Skip to main content

Milton Keynes: 50th Anniversary

Volume 620: debated on Wednesday 25 January 2017

[Albert Owen in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 50th anniversary of the new city of Milton Keynes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen.

I am grateful for the opportunity to mark the golden anniversary of the place that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), and I are so proud to represent. I am also very pleased that he is able to respond to this debate as the Minister.

The new city of Milton Keynes came into being in this place on 23 January 1967, through an Order in Council, so it is right that we mark the milestone in this place, too. It was also the year that the first North sea gas was piped ashore, the year that the Boeing 737 took its maiden flight, the year of the six-day war, the year the first automated cash machine was introduced, and the year that Sandie Shaw entered Eurovision for the UK.

I make no comment on that.

Nineteen sixty-seven was also the year when a round of preparatory negotiations started for the UK to join the European Economic Community. It was also the year when a bold decision was taken to construct a new city in north Buckinghamshire, with a vision of a population of around 250,000 souls. That is not to say that nobody lived in the area that is now Milton Keynes prior to its designation as a new city. Far from it—Milton Keynes was built around long-established towns, such as Stony Stratford, Wolverton, Newport Pagnell, Bletchley, Fenny Stratford, Woburn Sands and Olney, together with a patchwork of rural north Buckinghamshire villages. Indeed, there is archaeological evidence of permanent settlement in the area that is now Milton Keynes dating back to the bronze age.

The name Milton Keynes is not new, either. Some people mistakenly believe that the name was made up, perhaps an amalgam of two 20th-century economists, Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes. In fact, the new city took its name from the village of Milton Keynes, which is in the heart of the borough and dates from the 11th century.

Part of the motivation behind the creation of Milton Keynes was to take overspill housing from existing large cities, principally London. Bletchley, prior to the designation of Milton Keynes as a new town, had taken such population since the 1950s. But the ambition for Milton Keynes was for so much more than that. Milton Keynes is equidistant from London, Birmingham, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge, and has good transport links through the M1 and the west coast main line, so the intention was to create a dynamic regional centre in its own right, rather than a dormitory town for other places.

I contend that we have more than fulfilled that ambition and that we have been the most successful of the new towns. The raw socio-economic data show that we have exceeded all targets for population, physical space and economic growth. We have regularly topped league tables for job creation and business start-ups, although that poses some challenges and opportunities for the future—I will touch on those a little later in my speech.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this welcome debate; I extend best wishes from the historic city of Oxford to Milton Keynes; and I look forward to the improved rail and road links between us, which we hope are on the way. May I also pass on the best wishes of his predecessor, my good friend Phyllis Starkey, who remains a firm friend of Milton Keynes and an advocate of its achievement and potential?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Member for Oxford East for that intervention and I shall certainly relay his kind good wishes to Milton Keynes. I will touch on the improved infrastructure links between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge, if I am allowed to refer to the “other place”, a little later in my speech.

I am very happy to pay tribute to my predecessor, Dr Starkey. We contested quite a number of elections over the years. She was victorious in the first two; I was victorious later on. Although Milton Keynes certainly has political competition at local authority level and parliamentary level, just like anywhere else, it always strikes me that, whatever our party political differences, politicians in Milton Keynes share a passion for the place and want to make it better. That is a very important political culture to have, and so I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning my predecessor.

I will also mention my hon. Friend the Minister’s predecessor, Brian White, who sadly passed away last year. As a Member of Parliament, as a councillor and —for a year—as the mayor of Milton Keynes, he did an incredible amount of work to promote Milton Keynes and secure its growth.

As I was saying, if we look at the raw data we see that Milton Keynes has been an outstanding success, but at the heart of that success is something more significant than just the raw numbers. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister, my constituency neighbour, will agree that each weekend that we spend out in our constituencies meeting the charities, clubs and community groups, we find a real tangible passion for and pride in Milton Keynes, as well as strong aspirations for our future. Over the last couple of weeks in central Milton Keynes shopping centre, there has been an exhibition documenting our history and development. Talking to residents old and new at that exhibition, I found a deep and palpable sense of belonging and spirit.

I was not even a twinkle in my father’s eye when Milton Keynes came into being. However, having looked at the old films about Milton Keynes and its creation on social media, I know that if we look past the slightly questionable hair styles and clothing fashion of the age, we can see a real sense of excitement and hope among the first residents who moved in, particularly those who had moved from substandard accommodation in London. There was a real sense of optimism about the wonderful new housing that they were able to move into.

