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Milton Keynes: Making a Great City Greater

It is unusual to see unanimous cross party consensus in the council chamber supported by the wholehearted endorsement of the voluntary and community sector. It is particularly unusual for that consensus to be built around a future scenario that includes substantial economic and housing growth. But that is what happened during the debate on the 20th July on the recommendations of the Milton Keynes 2050 Futures Commission report: Milton Keynes – making a Great City Greater.

Cynthia Griffin, Si’s MD reflects on what has made the findings in the report so compelling and Si’s involvement in the process.

The Milton Keynes 2050 Commission was established last year by Milton Keynes Council under the Chairmanship of Sir Peter Gregson. It included senior representatives from organisations whose business is the future of cities, local businessmen including a young digital entrepreneur as well as Pete Winkelman the Chairman of MK Dons, and worked closely with but independently of the council.

The starting point for the Commission was to run a ‘campaign’ to capture the views of local people on the strengths and weaknesses of the city and how it needs to evolve, simply expressed as “What makes Milton Keynes great – and how could it be greater?”. And it was a proactive campaign designed to reach those who don’t normally participate in consultations. Milton Keynes evokes a lot of passion – as a ‘new town’ residents either love or well love its green infrastructure and grid roads and rural villages – but freely admit that it doesn’t work for everyone and is losing its young people to a different form of city living elsewhere.

The commission received views from 5, 600 conversations, 600 individual discussions and numerous events so all of the discussions it had were informed by a strong sense of local ambition. And MK is a town with a history of big people with big ambitions. The Fred Roche foundation, named after the General Manager of the original Development Corporation, has a quote on its website from Daniel Hudson Burnham ‘Make no small plans; they have no power to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realised’. This became the ethos of the debate.

Focusing on 2050 was a pivotal decision. That longer timescale made the impossible possible – an ability to discuss what needed to happen without being bounded in the problems of today. But to do that needed process – and using the key drivers of change in a future scenarios approach enabled the Commissioners to focus on what would happen if MK solved its transport and skills challenges and the most likely outcomes if it did not.

But opinion is not enough and the Commission wanted its discussions to be rooted in an evidence base. Si was commissioned to produce 7 out of 19 working papers: a resilient local economy, housing, Infrastructure and investment, transport, a low carbon city (with the LDA), Learning 2050 and Milton Keynes in its sub- region.

These papers looked at international and national drivers of change, the local context in MK and highlighted issues for the commissioners to debate. They are available on the website.  I was present at all of those debates and can testify to the thoroughness of the scrutiny and the development of ideas that evolved from those discussions. We all produced a number of iterations of the papers. Issues were examined from a number of angles. It wasn’t plain sailing but it was effective as a means of ensuring everyone started in the same place and brought their particular skills and expertise to bear on identifying the key issues and potential solutions.

And life didn’t stand still. The invitation part way through our process from the National Infrastructure Commission to submit proposals for the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge “knowledge corridor”, meant that whatever the Commission had to say in terms of a new deal with Government it would need to be said quickly and clearly.

Shared Intelligence’s core values are around collaborative working. I put that into practice when I was commissioned to draft the Commission’s report and that process- again of iterative drafts worked up collaboratively with colleagues in the Council and the Commissioners, synthesising the discussion, started to evolve into a clear focus on inclusive growth.  That in turn led to six big inter linked transformational projects which taken together could secure a very prosperous future for the city and her citizens. They were lively and robust discussions. Sir Peter Gregson sets a high bar on the quality of analysis and the written word.

That next step from analysis of the possibilities and potential to building blocks for the future is another key feature of the Commissions approach. Two of the projects – Learning 2050 and MK:IT focus on equipping future generation with skills to prosper and making that commitment to learning a salient feature for a future MK with a new style university at its heart.

And Renaissance Central MK sees the densification and development of the CMK area – which is not a conventional town centre but has huge employment and retail prospects. Again Smart, Shared, Sustainable Mobility – a modern solution to evolution of city living opens up those possibilities to those who live in isolated estates whilst making the most of the character and infrastructure of the current city and emergent approaches to mobility as a service. MK was originally founded on its geography and the Oxford-Milton Keynes-Cambridge arc redefines that and builds on new opportunities for growth and housing.  And completing the circle, MK the cultural and creative city, a very strong commitment to people and culture and continuing to build a community reflects back to where the commission started – with a high level of public engagement.

The report concludes with recommendations for the Council and for a ‘New Deal with Government’.

The Commission presented its findings back to the community at a number of events in MK before that debate at full Council.  And it’s not stopped there. Local MP Iain Stewart secured a dedicated Westminster Hall debate on the report and raised it during the second reading of the Higher Education and Research Bill.  As they say in Milton Keynes ….  Make no small plans.

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