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Why policy wonks love Milton Keynes

5 May 2014

5:23 PM

5 May 2014

5:23 PM

How can political parties solve the housing crisis? The vogue a few years ago was to talk about garden cities, although once it became clear that the National Planning Policy Framework had upset a lot of Conservative voters, politicians started to prevaricate over plans for more garden cities, and then eventually published a ‘prospectus’ asking for locally-led ideas.

I spent this morning exploring Milton Keynes, which was a New Town, rather than one of the original garden cities, but which planning policy wonks, including Number 10’s Alex Morton, hold up as an example of a new development built from scratch which has become hugely successful, with high rates of private sector job creation.

People don’t tend to be particularly complimentary about Milton Keynes (often because they haven’t bothered visiting it), but while its planners clearly made efforts to make it greener than most towns, with trees planted down central boulevards, it’s probably fair to say that town planners might not want to repeat all of its architectural choices. But it is a successful New Town, and those who are interested in replicating this large-scale answer to a housing shortage (the New Towns saw the peak of housebuilding in this country), study its success closely, rather than knocking it for the number of roundabouts it has.

I’ve written about how the Conservatives could become the proud party of housebuilding once again in a chapter for Bright Blue’s new book, The Modernisers’ Manifesto, and two of the clear lessons for future developments of new towns or garden cities is that they do need to be locally-supported, rather than plonked in an area where few people recognise the need for more homes, and that nimbyism is often an affliction that people catch when the wrong sort of homes are built: either badly-designed ones or ones that don’t really answer local demand.

Now there are plans afoot again to make self-build a bigger contributor to housebuilding in this country. The problem with self-build is that most people in England associate it with Kevin McCloud standing outside an expensive glass palace in a Scottish forest, stroking his chin as a well-off couple try to manage their own project.

It’s not treated in the same way in other countries: in Germany, France and Italy 60 per cent of new builds are self-build. These self-build homes could, if ministers managed to distract us from clever glass constructions in Scottish forests and convince us that they’re a sensible way of local people getting the homes that they really want built in their area, become an important element in solving the housing crisis.

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