2 April 2024

Nimby Watch: Milton Keynes’ non-existent green belt


In a new series, CapX is celebrating the way our planning system tries its very best to save the country from affordable housing or decent infrastructure. This week, the case of proposed housing in Milton Keynes… 

Where? Milton Keynes.

What are they planning to build there? More Milton Keynes! According to the council’s latest bodice-ripping pageturner, ‘MK New City Plan: Emerging Growth Options’, the city is exploring options for where to build up to (wait for it) 63,000 new homes. Potentially another 15,500 in the excitingly named Central Milton Keynes; up to a thousand apiece in Bletchley, Olney and various other outlying settlements from which the New Town was formed; and as many as 12,000 in a new ‘new town’ on the existing new town’s northern fringe. All this would increase the size of the city, currently 118,000 households, by as much as 50% by 2050. Hold me

Okay, that does sound like a lot. This is literally, to be fair, what the place is for. An area of rural Northern Buckinghamshire between Bletchley, Wolverton, and Stony Stratford, was chosen as the site of one of the Government’s third and final wave of ‘new towns’ in 1967, with a population target of 250,000. Milton Keynes actually passed that around 2013, but the Government is now talking of it doubling. And little wonder: for all the jokes, Milton Keynes has great transport links, was blessed with official city status in 2022, and may be the only city in Britain where housing remains affordable even though its residents are quite well paid. The enthusiasm for exceeding its housing targets may not be a coincidence.

Oh, well. No wonder people want to build more of it. But not – sit down, this may come as a shock – all people. The latest plan has received outraged write-ups in the local paper, the MK Citizen, plus the Express and the Mail – the latter of which, delightfully, included an email address and a note that anyone who had objections to development plans in their area was encouraged to write in.

Well it’s important that we protect the ancient rural character of Milton Keynes. You joke, but the Mail did refer to ‘picturesque villages’ and tracked down a ‘fifth generation blacksmith’: that, by my count, must make him at least the fourth generation of his family to be furious about the entire existence of Milton Keynes. 

Actually, the write-up – which claims, wrongly, to be an exclusive – plays all the hits. Some sample quotes from locals: ‘People have got to live somewhere, but it is not good for us’. Oh really, how original. ‘There can’t be a new town with no infrastructure’. There can’t, but there will be infrastructure, it’s in the plan. ‘We don’t want new houses spoiling the green belt’.

Hang on, Milton Keynes doesn’t have a green belt. Well-spotted. This misuse of the term is at least partly because many people have forgotten that ‘green belt’ doesn’t just mean ‘fields next to cities’, it refers to a specific land use designation within the planning system. But there may also be another reason, too. The city council, which proposed the plan, is run by a Labour/LibDem coalition; the stories of urban sprawl panic, meanwhile, extensively quote Ben Everitt, who just so happens to the Tory MP for Milton Keynes North. He, just last month, tweeted a promise to ‘fight any proposals for yet more reckless over-expansion into our rural areas by MK Labour’.

Ah, so it’s the usual partisanship, is it? On steroids. Labour’s Peter Marland, the council leader, is quoted in the Mail as saying ‘there has been a lot of upset caused by some local politicians using this as a campaign item’. Whoever could he mean? While local Labour operatives claim to have seen Tory leaflets which promise to protect that non-existent green belt. Worth noting, too, that the plan doesn’t commit to building 63,000 homes at all: the actual target is just 50,000. This is just a list of all the places they might build.

All this seems unlikely to save Everitt – Electoral Calculus gives him just a 5% chance of retaining his seat – but it’s worth noting that he’s not just any MP who opposes his own party’s national position for narrow electoral reasons locally. He’s an MP who opposes his own party’s national position for narrow electoral reasons locally while also being chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on ‘Housing Market and Housing Delivery’. This exists, among other reasons, ‘to promote the importance of the delivery of new homes across all tenures’.

You mean he wants to build houses – just, not in his backyard? I have no objections to Nimbyism in principle. I just don’t see why they have to do it round here. 

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Jonn Elledge is a journalist and author.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.