People feel incredibly loyal to Milton Keynes. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) is in his place, because his father, Bill Benyon, was an exemplar of that loyalty. He is another of my predecessors and he represented Milton Keynes for more than 20 years. When he was first elected, it was to the old Buckingham constituency, which at that time included all of Milton Keynes. When population growth meant that the constituency was divided in two, which I think was for the 1983 election, Bill Benyon had the option of standing for the Buckingham seat, which is a very safe Conservative seat with a majority of more than 20,000, or Milton Keynes, which has a much more volatile political colouring. To his credit, he chose Milton Keynes, because he was so passionate about the place and had personally contributed to many of its projects. I was at the silver jubilee of the Christ the Cornerstone church just a couple of weeks ago, and I understand that Bill Benyon personally contributed to that church, helping to get it built. More than 25 years after he retired, I still meet constituents who fondly remember him and the incredible work he did. That is just one example of the passion and loyalty that Milton Keynes develops in its representatives and inhabitants.

At its core, I argue that the strong sense of community in Milton Keynes is born from the spirit of innovation that has always characterised the place. Milton Keynes was a new design, unlike any place before it. It brought together new concepts in urban planning and architecture. It was ahead of its time and drew on the garden cities tradition. It is a place of open green spaces and natural habitats. Often, in the heart of urban Milton Keynes, people enter a wood, park, meadow or a riverbank and find it hard to believe they are in the middle of a place with a population of more than 250,000 people.

Milton Keynes has also been home to pioneering new concepts, such as the first eco-houses and new models of education. One of the institutions in my constituency that I am most proud of is the Open University, which has innovated lifelong learning and is cherished the world over. It is not quite as old as Milton Keynes itself; it celebrates its golden anniversary in a couple of years’ time. It was founded in 1969, but the development of the Open University and Milton Keynes have gone hand in hand.

People have moved to Milton Keynes from all over the United Kingdom and all over the world. I came to Milton Keynes after university. My first job was there. When I decided on a political career as my aspiration, it was a natural place to seek election. It took me a few goes, as I mentioned in answer to the right hon. Member for Oxford East, but I chose to stand my ground. I could not think of anywhere else that I really wanted to represent.

Wherever people have come from, they share a sense of ownership of the new city. It is their place; they want to be part of building it up, and they have a passion for its future. We have a rich tapestry of cultures and faiths. While we must never be complacent, we do not have the same tensions between communities in Milton Keynes that sadly can exist in other towns and cities in the UK. Admittedly, we have our detractors. There are people who say that Milton Keynes is a dull, boring place, devoid of character and culture. My experience is that such comments usually come from people who have never visited or, if they have visited, have not taken a proper look at what we have to offer.

A place with no character and culture—really? Milton Keynes is rich in its creative and cultural dynamism, from grassroots art communities to historic Bletchley Park; from the UK’s most popular theatre outside London to Milton Keynes City Orchestra, which attracts world-renowned soloists such as the pianist Ji Liu, who will perform there in March; and from the drama of the rugby world cup, held at stadium mk, to the biennial international festival, which attracts performers and audiences from around the globe. We have more than 7,000 arts and heritage events held in Milton Keynes each year. We have stories of international cultural and historic importance, including code-breaking at Bletchley Park and John Newton writing “Amazing Grace” when he was a curate at Olney. We have music venues including The Stables and the National Bowl, which hosts once-in-a-generation performances from world leaders in music.

We are home to the Formula 1 team Red Bull Racing and are fast becoming a centre of excellence in the motorsport industry. In technology, we innovate some of the very latest ideas in intelligent mobility through the transport systems Catapult and the smart cities project, working in tandem with the Open University. We welcome delegations from around the world who want to learn about our story. Economically, we have a diverse and vibrant economy, from financial services to logistics and distribution and from high-quality engineering to rail industry management.

We have certainly had a vibrant and successful first half century, but what of the future? Having realised the original vision of Milton Keynes in its physical footprint and population size, what comes next? I believe we can enjoy an equally successful next half century, but only if we plan it properly. We cannot just rest on our laurels. Other parts of the country, such as the northern powerhouse and the midlands engine, are upping their game. Projects such as High Speed 2 will change the economic geography of the country, and we must be similarly ambitious for our future. We cannot just allow Milton Keynes to expand in an unplanned way, with more housing developments around our periphery. That would place too much strain on our infrastructure and public services and compromise the core design principles that have proven so successful. We must abide by our city motto: “By knowledge, design and understanding”. We have to plan properly with our neighbours.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on bringing forward this debate. As a near neighbour—I live in Wootton, so Milton Keynes is within touching distance and my family and I use it often—I bring the good wishes of Bedford Borough Council and Central Bedfordshire Council to the debate and to Milton Keynes. On looking forward and not losing sight of the original concept, does he agree that the environment in which Milton Keynes is set is very special? My wife and I had the pleasure of dinner some years ago with Evelyn de Rothschild, who was the vice-chairman of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation. We asked him what his greatest legacy was, and he said, “The trees.” The trees make the environment in which this vibrant city can look forward with great optimism.

