Milton Keynes: How the built environment affects the way we think about immigration

The 17th stop for the National Conversation was Milton Keynes, a town celebrating its 50th birthday this year; once a quiet Buckinghamshire village the Milton Keynes we see today was developed as a purpose built town to ease the overspill of London. As a new town, Milton Keynes has been built on migration. As a stakeholder told us “everyone in Milton Keynes has come from somewhere else”, and around 500-1,000 international migrants move into the town each year. Its growing population is far younger than many other areas of the UK; 23% of the population are under 16 and rates of employment are high for those of working age.

Planned as a realisation of garden city idealism, the town’s modernist layout consists of a number of “gridsquares”, housing estates constructed around local centres, connected through a series of linear roads inspired by American highway systems. The town is now home to around 260,000 people, who praise the town for its green spaces and public art, “an open, diverse city which we should be proud of.” 

It’s long been known that well-designed towns and neighbourhoods can make a difference to how we live together, helping social cohesion by providing spaces where people meet their neighbours and develop a shared pride in the place where they live. Shared public spaces like parks and gardens encourage mixing across social divides, while segregated places can create anxiety and fear about different social groups. The distinct urban design of Milton Keynes offers an interesting example.

So far the National Conversation has heard about how the places around us influence the way we see our communities and how newcomers are perceived to integrate. In Southampton, a large area of densely populated urban sprawl, panel members were concerned about rapid population growth and overcrowding on “such a small island”. In Newcastle-Under-Lyme, a town that makes up the North Staffordshire Potteries, there was a sense that a lack of a geographic centre and limited public transportation offers few opportunities to interact with those you would not normally encounter and so poses barriers to integration and made some migrant groups invisible.

The citizens’ panel in Milton Keynes felt positively about their local areas, and that their communities were well integrated; many felt that the distinct gridsquare estates fostered a sense of belonging. We were told, “the way Milton Keynes is set up- you can know everyone in one area… it’s fantastic to live in”. While there were concerns about the closure of community centres and a lack of funding for local festivals, people explained how each gridsquare used a Facebook group to organise community events and bring people together; “get the bouncy castle out, the Asian families bring their food, you bring yours. You speak to people from all over the world”. The panel agreed that receiving communities have a key role to play on integration and could still do more to learn more about each other.

At the same time, the grid system lends itself to exaggerating socioeconomic divisions. Stakeholders explained how the difference between estates meant some were being left behind. The road system means that Milton Keynes is almost impossible to navigate without a car and stakeholders felt that this limited social interaction between different groups: “it’s easy to miss driving through in your BMW… you can hide poverty behind lovely trees”. Affordable housing was seen as a real issue in the area and new migrants tend to move into poorer areas, where some, including resettled Syrian families, had faced tensions.

The citizens’ panel agreed that Milton Keynes felt divided between areas. One person told us, “Milton Keynes is like anywhere else. You have nasty places to live and you have nice places to live”. Neighbourhood decline associated with rapid migration has consistently come up as a public concern in our conversations. Populations with high turnover living in poor quality, overcrowded housing leads to concerns about rubbish on the street, anti-social behaviour and street drinking directly linked to migrants, most often associated with low skilled EU migrants or asylum seekers housed through dispersal systems. Polish lager bottles on the streets of Milton Keynes and local press stories of Eastern European gangs had led to security concerns about migration on the citizens’ panel.

It is clear that the built environment affects the ways that people interact and integrate, yet the planners and designers have often been left out of the integration debate. We can’t turn the clock back and redesign our towns and cities. But councils need to make sure that existing public space is safe and attractive; litter and anti-social behaviour limit integration.  Central and local government, working with developers should make that new housing developments have an infrastructure that promotes social contact. The National Conversation will attempt to understand more about local community relations and the factors influencing integration as it continues its journey across the UK.

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