as built' Milton Keynes and the last remaining parts to be developed have room to absorb more homes than previously expected. Central Milton Keynes (CMK) was designed such that no building would exceed the height of the tallest tree - this was about six storeys. If we break that rule and push upwards, the density of development can be increased further.
In the established residential areas, and contrary to popular prejudice among outsiders, the density of development was always relatively high - averaging around 27 dwellings per hectare. It is only in the former public housing projects (where the poor are concentrated and most easily overruled) that there is neighbourhood green space that might be taken as building land without a big fuss. Elsewhere the message from residents appears to be that they bought the dream and they don't want it destroyed. The extensive linear parks, which make Milton Keynes look so green to the casual visitor, incorporate necessary floodwater storage ponds and recreation facilities to excellent standards. The scope for shaving them for development is limited and, anyway, they are leased for 999 years to the MK Parks Trust, which is supposed to manage them in perpetuity.
Current thinking is that some 25,000 of Milton Keynes' proposed 70,000 additional homes might be accommodated inside the boundary of the original new town, including through intensification and infilling. Theoretical exercises undertaken for the Chamber of Commerce in 1999 explored several generic possibilities for the additional homes needed.
'Mother and daughters' posited the idea of a number of small satellite towns, so that existing residents were not robbed of proximity to open countryside. 'Beads on a string' explored the concept of geographer Professor Peter Hall, by which nodes of urbanisation would occur at stations in the sub-region's existing and possibly extended rail network.
Extended vision Consultation with members of the Chamber of Commerce showed a marked preference for the pattern that we would call 'sustainable urban extensions' - corridors of mass transit reaching out to nearby towns with relatively high-density development along the way.
This thinking chimes with much national planning policy and recommended best practice. It is reflected in the council's emerging public transport strategy from Faber Maunsell, published this year. However, it is important to note that the emerging council vision does not yet suggest mass transit running to neighbouring towns. Great visions that could flow from work on a wider canvas - such as the possibility of creating a sub-regional park between Milton Keynes and Winslow to the west, on the scale of Windsor Great Park - are not yet up for official discussion.
Although housing is the biggest single land-use element in urbanisation, it is a prerequisite that with it comes its fair share of employment, commerce, culture, education and recreational development, with energysaving design, sustainable urban drainage, public transport, affordable housing, and all the other bells and whistles of the making of 'sustainable communities' to which Prescott has so clearly committed the government.
Most towns and cities in England grew by accident of circumstance, and much of present planning policy is designed to stop their sprawl and encourage their rehabilitation. Milton Keynes marches to a different drum. A framework of strategic landscape and public realm has been laid out most artfully and has captured the imagination and investment needed to make the city a success.
If English Partnerships commissions an open-minded review of the established framework, and of the way it might best be extended to secure even more sustainable development overall, we will be given a legacy that will guide Milton Keynes for a further 30 years of civilised development. It is on track to be a proper city, attracting even more international admiration than has already been secured.
David Lock is a planning and urban design consultant based in Milton Keynes. He is also chair of the Town and Country Planning Association, and visiting professor of town planning at the University of Reading