MKDC Interview 1982
Interview of Bill Berrett by Richard Cole, 1982.
Extracts from an interview with Bill Berrett who, with Fred Pooley, prepared the first plans for a New City for Buckinghamshire County Council before joining the Development Corporation as Executive Architect.
Note by Bill Berrett, 2012.
There have been some errors in transcription of this interview, these have been corrected. The most important one being the word ‘image’ which was given in the original text as ‘link icon’. This renders some parts of the original text meaningless, so I have corrected that. What was being discussed was an overall vision or ‘Image’ or ‘City Image’ for Milton Keynes which was totally ignored in the early years of building.
In addition I have added reference to a visit I made to Fred Roche in Runcorn before his appointment to Milton Keynes, Sheila Lindsey his wife at that time reminded me of that visit.
Question When had Fred Pooley first thought of the ‘City of North Bucks’?
Answer I don’t know exactly but I think it must have been very early in 1962, probably January or February time. I don’t think it would have been much earlier than that.
Question Was it his idea?
Answer I believe that it was, yes.
Question What had Fred Pooley prepared before he asked you to consider the problem?
Answer He had prepared a document postulating that there would be a need for a major new development in Buckinghamshire. This was because Buckinghamshire is very strategically placed in the South East, particularly in relation to London. The south of the county, which is closest to London, is also very very beautiful. It has the Thames Valley and the chalk Chiltern Hills with the beautiful valleys and beech woods. That area, of course, was the first, or part of the first, Green Belt which was designated around London and development wasn’t permitted in the Green Belt.
In fact it’s interesting to note that a lot of planning battles which gave some of the definitions to planning were fought out in Buckinghamshire in the Green Belt. So it always was a very active planning situation and there was considerable pressure caused by population growth in the South East, movement of people into the South East and the very prosperity of the Capital, for housing development in the south of the county but that was Green Belt. Because of the many planning battles fought there I think it turned his mind to thinking well, we can’t always say no like good planners, we ought to be trying to say yes to something and the kind of thing that he felt that the County Council could say yes to would be a major new planned development in the form of a city and that city should be somewhere in Buckinghamshire. When I started work on it I had not seen this report by the way.
Question But it did exist?
Answer Yes, I subsequently discovered that it did exist.
Question Can you tell me something about Pooleyville and the Plan that Fred Pooley thought about?
Answer He certainly thought about building a city and had some ideas about how the city might be but I think it took some little time to put flesh on those bones and to turn it into a feasible proposition.
Question Can you tell me something about the monorail in that Plan?
Answer I always felt that it was unfortunate that we got so hung up on the term ‘monorail’ because what we tried to do was to draw up a specification for a public transport system and to try to evolve something which would meet that specification. The only kind of thing that was around at that time was something that we could conveniently call a ‘monorail’. It was one of these journalistic things in a sense that you have to give some kind of image to the public transport system and that image was a public transport system which was above the ground, was quiet, fast, free from constraints of the weather, relatively cheap to operate, efficient and practicable and that thing we had to call the ‘monorail’.
Question Was it a high density development that you had planned?
Answer No, this is a kind of label that has been attached to it subsequently, quite wrongly and unjustly in my opinion. The City that we proposed was for a quarter of a million people, it was on 22,000 acres (8,903 hectares) of land. Milton Keynes, as it is being built, is a City and I still think it will be for at least a quarter of a million people on 22,000 acres of land. A decision was taken quite positively in the physical arrangement of the town to organise residential developments, and industrial developments for that matter, to have good and easy access to a public transport route but it was no higher density than the Milton Keynes which is being built now.
The thing that I liked particularly about the Plan was that I felt that it was an egalitarian Plan. It gave an opportunity of everybody participating in the city, whether they were young or old, whether they were rich or poor, and they could use every part of the city. I think it was less of a high energy type of city than Milton Keynes has subsequently emerged.
I do believe that the image of Los Angeles, not the Los Angeles of the Flower Power era but the Los Angeles of the American good life, the high consumption of materials and energy resources, was very much the image which determined Milton Keynes as it has been built. I think, and this is a little bit in hindsight, I think Pooleyville was much more concerned with a kind of conservation approach, an efficient use of resources type of approach. For example, there is no mention in the Milton Keynes Plan about the generation of electricity, the use of waste heat from electricity, the question of distributing that kind of resource around the city. We tried to look at the city as a total system, not just a physical system. That’s something that I rather liked about the Plan.
Question Wasn’t the idea of the city being built by the County always an unrealistic planner’s dream?
Answer Certainly not. This was something that was gone into very very carefully and had the total backing of the Councillors. It was quite on the cards for the County Council to designate an area of land, to acquire it and to develop it itself and certainly it was very high in the County’s mind to involve private investment. No, it’s a perfectly feasible proposition.
Question Why do you think Jock Campbell rejected the idea of Fred Pooley as Chief Architect and Planner of Milton Keynes?
