Birth of a 'new city'
It may startle some political economists to talk of commencing the building of new cities ... planned as cities from their first foundation, and not mere small towns and villages. ... A time will arrive when something of this sort must be done ... England cannot escape from the alternative of new city building.
T. J. Maslen, 1843
In the 1960s, the UK government decided that a further generation of new towns in the South East of England was needed to relieve housing congestion in London.
Since the 1950s, overspill housing for several London boroughs had been constructed in Bletchley. Further studies in the 1960s identified north Buckinghamshire as a possible site for a large new town, a new city,[c] encompassing the existing towns of Bletchley, Stony Stratford and Wolverton. The New Town (informally and in planning documents, "New City") was to be the biggest yet, with a target population of 250,000, in a "designated area" of 21,883 acres (8,855.7 ha) The name "Milton Keynes" was taken from that of an existing village on the site.
On 23 January 1967, when the formal new town designation order was made, the area to be developed was largely farmland and undeveloped villages. The site was deliberately located equidistant from London, Birmingham, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge, with the intention that it would be self-sustaining and eventually become a major regional centre in its own right. Planning control was taken from elected local authorities and delegated to the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC). Before construction began, every area was subject to detailed archaeological investigation: doing so has exposed a rich history of human settlement since Neolithic times and has provided a unique insight into the history of a large sample of the landscape of North Buckinghamshire.
The Corporation's strongly modernist designs were regularly featured in the magazines Architectural Design and the Architects' Journal. MKDC was determined to learn from the mistakes made in the earlier New Towns, and revisit the Garden City ideals. They set in place the characteristic grid roads that run between districts ('grid squares'), as well as a programme of intensive planting, balancing lakes and parkland. Central Milton Keynes ("CMK") was not intended to be a traditional town centre but a central business and shopping district to supplement local centres embedded in most of the grid squares. This non-hierarchical devolved city plan was a departure from the English New Towns tradition and envisaged a wide range of industry and diversity of housing styles and tenures. The largest and almost the last of the British New Towns, Milton Keynes has 'stood the test of time far better than most, and has proved flexible and adaptable'. The radical grid plan was inspired by the work of Melvin M. Webber, described by the founding architect of Milton Keynes, Derek Walker, as the "father of the city". Webber thought that telecommunications meant that the old idea of a city as a concentric cluster was out of date and that cities which enabled people to travel around them readily would be the thing of the future achieving "community without propinquity" for residents.
The government wound up MKDC in 1992, 25 years after the new town was founded, transferring control to the Commission for New Towns (CNT) and then finally to English Partnerships, with the planning function returning to local council control (since 1974 and the Local Government Act 1972, the Borough of Milton Keynes). From 2004–2011 a Government quango, the Milton Keynes Partnership, had development control powers to accelerate the growth of Milton Keynes.
Along with many other towns and boroughs, Milton Keynes competed (unsuccessfully) for formal city status in the 2000, 2002 and 2012 competitions.
The area that was to become Milton Keynes encompassed a landscape that has a rich historic legacy. The area to be developed was largely farmland and undeveloped villages, but with evidence of permanent settlement dating back to the Bronze Age. Before construction began, every area was subject to detailed archaeological investigation: this work has provided an unprecedented[d] insight into the history of a very large sample of the landscape of south-central England. There is evidence of Stone Age, late Bronze Age/early Iron Age, Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Medieval, and late Industrial Revolution settlements such as the railway towns of Wolverton (with its railway works) and Bletchley (at the junction of the London and North Western Railway with the Oxford–Cambridge Varsity Line). The most notable archaeological artefact was the Milton Keynes Hoard, which the British Museum described as 'one of the biggest concentrations of Bronze Age gold known from Britain and seems to flaunt wealth.'
Bletchley Park, the site of World War II Allied code-breaking and Colossus, the world's first programmable electronic digital computer, is a major component of MK's modern history. It is now a flourishing heritage attraction, receiving hundreds of thousands of visitors annually.
When the boundary of Milton Keynes was defined in 1967, some 40,000 people lived in three towns and fifteen villages or hamlets in the "designated area".