I am grateful for that intervention from my right hon. Friend and near neighbour. I thank him for the good wishes from the people of Bedfordshire. He is absolutely right: the environmental benefits of Milton Keynes are enormous. I think I am right in saying that we have more trees per head of population than anywhere else in the country. That was one of the great foresights of the city’s founding fathers.

I am glad that my right hon. Friend intervened, because it leads me neatly on to talking about what I see as the next stage of Milton Keynes development. That includes the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge corridor that the National Infrastructure Commission is looking at and projects such as the east-west rail line, which the right hon. Member for Oxford East mentioned, and the Oxford-Cambridge expressway. I believe they will unlock considerable economic and housing development.

If that development is done in the right way—using the smart city and transport technology that we are innovating locally to develop new types of village communities that people want and not the massive urban sprawl that they fear—we will respect and improve on the basis on which Milton Keynes was founded. In doing so, we need to find a way to develop a new partnership between Milton Keynes and neighbouring authorities, such as Central Bedfordshire Council and Bedford Borough Council, to develop joint planning and delivery mechanisms. I know that my right hon. Friend is setting up an all-party group to look at the creation of the England economic heartland body, which will do a lot of important work in that space.

Last year in Milton Keynes we had the publication of the “MK Futures 2050” report, which was chaired by Sir Peter Gregson of Cranfield University. It presented a bold vision for our future, including the creation of MK:IT, a technical university modelled on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States. That absolutely fits with the NIC’s plans and the Government’s industrial strategy, which was outlined earlier this week and will develop our skills base for the future. All those debates and initiatives are live, and I look forward to playing my part in shaping them. We have an incredibly bright future and many opportunities, but I conclude today simply by wishing my fellow residents in Milton Keynes a very happy birthday. I am proud to represent such a wonderful place, and I look forward to playing a part in its next half century.

I remind the Minister that the debate will finish at 4.41 pm. I offer my congratulations to Milton Keynes.

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen. I start by congratulating my fellow MP for Milton Keynes, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), on securing this debate at a timely point in the city’s development. I make it clear that I am speaking in this debate on behalf of the Government with the consent of my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and that decisions on matters relating to Milton Keynes will be taken by others. I am, however, delighted to be present today to celebrate our successful new town, as a city, reaching its 50th anniversary.

I underline the praise by paying tribute to my predecessor as an MP, Brian White, who sadly died last year, and to the father of my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), Sir Bill Benyon, who did so much in the early years of the creation of Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes has had some colourful MPs: Aidan Crawley was elected in 1945 as a Labour MP, but subsequently became a Conservative; Frank Markham followed him in 1951, another former Labour MP who became a Conservative; and, following them, the famous Robert Maxwell who, though elected as a Labour MP, did not become a Conservative.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South and I both know, Milton Keynes continues to be one of Britain’s fastest-growing cities. It has produced exceptional talent, including London 2012 Olympic gold medallist Greg Rutherford; it set up the Open University in 1971, making higher education more accessible to everyone, regardless of geography; and it is the centre for transport technology in England, with the first trials of driverless cars taking place on Milton Keynes’s streets, and as the home of the transport Catapult centre.

Fifty years ago, permission was given to transform 8,500 hectares of villages and farmland into a town of 250,000 people, a new town. Milton Keynes has since become one of the most successful new towns in England. It has already reached its original target of 250,000 people, but it will not stop there. Provided we continue to follow Milton Keynes’s motto, “By knowledge, design and understanding”, which my hon. Friend cited, the future is bright.

Milton Keynes’s future will be as exciting as its past has been. In March 2016, the then Chancellor asked the National Infrastructure Commission to lead an inquiry into the potential of the arc from Oxford through Milton Keynes to Cambridge, as highlighted by my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith). That corridor would support the already flourishing knowledge-intensive industries that exist in the area. The commission’s interim report was published last autumn, confirming the opportunity for prosperity and a high quality of life in the area.

My hon. Friend mentioned the commission that recently produced “MK Futures 2050”, which was chaired by Sir Peter Gregson. It worked with local partners to shape an ambitious vision and plan for Milton Keynes’s future. The plan seeks to drive growth and prosperity for Milton Keynes’s existing and future residents. The council is reflecting on how to bring the recommendations to life to the advantage of the city and its residents.

I am delighted that Milton Keynes remains a centre for growth. The Government have made it clear that an important part of their intention will be to increase housing supply for the next generation. We absolutely recognise that that needs to be done in a way that works for everyone and with the support of local residents. One of the ways in which the Government are doing that is by making significant changes. For example, planning policy has been radically streamlined and the planning system is now faster and more efficient, and we have given local people a much bigger say over new development in their area. Milton Keynes has a lot to offer in helping us to improve our systems and to ensure effective delivery, and it would not be right for the Government to do things alone.

