Milton Keynes to Milton Friedman

Milton Keynes lies half way between Oxford and Cambridge, and is known to historians driving between the two universities for its succession of roundabouts, its concrete cows grazing beside the road, and huge distribution warehouses.  If they think of history, it is Bletchley Park – the home of the wartime code breakers – that is subsumed in the new town.  They hurry on to their idyllic destination with a sigh of relief that they do not live in this arid and soulless dystopia.  But as Guy Ortolano shows in his outstanding book, Thatcher’s Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism through an English New Town (Cambridge Uniiversity Press, 2019) they should pause and reflect on what the development of Milton Keynes shows about wider political process in late twentieth century Britain.

Mrs Thatcher herself visited on 25 September 1979 to open Europe’s largest shopping center.  After lunch, Denis Thatcher gestured to the center and remarked “Isn’t it wonderful what the private sector can do?” (Ortolano 253) – a muddle-headed response to an impressive state-funded, publicly managed development.  Soon, the Thatcher government started to sell off council housing, to privatise public utilities, and to transfer public land to the private sector.  Milton Keynes was no exception.  Brett Christophers notes that about 18,000 acres was acquired for the construction of the new town and much of it was returned to private ownership through the government’s ‘right to buy’ public housing at a discount of up to 30 per cent.  Social democracy was turned into market liberalism.

The initial idea for a new town in Buckinghamshire came from the county council and its planning officer, Fred Pooley.  His vision of North Bucks New City was a new town for affluence, the motor car and modernity, with a free monorail system linking fifty or so neighbourhoods of 5-7,000 to central shops and leisure facilities.  The ‘monorail metropolis’ would be planned for the motor car without allowing the car to destroy the city, and looked to Disneyland and Wuppertal.  Pooley’s plans were accepted by Conservative-controlled Buckinghamshire County Council in 1964 which bought into a social democratic vision that was both inspired by and influenced international thinking.  Pooley wanted to show that Britain, far from declining, could still lead the world.  But his vision collided with the new Labour government elected in 1964.

Other new towns were the creatures of the central government and autocratic development corporations whose budget and membership were set in London – and the permanent secretary of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, the imperious Evelyn Sharp, had no intention of allowing any exception.  The great thing about development corporations, she insisted, was that ‘they can get on with their job without consulting public opinion’. (Ortolano 60).   In 1967, control passed to a development corporation chaired by a socialist businessman, Jock Campbell,  whose family fortunes came from sugar plantations in British Guiana – a different, indication of global reach.  Campbell realised his fortune had been based on slavery, indentured labour and exploitation, and he aimed to redeem himself by a commitment to people over profits both in the empire and at home.  The welfare state replaced the empire – and he was not alone, for ten general managers of new towns had been colonial officials.  Campbell was joined by the planner Richard Llewellyn-Davies who sat on the Labour benches in the House of Lords and whose family was part of the ‘intellectual aristocracy’.  Rather than Pooley’s vision of Brasilia in Buckinghamshire, Llewellyn-Davies’s vision was mini-Los Angeles – a motor city based on dispersal, mobility and open-ended planning or ‘indeterminate architecture’ of system of grids, roundabouts and parks that could be expanded in a flexible manner.   His vision owed much to the Berkeley futurologist Melvin Webber who argued that urbanism must change in response to the rise in services, education, knowledge and affluence.  Webber stressed that urban forms should be based on indeterminacy and networks, on ‘community without propinquity’.  The planning of Milton Keynes was inspired by international thinking, and Llewellyn-Davies then took an international role for nationalised Britain.  He opened an office in New York in 1967 and expanded into the middle east, above all in re-planning Tehran.  And in Milton Keynes, the Development Corporation recruited modernist architects such as Norman Foster to build in ‘welfare state modernism’ of non-traditional materials and flat roofs, free from the constraints of the market.

This social democratic vision gave way to market liberalism that is captured in the shift from about 75 per cent to 25 per cent of housing being in the public sector.    Ortolano shows the change was carried through by social democrats who did not necessarily change their minds but had to adjust their behaviour.  Funding cuts after the IMF crisis of 1976 forced the Development Corporation to look for new ways of securing revenue – including creating a consultancy to advise on new towns in Saudi Arabia and Nigeria.  Social democracy did not die; it remained dynamic in its response to market liberalism until, in the end, it internalised the priorities of market liberalism.  The only way to continue the social democratic ambition was to encourage owner occupiers to come to Milton Keynes – and the only way to ensure the would-be purchasers had access to loans was to drop ‘welfare state modernism’ in 1981 for traditional, saleable housing acceptable to lenders and would-be purchasers.  Architectural style reflected market liberalism, as the Development Corporation struggled to show success in the new metric of owner occupation.  Social democrats struggled to succeed in the new world of Thatcherism and ‘the logic of survival transformed Milton Keynes into an avatar of market liberalism’ (0rtolano 200).

