In the 1960s, the Government decided that a further generation of new towns in the South East was needed to relieve housing congestion in London, where thousands of people were still living in dilapidated Victorian terraces which lacked many basic amenities.
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, encompassing the existing towns of Bletchley, Stony Stratford and Wolverton. The New Town (informally, "New City") was to be the biggest yet, with a target population of 250,000, in a 'designated area' of . The name "Milton Keynes" was taken from the existing village of Milton Keynes on the site.
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).
The Corporation's strongly modernist designs featured regularly 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 and the intensive planting, lakes and parkland that are so evident today. Central Milton Keynes was not intended to be a traditional town centre but a business and shopping district that supplemented the Local Centres 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 across the city. 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 Californian urban theorist Melvin M Webber (1921-2006), 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 Webber thought that telecommunications meant that the old idea of a city as a concentric cluster was out of date and that cities which enabled people to travel around them readily would be the thing of the future achieving "community without propinquity" for residents. With both car ownership and ever more emphasis on e-commerce, his ideas, launched in the 1960s, have proved far-sighted.
Along with many other towns and boroughs, Milton Keynes competed for formal city status in the 2000 and 2002 competitions, but was not ultimately successful.
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: doing so has provided a unique insight into the history of a large sample of the landscape of south-central England. There is evidence of Iron Age, Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Medieval and Industrial revolution settlements. Collections of oral history covering the 20th century completes a picture that is described in detail at the main article.
When the boundary of Milton Keynes was defined, some 40,000 people lived in three towns and seven villages in the "designated area" of 21,833 acre (88.4 km²).
Since the radical plan form and large scale of Milton Keynes attracted international attention, early phases of the town include work by celebrated architects, including (Sir) Richard MacCormac, (Lord) Norman Foster, Henning Larsen, Ralph Erskine, John Winter, and Martin Richardson. The Corporation itself attracted talented young architects led by the young and charismatic Derek Walker. Though strongly committed to sleek "Miesian" minimalism inspired by the German/ American architect Mies van der Rohe they also developed a strand of contextualism in advance of the wider adoption of commercial Post-Modernism as an architectural style in the 1980s. In the Miesian tradition were the Pineham Sewage Works, which Derek Walker regarded as his finest achievement, and the Shopping Building designed by Stuart Mosscrop and Christopher Woodward, which is widely regarded as the finest twentieth century retail building in Britain (due for major redevelopment in 2007, following the failure of attempts to have it protected as a Listed building). The contextual tradition that ran alongside it is best exemplified by the Corporation's infill scheme at Cofferidge Close, Stony Stratford, designed by Wayland Tunley, which carefully inserts into a historic stretch of High Street a modern retail facility, offices and car park. The Development Corporation also led an ambitious Public art programme.
There is a separate cycleway network (the "redways") that runs through the grid-squares and sometimes runs alongside the grid-road network. This was designed to segregate slow moving cycle and pedestrian traffic from fast moving motor traffic. In practice, it is mainly used for leisure cycling rather than commuting, mainly because the cycle routes include many underpasses beneath the grid-roads and because they take meandering scenic routes rather than straight lines. Despite what appears to be a desirable facility, rates of cycle commuting in Milton Keynes are well below the national average for urban areas. The detailed article includes a critical appraisal.
The original design guidance declared that "no building [be] taller than the tallest tree". However, the Milton Keynes Partnership, in its expansion plans for Milton Keynes, believes that Central Milton Keynes (and elsewhere) needs "landmark buildings" and has recently lifted the height restriction for the area. As a result, 14-storey buildings are now being built in the town centre. Some of the pedestrian underpasses are being closed in order to 'normalise' the townscape of Central Milton Keynes and the character of the area is set to change under government pressure to increase densities of development.
The most recent building under construction is The Pinnacle MK on Midsummer Boulevard. The Pinnacle is the largest office building to be constructed in Milton Keynes in 25 years, it can bee seen in the town's modern skyline in the image above, where the 2 tower cranes are. Construction started in July 2007 and is due to complete in June 2009.
