As the only New Town in England gets ready to lose that special status, Roger Williams considers its achievements.
On April Fool's Day we shall all wake up to find no more New Towns left in England. At midnight on 31 March, Milton Keynes becomes the 21st and last post-war urban dream to lose its development corporation and turn into a borough town like any other. It's the kind of thing that in Milton Keynes gets talked about in wine bars. "Anybody who isn't worried about it," says a corporation executive, "isn't worried about anything." And he isn't even one of the staff who will be out of a job.
Since it was set up in 1967, the corporation has steadily followed the basic plan for Britain's flagship designer greenfield site, encompassing three small Buckinghamshire towns and 13 villages just beside the M1. Using reason beyond the power of mere financial inducements, it has brought more than £3 billion of investment, mostly from 2,500 private companies, some 250 from overseas. It helped to create what was then Europe's biggest Japanese boarding school, devised Britain's first energy park and raised Christendom's first purpose-built ecumenical church, to be opened by the Queen on 13 March.
But at the witching hour there will be some 2,500 acres still undeveloped. And among the corporation, the business community and local politicians, there have been regrets that the handover to the Department of the Environment's Commission for the New Towns (CNT) - whose function it is to complete the development programme and sell off what is left - comes much too early.
Since the decision was made by the Government five years ago, the corporation, with a staff of around 500, has worked towards its own demise, shedding property and responsibilities at an increasing rate. A year ago 11 of their services were privatised, including property management, planning, engineering and legal services. In December a property agent picked up one of the business's largest portfolios.
The changes have not gone unfelt. Two years ago, when Parcelforce moved there from London, the relocation service was a major element in helping the Post Office choose the town from among 100 looked at. "No matter what my problem was or what I was trying to get", says the company's facilities manager, Danny Eastman, "the corporation would go through all the different kinds of housing available and take responsibility for solving the problem, even after we had got here. But recently a lot of staff and a lot of the people I dealt with haven't been there. The service seems to be turned over to agencies who don't have the full gamut of housing, and their rents seem to be £8-10 more a week. The housing is still there, but the responsibility for making it happen isn't. The system's winding down."
Mac Makino, managing director of NYK, the Japanese transportation company which established its main UK office in Milton Keynes in August 1990, says he will miss the corporation's services. "It's a big organisation," he points out. "The initial contact was made by their commercial department, but when it comes, for instance, to planning permission, we need to talk to other departments of the same corporation, so we have been in constant contact with them. They can provide very useful information about any Japanese companies coming into Milton Keynes and so forth. They have been so helpful and very enthusiastic. That was one of the reasons why we came here. If they dissolve, I don't know who is going to take over these functions."
With a unique remit to be flexible and maintain the levels of inward investment, as well as to realise the remaining assets for the Treasury, the CNT will keep a 125-strong office and there will be a separate promotional agency of up to 10 people.
In the matter of the changeover, the corporation and the CNT are naturally anxious that as little of the join as possible is seen (they like to use the word "seamless"). A commitment is still there: overseas agencies will continue to go into bat on the New Towns' behalf. And though he won his new position in fair and open competition, it is additionally "seamless" that the corporation's deputy general manager, John Walker, takes over on 1 April from David Woodhall as the CNT's chief executive in London, while John Napleton, infrastructure and engineering director of the corporation, becomes the CNT boss in Milton Keynes. Says Woodhall: "A core of the committed staff will remain and the momentum will not cease."
In the run-up to the wind-up, the Government injected funds to complete work on the infrastructure to make the sell-offs easier. "It has been quadrupled per annum," says Napleton, who has been with the corporation for 16 years. "I am entirely confident that by the 31st it will all be in place." His budgets for CNT's Milton Keynes operation has been set at around £30 million, three-quarters of which is committed to contracts already on the ground. At the time of writing, the local promotional agency's budget was still to be decided.
The ability of the corporation to spend money, not least on those advertisements of red balloons, concrete cows and lyrical little back-seat drivers, threw into focus the disparities between the corporation and the local council, especially with the human fall-out of the recession and a squeeze on local government finance. "The development corporation had a social development function," says Rob Gifford, leader of the Labour council. "That disappears with the CNT taking over. In the discussions we have had with the shadow environment team we have impressed upon them that the CNT should take a wider role than purely economic development." in advance of the handover, however, there have been a number of meetings between the council and the CNT and Gifford believes their relationship may be better than it has been.
