Milton Keynes doesn't just lack a soul. It also has no heart.
Something strange is going on. The London media, as everyone knows, is obsessed with London. To them, London is England, Britain; north of Watford may as well be marked on the map with "here be monsters". The actual north is another country; Scotland is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. And to be fair, you can understand their obsession: London is a whole series of cities contained within the M25 car park, a constantly undulating mass you can travel around quickly and easily on some of the best public transport in the world. Almost everything you could possibly want is within reach and almost anything you could want to buy can be purchased swiftly. Sure, you now practically have to be a millionaire to own your home, everyone must get tired at some point of living in a concrete jungle, and if you're down on your luck it must be one of the hardest places in the country to eke out an existence, but for the most part the positives outweigh the negatives.
Why then are journalists suddenly paying attention to Milton Keynes? Recently there was a Newsnight segment dedicated to the "city" (MK is not technically designated a city, and doesn't deserve to be one) being a hidden gem, while in today's Guardian Patrick Barkham eulogises at length on the city's development, the supposed threats to this wonderland of grid roads, open spaces and apparent boundless potential. Apart from house prices for the time at least remaining well below what they are in London, the answer is even more cynical than that. For Milton Keynes is London, just with everything good about the capital and therefore viewed as a downside to your average London journo hacked away.
To start with, Patrick Barkham doesn't even tell the story of MK right. Milton Keynes did not suddenly spring out of nowhere into existence via the development corporation; the "city" itself takes its name from a village that's still there, not that a hack would ever find it as it's a fair distance away from the gleaming centre. Milton Keynes was in fact built around a number of villages and small towns that have a long history in their own right, the most notable being Wolverton, Stony Stratford, Bletchley and Newport Pagnell. As Barkham writes, the development corporation did have some damn good ideas: the grid system does for the most part result in a town that rarely gets snarled up outside of rush hour, travel by car once you're used to the place is quick and simple, and it would be pointless to deny that the town, viewed from the car window, looks clean, pretty and welcoming, such is the way the various housing estates were all kept separate from each other.
Which is also the town's greatest downfall. No, of course Milton Keynes doesn't have a soul, but a far better way to describe it is as atomised. The separation of the various housing developments ensures that there is no wider sense of community in the town. The fact that you don't need to travel through different estates to get to where you want unless you have to results in a city that is little more than a collection of villages. People come in, they go to work, go to one of the larger supermarkets disconnected from the estates to shop, perhaps go up to what locals call the "city", meaning Central Milton Keynes on the weekend, and that's it. Few of these estates have pubs, although some have restaurants and most takeaways; if you want a drink or to experience what little local colour is on offer, you'll have to go to one of the places mentioned above.
By the same token, these estates vary hugely in terms of socio-economic background. Barkham mentions Shenley Church End, which is one of the better off areas of the town; Netherfield, also mentioned, is by contrast one of the most deprived. By virtue of the planning of the town, these areas are effectively closed off to outside eyes, so you'll never see how rundown certain areas have become, nor will you see for instance the gated communities that have also sprung up, like the couple opposite the National Badminton Centre in Loughton. This is perfect for those who have the attitude of out of sight, out of mind, which has long prevailed in MK.
If you're a walker or a cyclist, then yes, you will be exposed to these places, and as Barkham writes, the grid system was designed with pedestrians and bikes considered, with underpasses and the "redways" easily accessible. Except hardly anyone uses them, for the reason that MK principally was made for the car. Even on a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon you can walk along the redways for miles and rarely see another soul. The lakes that are dotted around, like Willen and Caldecotte are much more popular, it's true, and yet still hardly ever full to bursting except in high summer. Barkham at least admits that public transport isn't great, which is about right: it's not terrible, but is expensive and irregular away from the main routes served.
This might all be sounding great to your average Londoner so far, as long as they can drive. Atomised, disparate, soulless, but affordable, right? Up to a point, yes. But what about culture? Milton Keynes is the place culture forgot. It wasn't until around the turn of the century that we got a theatre. Fancy Shakespeare, a comedian, the odd serious minded play? Well, we've got Shrek the Musical for you, or Hairspray. Arthouse cinema? Sorry, no. We might have had the first ten screen multiplex in the country, with the site soon to be demolished, a brand new Odeon, and a World of Cine, but anything other than blockbuster fare? No chance. How about any sort of nightlife? Sure, we're now in the era of Tinder and Netflix and chill, where gentrification is closing down more and more London clubs but at least there's still a few. Here, in a "city" of over a quarter of a million people? Again, you'll have to go to the one of the above mentioned towns. Roughly two pubs in the entire town play host to bands of even the slightest note, but you like Yates's and Wetherspoons' right? Loads of those up the city at least. No clubs though, sorry. We do have the Stables, Cleo Laine's place out at Wavendon, which is great if you like that sort of thing, but that's about all you're getting. You'll need to go to Northampton to find any sort of bustle.
It does then amaze when people like Linda Inoki (I predictably had never heard of Inoki, Theo Chalmers or their campaign groups until I saw Barkham's piece. Clearly doing good work) describe Milton Keynes as having "phenomenal character". MK has no character. Yes, there's something to be said for the way the city was planned out, for the shopping centre itself, if not for what is actually inside it, but to try and claim that MK has a distinctive character through having none whatsoever is pushing it.
Pete Winkleman, who everyone in MK has heard of and anyone with any sense detests, is the personification of everything wrong with the place. Uprooting Wimbledon and implanting it in MK was simply the most crass and brazen of the attempts to give the town something to base itself around. Never previously had there been a main MK football team for the reason, again, that everyone was far more attached to their local estate, town or village side. They were never going to get anywhere but no one cared. We were more than happy to support Northampton, or choose a club from elsewhere when it came to the leagues proper. It would be churlish to deny MK Dons do have a following, as they do, but only from a minority.
Just as the city itself has a few noisy supporters who are finally getting noticed by the London media. Yes, Milton Keynes is great if you want a quiet family life. If you're 18 to 40 though, like culture of even the most vaguely alternative variety, don't especially want to drive and aren't comfortably off, it's little short of hell. Barkham and the other gawpers are more than welcome to swap places with me.
Until then, it would be nice if hacks bothered to scratch even slightly at MK's glossy veneer. Had Barkham so much as walked slightly further down "CMK’s broad boulevards", he would have discovered that in the underpasses now live a number of homeless men and women. Not even during the peak of homelessness in the 90s was Milton Keynes unable to put a roof over everyone's head. It has such a problem now.