The Government’s ambition is to work with all players—local authorities, residents and developers—to cement strong partnerships with clear roles and responsibilities in order to deliver more homes. It is important that we look at the lessons of the past. Milton Keynes has developed collaboratively and has a strong community base and mixed architecture to provide a city for the present and the future. We want more co-operation and shared intentions, so that local partners work more strategically with their neighbours to ensure that together they can meet the housing and community needs of their combined areas.

Milton Keynes is perhaps the pre-eminent example of what can be achieved by a development corporation with strong local leadership and a clear sense of purpose. Many students at school and university today will be studying the success of the city. My hon. Friend and I are, rightly, both very proud of that.

The “MK Futures 2050” report proposed six big new projects for Milton Keynes, the first of which was to be the hub of the Cambridge-Milton Keynes-Oxford arc, which we have already touched on, and to realise the arc’s full economic potential as a single knowledge-intensive cluster. Secondly, MK:IT, which my hon. Friend also touched on, will provide lifelong learning opportunities at a new university to promote research, teaching and practice, and realistic solutions to the problems facing fast-growing cities everywhere. Thirdly, “Learning 2050” could ensure that the city provides, and is known for providing, world-class education for all its young people. Fourthly, by harnessing the flexibility of the city’s roads, the “Smart, shared, sustainable mobility” project will allow everyone who lives, works, studies or does business in the city to move freely and on demand. Milton Keynes is very much a city built for the car. Fifthly, the “Renaissance” project in central Milton Keynes will recreate a city centre fit for the 21st century. Finally, the “Creative and cultured city” project will harness the energy and motivation of the city’s people.

As well as a growing population, strong economic growth is critical to the future success of our communities. My hon. Friend and I have both consistently argued that “i before e”—or “infrastructure before expansion”—and economic growth should be the drivers for our local growth in Milton Keynes. Just this week, the Prime Minister launched our industrial strategy Green Paper, which sets out our approach to developing a modern industrial strategy that improves living standards and economic growth by increasing productivity and driving growth across the whole country. We aim to establish an industrial policy for the long term and provide a policy framework against which major public and private sector investment decisions can be made with confidence, ensuring that our country’s success is accessible to everyone.

Having published our Green Paper, the Government want to hear from every part of the country, every sector of industry, businesses of every size, and the people who work in and use them. Milton Keynes can already celebrate successful businesses, including manufacturers such as the Coca-Cola Company and WD-40. The recipe for the latter is known by only six people. Milton Keynes is also the centre of the motor industry. The headquarters of Mercedes and Volkswagen are there, and much of the motor racing industry, including great racing teams such as Red Bull, is based in the city. There are many other businesses in the area, and long may that continue. I therefore ask everyone, both in Milton Keynes and beyond, to engage in this extremely important debate.

Significant investment is already being made to support growth across the country. More than £200 million of the local growth fund has been prioritised to date to support growth across the south-east midlands, and the Government expect to announce further investment in the area through the local growth fund shortly. Projects such as Bletchley station and the A421 improvements have also been supported by that fund. As a runner for European city of culture 2023—I am sure my hon. Friend and I would both very much like that to happen—the city is working with the local enterprise partnership to extend the wonderful MK Gallery, which he mentioned.

In autumn 2016, the National Infrastructure Commission published its interim report about the Oxford, Milton Keynes and Cambridge corridor. Its core finding was that housing supply is the main constraint on maximising the corridor’s growth potential. The Government supported all the recommendations in the report and announced £137 million of additional or accelerated funding to ensure the delivery of the east-west rail project and the Oxford to Cambridge expressway road. The Government are now working with partners across the corridor to ensure that the ambitions in the commission’s report are achieved with the most effective solutions. It is vital that all partners work collaboratively to secure the best future for the area.

In closing, I will touch on some of my hon. Friend’s remarks. Those who are unaware of Milton Keynes probably perceive it as simply a modern city. That is simply not the case. Some 75% of the borough of Milton Keynes is actually rural, and some 30,000 residents live in those rural areas, mainly in my constituency of Milton Keynes North. There is enormous heritage there, not only in the corner towns that my hon. Friend mentioned—Wolverton, Newport Pagnell, Bletchley and Stony Stratford—and my own home town of Olney, which was home to the original pancake race in 1415 and is the former home of William Cowper, the famous poet, and John Newton, the abolitionist and author of “Amazing Grace”, but in other great towns such as Hanslope, where the Church of St James has the tallest spire in Buckinghamshire, Castlethorpe, Emberton Park and Moulsoe, to name just a few. The great county town of Newport Pagnell, which was so key in the civil war, was of course the home of George Walters, one of our great residents, who won his Victoria Cross in the Crimean war.

As we celebrate 50 years of Milton Keynes and look forward to a bright future, it is worth remembering that there is tremendous heritage in the area, too. I congratulate my hon. Friend once again on securing this timely debate.

Question put and agreed to.