Ortalano’s book has wide implications for Britain’s post-imperial history as it struggled to find a new international role, for changes in urban form and architecture, for notions of community and affluence.  It is a pleasure to read.  Brett Chrisophers book on The New Enclosure: The Appropriation of Public Land in Neoliberal Britain (Verso, 2018) is more tightly defined and more engaged (even enraged).  He shows that it was not only the public land of Milton Keynes that was sold – other land owned by public bodies from the Ministry of Defence to National Health Service changed hands.  Although precise estimates are difficult to produce, Christophers plausibly suggests that public landownership after the Second Word War was around 12-14 per cent of the land of the United Kingdom which expanded to about 20 per cent – mainly as a result of purchases for social housing – by the time Mrs Thatcher assumed office.  Since then, about 10 per cent has been transferred to private hands (Christophers, 96, 117, 248-9).  This ‘new enclosure’ has led to surprisingly little scrutiny and protest, in part because it has been piecemeal, in part because it has reputedly benefitted former tenants of council houses and wider share-ownership in the privatised industries.

Christophers’ analysis lacks the subtlety of Ortolano’s nuanced account of the rise of market liberalism, but his account of the ways in which land has been transferred from public to private ownership since 1979 is compelling.   His concern is not with the transfer of land as the incidental result of privatisation of, say, the National Coal Board or public utilities which accounts for about 20 per cent of the total transfer.  Rather, he focuses on the privatisation of land qua land, and in particular from local authorities which accounted for around 60 per cent of the transfer, much of it through the sale of council houses.   The case for privatisation of land was that the public sector had a surplus of land which was used inefficiently, and that if it were transferred to private owners, they would build more housing and encourage economic growth.     Christophers shows that these propositions were not tested against land use by private owners, or by different criteria of social use than profit.  Many councils did not wish to sell, or public owners might prefer to transfer land between themselves to meet the demand for new hospitals or schools or housing.  Christophers convincingly shows how the central government closed down options by setting space utilization targets, creating registers to identity ‘surplus’ land, devising accountancy methods that gave public land a market value that prioritised sale, and then introducing constrains and incentives that made sale to private owners virtually certain.

The transfer has not had the promised desirable consequences of additional housing or growth.  In Milton Keynes, 71 per cent of council apartments sold to tenants passed to private landlords, the highest rate in the country – and tenants of private owners receive more housing benefit than in the denuded social housing sector.  The state now spends about twenty times as much on housing benefit as it does on building affordable social housing.   The transfer of social housing to tenants did at least provide some benefit to workers: as Massimo Florio showed in The Great Divestiture: Evaluating the Welfare Impact of the British Privatizations 1979-1997 (Cambridge Mass 2004), it was the only privatization with any claim to have a progressive impact on distribution.  He found no evidence that privatization benefited the consumer, workers or the taxpayer; the gains went to shareholders as a result of under-pricing and out-performance (in contrast to most public offerings which are over-priced and then under-perform) and to managers and financiers.    Christophers finds a similar outcome in land transfers which have benefitted large property firms that are hidden behind opaque corporate structures.  By contrast to the pressure on public owners to make their ownership transparent, the ownership of private land can only be discovered by assiduous investigative journalism such as Guy Shrubsole in Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Green and Pleasant Land and How to Take it Back (2019).

Christopher is writing in the tradition of great historians such as R H Tawney and E P Thompson on the seizure of monastic land and the enclosure of the common fields  – something for our historian to contemplate as she navigates the roundabouts in Milton Keynes.   And she should no deride the cows as she proceeds between the two universities.  The Development Corporation aimed to build community as newcomers arrived, above all from inner London.  The social development department met new arrivals with a cup of tea and a friendly face, and also embarked on ‘animation’.  In 1977, Jack Trevor arrived as the first creative writer in residence, and animated the scene by suggesting the town need a creative psychiatrist, and that his aim was ‘to corrupt students’ so that imaginative four-year olds were not turned by the educational system into ‘pricks’.  (Ortolano 167).  Less abrasive was his neighbor Liz Leyh, the first artist-in-residence who arrived from New York.  Children joined her in animating the new town with a huge giraffe, an installation inspired by the Wizard of Oz, concrete snowman, hippopotamuses, ice-cream cones – and of course, the cows that were her parting gift to the town.  Her aim was ‘to define community arts as the participation of an artist with other people or an art form which enables different people to participate with each other’ (Ortolano 169).   The cows now inspire derision from passing motorists who do not understand the cultural world in which they were created.  Ortolano’s brilliant book allows us not only to grasp that cultural world, but more generally to appreciate how the construction of Milton Keynes illustrates fundamental changes in British society that allowed Dennis Thatcher’s mistake to be taken as truth.