Please seize the opportunity

Jul 01, 2007

I AM WRITING this column with about five minutes to go before it has to be sent to printers. The reason? Well about an hour ago I learned that Turley Associates, the planning consultants working with thecentre:mk owner PruPIM has withdrawn its application which was to have gone before the development control committee of Milton Keynes Council tonight (June 14).

So what has brought about this remarkable change of heart? You can bet your life that it is very little to do with the cynical land grab that thecentre:mk is attempting to undertake and a little more to do with the huge stink caused by Urban Eden, the 20th Century Society, MK Forum and many individuals horrified to discover the true impact of the outline planning permission that thecentre:mk was granted a few years ago.

Digging a little deeper, I discover that a kind of chain reaction has occurred. The CMK Board, responding to widespread complaints from us and others that thecentre:mk’s tactics of offering their planning applications in Batches, starting with what was to be today’s Batch 1, was ‘making interpretation and evaluation of the detailed plans very difficult’, wrote to the development control committee asking it to defer consideration of the batch.

One of our members then wrote to Mike Bowley, head of Milton Keynes Council’s planning department who had previously recommended approval to the development control committee, objecting to this application on the grounds of shortfall of due process.

He said “This application does not have the observations or support of the CMK Project Board and de facto must be lacking the support of MK Partnership Committee. Both of these bodies are the ones who are publicly accountable for the development proposals in CMK in contrast to Brittel and Prudential (i.e. for simplicity read PruPIM).

“I accept that the development control committee is accountable for the permissions which is a different and later process. Without these quasi democratic bodies’ manifest considerations before the permission stage we, the public, are being denied the procedural safeguards that were promised at the outset of this development process initiated in partnership between Milton Keynes Council, English Partnerships and the community.”

Suddenly the house of cards collapses, the application is withdrawn and Mike Bowley invites them to re-apply with a breezy: “We have indicated to the applicants that a resubmission would be appropriate at such time as all the batches of phase 1 can be considered together.” Yes, yes, yes!

So the beginning of the end for this once brave, optimistic, proud city has been delayed. Might is not always right. We, the huddled masses who oppose the desecration of our wonderful city have been given a reprieve. Milton Keynes is not now condemned to turn into Luton, only without the things that make Luton bearable… well, not until next month at the earliest anyway. But we are certainly not out of the woods – or should that be ‘out of trees’, as in we don’t have them any more?

There’s no reason to believe that the planning department’s report to the development control committee won’t once again recommend approval or that the council’s lawyer, Kehinde Awojobi, will change his alleged advice that if the councillors fail to pass it, they could be sued by thecentre:mk’s owners. So ‘bye bye then the democratic process, hello the unseemly abuse of power’ is still very much a possibility.

There are others arrayed against us. Milton Keynes Council chief executive John Best recently wrote: “Community engagement is time and resource consuming, which is difficult when faced with the tight time-scales of the growth agenda. MKC members’ desire to involve the community in shaping its own future is therefore a frustration in the imperative for speedy and efficient delivery of growth.”

So, despite his subsequent apology, I suspect we know where John Best stands vis a vis the public and its thoughts on the growth agenda.

But what about the attitude of thecentre:mk itself? In a statement to MK News, the director of development Jon Weymouth said: “Even if the building was fully listed (i.e. by English Heritage) it wouldn’t alter our approach to it.” His cynicism and contempt for proper procedure is nothing short of breathtaking.

And as if to push the point of the knife deeper into the heart of Milton Keynes, Jon Weymouth insults us with this nonsense: “The redevelopment of thecentre:mk is crucial to the future of Milton Keynes as it will create exciting new public spaces that will help revitalise the city centre.”

Exciting new public spaces? Can he be serious? Where is the additional 340,000 square feet of retail space coming from then, Jon, in your unseemly land grab, if not the existing public realm?

And so the fight goes on. A notice has just been posted on lampposts around Central Milton Keynes by the Government Office South East saying ‘The Secretary of State for Transport hereby gives notice that he proposes to make an order under Section 247 of The Town & Country Planning Act 1990 which will authorise the stopping up of highway at thecentre:mk (Midsummer Boulevard, Silbury Boulevard, Secklow Gate, Marlborough Gate and North Eleventh St) Central Milton Keynes’.

So we continue to fight to ensure that the bulldozers will not start chewing up the plane trees in Silbury and Midsummer Boulevards and turning them into pulp. That Secklow Gate will not be closed and demolished. That Midsummer Boulevard East will not be closed to cars.

We must throw back at thecentre:mk its implicit message to the citizens of this formerly only-the-best-is-good-enough city: you may continue to pour your money into the centre’s shops as exclusively controlled by us but you may no longer be allowed to enjoy doing it if you wish to park your car outside, wish to drive freely around and through the centre, continue to enjoy the Boulevards, appreciate the original design of the shopping building or wish to see lots of trees.

Without our efforts, soon very many of the parking spaces around thecentre:mk will be surrounded by hoardings and large machines will start drilling the holes that will accommodate the foundations for the ugly extensions with their public-toilet tiled cladding that will disfigure our shopping centre.

Queens Court will have its Cornish granite fountain ripped out to accommodate another half dozen or so greasy fast-food franchises, as if we need them; Middleton Hall will have new shops inserted, the market will be demolished and another House of Fraser will be built right up to the Boulevard. All will truly be lost.

In the words of one Urban Edenite: “The best building in Milton Keynes will be irrevocably disfigured, indeed the best building of its type in Britain. MK’s only architectural jewel is to be butchered, our city centre public realm commandeered, our admirably permeable road network ripped out and our mature civic trees pulped, all for the sake of a few more card shops and another cheap jeweller or two – oh, and some ‘quality food offers’.”

And yet there is an alternative and during this brief lull I implore thecentre:mk to take another route. Our Urban Edenite explains: “Let me say here that I would have no objection at all to the sort of sensible expansion of the building that was anticipated at its original design stage. It was always expected that the ‘John Lewis section’ would be expanded out to the existing building line on both sides. New retail units would complete the double-sided shop-fronts along both Silbury and Midsummer Arcades; this sort of expansion would complete the design.”

So come on PruPIM – junk your rubbish plans which in my opinion will not only destroy many of the best things about our uniquely user-friendly city but condemn thecentre:mk to a long, lingering decline as shoppers vote with their wheels and go elsewhere.

The current proposals are just opportunistic and greedy and will swamp this fine building in a crude and brutal manner. You have an alternative. Please seize it. Cheerio.

For more information, visit www.urbaneden.org
Theo Chalmers is managing director of Verve Public Relations. Tel: 01908 275271 or visit www.vervepr.co.uk

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