Sites for Sore Eyes: What’s the Plan for Central Milton Keynes?
Principal Planner, Suzi Green, questions whether there is a long-term vision for Central Milton Keynes in the backdrop of a rapidly changing development context.
Central Milton Keynes (CMK) is the most sustainable location in the Milton Keynes authority area and, as one might expect, it is set to grow significantly over the coming years.
To give them credit, Milton Keynes City Council (MKCC) have been pro-active in creating a vision for the future, long-term growth of Milton Keynes, which the emerging New City Plan will look to turn into policy. However, is too much attention being focused on the expansion of Milton Keynes outwards and what this entails at the expense of ensuring that there is positively planned growth within CMK itself?
Whilst the CMK Business Neighbourhood Plan (made 2015) provides thoughtful planning policies and general parameters for development, this document is in need of an update to reflect the changing development context of CMK and the desire of developers to push the parameters beyond those originally envisaged for the city centre.
The original Milton Keynes Plan vision for CMK is outdated. A new policy framework is required, including a detailed masterplan and supporting strategies (movement, infrastructure, etc.), in order to ensure that there is a joined-up, holistic approach to growth in CMK which reflects a new vision for the city centre.
CMK was originally planned at a relatively low density of around 4-6 storeys. It is now widely accepted that this design approach must change. Recent development proposals (MK Gateway, Bowback House, YMCA, etc.) have accepted this and have set a precedent for tall buildings at higher densities.
Outside of the main shopping centre, CMK was historically dominated by office buildings. However, office to residential conversions under permitted development rights (which MKCC have now put a stop to) have dramatically changed this picture. The majority of new proposals are also residential-led as opposed to commercial (arguably linked to the viability of this land use and market demand) and this trend may continue without appropriate planning controls.
There is also a large amount of office stock which is no longer fit for purpose as modern offices (at a time where ESG credentials are becoming increasingly important to companies). What should be done with these buildings? Often these offices do not make the best use of land and are unviable to refurbish for continued office use, which has contributed to the trend towards office to resi conversion/complete demolition and rebuild. However, there is an environmental impact attached to demolition and some are considered non-designated heritage assets. This has led to an ad hoc mix of disparate uses in certain parts of CMK.
MKCC need to identify the key employment areas that they want to protect, as well as areas where re-development and flexible/mixed uses are supported and the design principles to underpin these new developments. This is not without precedent – view the Central Bletchley Urban Design Framework Supplementary Planning Document here.
Thought needs to be given to infrastructure provision across CMK as a whole in order to ensure that there is a long-term strategy. This should consider areas like connectivity, public open space and community spaces. As the population grows, there may even be the demand for primary/secondary education facilities within the centre itself.
There is an aspiration for a new university “MK:U” (if funding should ever be secured from National Government), but where are these students going to live? Where are the nightclubs, music and cultural venues going to go to service these students (it is hard to deny the poor night-time economy in CMK at present)? A large site in CMK has been safeguarded for MK:U which currently sits empty and devoid of life - it is an ideal candidate for a meanwhile use.
There are ongoing discussions about redeveloping Station Square (again) to create a functional and attractive gateway. The new Santander building has had a transformative effect on this area, framing the square and providing it a sense of scale. However, there is a clear need for a dedicated public open space immediately outside the station (is it too much to ask for some grass?!), as well as a re-worked movement strategy, in order to make this a fitting gateway for a thriving city. There are also broader opportunities for development (Toys R Us and undeveloped MKDP parcels) which have the potential to bring new life to the area, proposals which have the potential to help unlock these aforementioned improvements.
The future for CMK is undoubtedly bright and, even with my observations above, I am excited to see how the city centre transforms over the coming years. I simply hope that a new a vision will be created to guide this future growth and maximise the potential of what is such an aspirational city centre.