It is, of course, of no help to anybody that the corporation is not going out with the boom that made Milton Keynes the fastest-growing town in Britain, but with the whimper of the recession, which has seen its year-on-year unemployment plummet faster than anywhere else in the South East. In November it was 7.8%, a 125% increase on the previous year, and though the figure fell to around 6.8% during the Christmas and New Year sales period, the town's economists expect it now to be creeping up again. It still remains below the regional average.
"The spill-out has been fairly even," says Martin Smith at the council's economic department. "A lot of our earlier redundancies were from our older, more traditional engineering and defence-linked activities. There have been no massive lay-offs, the largest of them running at 2-300. We follow the national trend with about 60-70% employed in the service sector, 20% manufacturing. And, of course, the recession has quite heavily affected the construction industry here, too. Building has fallen off a lot. There are still companies coming in, but the rate of development has really slowed."
Although the town still feels busy, signs of the recession are evident. Three years ago, when companies were moving in at the rate of three a week, people would cold-call in person at the corporation's foyer and say, "I'm thinking of moving my business here, what can you offer?" Now the doors are being knocked on from the other side.
Not all its industries are feeling the full draught of the recession, though. There are several educational establishments, led by the Open University, not to mention the Gyosei Japanese school, a feather in the corporation's cap won in competition with Paris and Rome. And the whole air of the town, described by many as "American", attracts overseas investors and gives it an edge in Europe.
There is continuing optimism. "We employ about 25 and are expanding rapidly," says NYK's Makino, who is hoping to take over warehousing and distribution from companies who are contracting out their own distribution to a third party to cut costs. Makino spent six months looking for a suitable location for his company and, like many, chose Milton Keynes for its access and for its concentration of Japanese companies: the town has more than anywhere else outside London. This combination of location and smart neighbours has also brought the BRS Transport Group which is in the process of amalgamating elements of half a dozen offices into a new headquarters of around 225 management and clerical staff.
"There's a lot of comfort when you look around and see those prestige names in there," says Graham Roberts, the divisional manager who has been orchestrating the move. "The recession means we were in a buyer's market ... But we didn't make the decision on price. The staff was 100% behind the choice. We were impressed about its practicality and there are good facilities. It's more pleasing to the eye than I thought it was going to be. It's going to take a long time to live down those concrete cows, but they actually have got a hell of a lot of things right."
One of the things "they" did get right was to bring in a wide range of business. The top 20 companies, including Abbey National, John Lewis, Tesco, British Telecom, Mercedez Benz and Audi Volkswagen, employ 20% of the workforce, but around 65% of the companies employ fewer than 11 people.
"There is a broad bedrock of companies," says Bob Hill, the corporation's commercial director who joined as a chartered surveyor 20 years ago and has seen through most of the major developments. "We have had to generate about 4,000 jobs annually and in the year to April 1991 we were only missed that by 10%. But the local economy lost nearly 4,000 jobs, so the city stood still. The number of small companies explains the volatile unemployment figures. But it also means we're well placed for a recovery."
For Hill personally, out of a job on 1 April, the corporation is going to be a hard act to follow and he sees the demise of the corporation like a child growing up and leaving home. So what does he think the city has got wrong, and what has it got right?
He would have liked to have got a theatre off the ground. "It's outrageous that a government could have planned a town for a quarter of a million people and not made provision for a theatre or an art gallery or a museum," he says. "You couldn't imagine that happening in France." Last-ditch efforts to find backer for a theatre may have failed, but just in time he has come up with a candidate for the arena site: the National Hockey Association are to build a stadium which will host the next world cup.
In the end, Hill thinks the corporation's achievement has been in "persuading people to invest in 2.5 million square metres in the middle of nowhere. And we created a city whose residents have a real pride in the place. They defend it passionately."
Perhaps the last word should go to William Benyon, Conservative MP for Milton Keynes since 1967, who retires at the coming general election when boundary changes create two new constituencies: "The Development Corporation in Milton Keynes was the first statutory body who really appreciated the need to work hand-in-glove with private interests," he says. "They have succeeded very well.
Roger Williams is a freelance writer.