The flood plains of the Great Ouse and of its tributaries (the Ouzel and some brooks) have been protected as linear parks that run right through the town. The Grand Union Canal is another green route (and demonstrates the level geography of the town - there is just one minor lock in its entire 10 mile route through from Fenny Stratford to the "Iron Trunk" Aqueduct over the Ouse at Wolverton. The Milton Keynes redway system of cycleways and footpaths uses these and other routes. The Park system was designed by landscape architect Peter Youngman, who also developed landscape precepts for the whole town: groups of grid squares were to be planted with different selections of trees and shrubs in order to give them distinct identities. However the landscaping of parks and of the grid roads was evolved under the leadership of Neil Higson, who from 1977 took over as Chief Landscape Architect and made the original grand but not entirely practical landscape plan more subtle. A policy of creating "settings, strings, beads" for landscape features was introduced: 'settings' for historic villages and landscape features, 'strings' of landscape to make the linear parks hang together and 'beads' of public space where residents might linger. Higson also made the landscaping of the Grid Roads, one of the glories of Milton Keynes, more subtle, with 'windows' cut into the roadside planting so that motorists travelling through had a sense of the major town they were in; early critics had said of Milton Keynes 'there is no there there', as the town could not be seen by the motorist just passing through. Now that the trees and shrubs have matured, the skill and lavish scale of the Grid Road planting makes a dramatic and welcome change from the monotony of many British towns.
As might be anticipated, these plans are controversial – especially as planning control has again been removed from elected local authorities and placed in the hands of a central government-appointed body. Changes to Central Milton Keynes have been especially controversial and include the redevelopment of the shopping building, the finest monument of the "new city".
Milton Keynes is at the centre of the South Midlands area identified by the government for growth.
The open air National Bowl is a 65,000 capacity venue for large scale concerts. It is situated off the A5 near Furzton.
The 1,400 seat Milton Keynes Theatre (Blonski-Heard) opened in 1999. Its high booking rate allows it to lay claim to the title "Britain's most popular theatre". The theatre has an unusual feature: the ceiling can be lowered closing off the third tier (gallery) to create a more intimate space for smaller scale productions. There are further performance spaces in Bletchley, Wolverton, Leadenhall, Shenley Church End, Stantonbury and Walton Hall.
The municipal (art) gallery (Milton Keynes Gallery, next to the main theatre) hosts various exhibitions.
In Wavendon, on the southeast edge of the town, The Stables provides a venue for jazz, blues, folk, rock, classical, pop and world music. It is closely associated with jazz artists Cleo Laine and John Dankworth. The venue also hosts an annual summer camp for young musicians.
There are two museums, the Bletchley Park museum of wartime cryptography, and the Milton Keynes Museum, which includes the Stacey Hill Collection of rural life that existed before the foundation of the new town.
In the early-1990s a purpose built Polytechnic was opened at Kents Hill in Milton Keynes, opposite the Open University's Walton Hall site. At around the time the existing Polytechnics converted to Universities, "MK Poly" merged with the former Leicester Polytechnic, De Montfort University and the site was rebranded the DMU MK site. However in recent years, DMU closed the MK site and the Open University has expanded to take over the buildings.
Milton Keynes Council has identified the lack of a conventional local university as a problem. As an attempt to rectify this situation, a consortium of surrounding universities including De Montfort and Northampton, plus the Open University and Milton Keynes College have formed Universities for Milton Keynes.
Like many parts of the UK, the state secondary schools in Milton Keynes are Comprehensive schools, although schools in the rest of Buckinghamshire still use the Tripartite System. Results are above the national average, though below that of the rest of Buckinghamshire – but the demography of Milton Keynes is also far closer to the national average than is the latter. However 3 of the schools in Milton Keynes (Sir Frank Markham Community School, Leon School and Sports College and The Radcliffe School) were amongst the worse 190 schools in England for GCSE results.
For television, the area is in the overlap between the Oxford and the Sandy transmitters and so receives BBC South and BBC East, and ITV Central and Anglia. Signal quality is weak in many areas due to distance and "terrain shadow". It was for this reason among others that Milton Keynes has one of the first Cable TV networks in the UK. However, the cable network is now ageing and in need of modernisation to cope with the imminent digital TV switchover due by 2012; many residents have already opted for roof-top aerials and satellite dishes.
Senior football was a relatively late arrival in Milton Keynes. There had been several non-league teams based in the area over the years, but it wasn't until the late 1990s that it looked as though Milton Keynes would have a senior side. Local Businessman Pete Winkelman approached several clubs in and near London about a move to Milton Keynes, as it was by now the largest town or city in England to be without a professional club. He got his wish in May 2002 when Wimbledon FC were given permission to relocate to Milton Keynes - 62 miles away from their home borough of Merton. Wimbledon moved into the National Hockey Stadium in September 2003 as a temporary home until a new, larger stadium could be built. A year later, Wimbledon FC became Milton Keynes Dons, and three years after that they moved into a new 22,000-seat in the Denbigh district of south Milton Keynes. They hope to have a 32,000 capacity by 2009.
As a key element of the "New City" vision, Milton Keynes has a purpose built centre, with a very large "covered high street" shopping centre, theatre, art gallery, two multiplex cinemas, hotels, business district, ecumenical church, Borough Council offices and central railway station.
Bletchley was first recorded in the 12th century as Blechelai. Its station was a major Victorian junction (the London and North Western Railway with the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity Line), leading to the substantial urban growth in the town in that period. It expanded to absorb the villages of Water Eaton and Fenny Stratford.
Bletchley Park was home to the Government Code and Cypher School during the Second World War. The famous Enigma code was cracked here, and the building housed what was arguably the world's first programmable computer, Colossus. The house is now a museum of war memorabilia, cryptography and computing.
The Benedictine Priory of Bradwell Abbey at Bradwell was of major economic importance in this area of north Buckinghamshire before the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The routes of the medieval trackways (many of which are now Redways or bridleways) converge on the site from some distance. Nowadays there is only a small medieval chapel and a manor house occupying the site.
New Bradwell, to the north of the medieval Bradwell (Abbey) and just across the canal and the railway to the east of Wolverton, was built specifically for railway workers. It has a working windmill. The level bed of the old railway from Newport Pagnell to Wolverton ends here and has been converted to a Redway, making it a favourite route for cycling.
Great Linford appears in the Domesday Book as Linforde, and features a church dedicated to Saint Andrew, dating from 1215. Today, the outer buildings of the 17th century manor house form an Arts Centre, and Linford Manor is a prestigious recording studio.
Milton Keynes Village is the original village to which the New "City" owes its name. The original village is still evident, with a pleasant thatched pub, village hall, church and traditional housing. The area around the village has reverted to its original name of Middleton, as shown on old maps of the 1700s. The oldest surviving domestic building in the area, a 14th century manor house, is here.
The tiny Parish Church (1680) at Willen contains the only unaltered building by the architect and physicist Robert Hooke. Nearby, there is a Buddhist Temple and a Peace Pagoda. The district borders the River Ouzel: there is a large balancing lake here, to capture flash floods before they cause problems downstream on the River Great Ouse. The north basin is a wildlife sanctuary and a favourite of migrating aquatic birds. The south basin is for leisure use, favoured by wind surfers and dinghy sailors. The circuit of the lakes is a favoured "fun run".
The original Wolverton was a medieval settlement just north and west of today's town. The Ridge and Furrow pattern of agriculture can still be seen in the nearby fields and the Saxon (rebuilt in 1819) Church of the Holy Trinity still stands next to the Norman Motte and Bailey site. Modern Wolverton was a 19th century New Town built to house the workers at the Wolverton railway works (which built engines and carriages for the London and North Western Railway).
The Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham provides a major axis in the design of Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes is situated on the West Coast Main Line, which served Bletchley railway station and Wolverton railway station before the development of Milton Keynes. These stations are now only served by local services, and the Milton Keynes Central station has been developed between these and serves the town centre. The Marston Vale Line branches from the WCML at Bletchley, and has two stations : Fenny Stratford railway station and Bow Brickhill railway station.
The M1 motorway runs to the east of the town, and is served by junctions 13, 14, and 15A. The A5 road runs through the west of the town. Other main roads include the A509, which links Milton Keynes with Wellingborough and Kettering, and the A421 which goes west to Buckingham and east to Bedford.
Many coaches stop at the Milton Keynes Coachway, beside M1 Junction 14, near a park and ride car park, about 3 miles (5 km) from the centre (3.5 miles from Milton Keynes Central station).
The nearest international airport is London Luton Airport which is accessible by route VT99 from MK Central station, this service runs with wheelchair accessible coaches. There is a direct rail connection to Birmingham International Airport. There is an aerodrome at Cranfield, 6 miles (10 km) from the centre.