Answer Fred Pooley, in fact, became the Special Adviser to the Board and did participate in aspects of the Master Plan preparation and the early days of implementation. I believe that all the way through the implementation and the planning of Milton Keynes, as we now know it, there has been quite a positive struggle between two quite opposite approaches, the approach of what you might call authoritarian socialism on one hand and the approach of participatory socialism on the other and I do think that the two men had occupied almost those opposite poles. There was in my opinion, and this is pure supposition on my part, prior to Milton Keynes, some kind of point of identity between Llewelyn-Davies and Jock Campbell and Llewelyn-Davies was very much into the fashionable concerns of planning of the time. He, I think, was in love with Los Angeles, as many planners were. Reyner Banham, who was quite close to Llewelyn-Davies as I understand it, was very much into that kind of rather glossy streamlined notion of life of the future, the freewheeling society of Los Angeles as it has been described. They were very concerned with issues of total flexibility, they were very into the romance of the motor car and of the material good life. Fred, on the other hand, was a very homely person, the word that is usually applied to him is the ‘salt of the earth’. By no means an intellectual, he was educated not at Eton or some Public School but at a Council School in the East End and I think went to a Grammar School and did well in a local authority office. Very much a man of the people and, you would probably never get him to admit this but I know it to be true, identifying himself particularly with the ordinary man. Anti-intellectual if anything, believing in the very pragmatic approach, easily mistaken for being stupid or unseeing, but that’s completely wrong. I believe he deeply valued and understood humanity. So you have got a quite different approach in the two men and, of course, because the County Council had made this proposal first, I think, perhaps I would be unjust in saying, it must never be seen thereafter that any proposals made have any merit.
Question Did the County really agree not to proceed with its city or did central Government just take over?
Answer No, Government didn’t just take over although it was in a position of power so to do. The County was not able to proceed in fact. One of the things that the County asked was that the Government of the day should not prevent industry moving to Milton Keynes, as it could do through the planning legislation as it was then, and, of course, unless there was that freedom to move, the County, because it would make charge on its own ratepayers, could not in good conscience put the ratepayers in that kind of position if there was no guarantee that industry would not be withheld. That was very important, therefore the County was unable to proceed in fact. But, it was discussed long and hard, particularly with Dick Crossman, the Minister of the day.
Question Is that when Jock Campbell was appointed?
Answer Jock was, as I recall, appointed after that stage. Don’t forget that these processes take quite a long time. First the Ministry identified an area, it so happens that it very closely conformed to the area that Buckinghamshire had been talking about, it then had to produce the Draft Designation Order, hold a public inquiry and then agree that the site would be designated for a new town. Then only after all that had been done, and that took quite a long time, was the site designated and a Development Corporation formed. It was only when the Development Corporation was formed that the Minister would nominate a Chairman of the Development Corporation and its Members.
Question So was Jock chosen by the Minister?
Answer Yes, or by the Government of the day.
Question And did Jock choose the Board Members or was that also a Ministry decision?
Answer It would be a Ministry decision but I would be very surprised if the Chairman didn’t have a considerable say in the choosing of the Board Members.
Question What was life like in the early days of Milton Keynes Development Corporation?
Answer I joined on 1 August 1968 and I think there were about 14 of us initially in Wavendon Tower. I joined as the Executive Architect and Gerald West joined from Llewelyn-Davies as the equivalent of the Chief Architect. He didn’t join immediately, he was ill I think, and didn’t get off to a particularly good start in that regard. There weren’t many of us there. Alan Ashton was already there, people like Tony Shaw, Walter Ismay of course, Ernest Pye, but very few of us indeed. The work was going on at that time by the Master Plan team of Llewelyn-Davies, that work was in progress.
Question Why did you join the Development Corporation?
Answer Fred asked me one day what were the implications of building a city for a quarter of a million people and then said, I’m off to Scotland for a fortnight, tell me when I come back. This kind of idea was something that I had been thinking about and began to have notions as to where such a thing might be and the first thing that I did when I had that instruction was to get in my car and drive to North Bucks.
I took the road from Winslow to Stony Stratford that comes up over the higher ground of Whaddon Chase before it drops down towards Stony Stratford. On that day, I think it was a Monday of that first week of the fortnight, I looked across there, I mean this sounds terribly romantic but it’s absolutely true, into that Vale and I thought, ‘I can visualise a city there and that is absolutely the right place for a city’. From that day to this I have never lost my confidence in what has become Milton Keynes as being a great city for the future and, despite my disappointments in not realising the particular vision that I had and Fred Pooley had, I felt that it was a right thing to do and that I wanted to be part of its ongoing development. So that is really why I moved.
I should go back a long time before the beginning of the Development Corporation. I suppose it would be fair to say that fortnight of working in the basement, that was necessary because of the confidentiality of the whole thing, was the greatest creative high I have every had in my life and that really was something.
Question When was this?
Answer We are now talking about June 1962 when Fred Pooley asked me to look at the implications of building a new city. Now, I am sure it isn’t difficult to understand, if one contemplates something of this sort, that the alarm that this could cause, quite unnecessarily if something like this didn’t happen, would be absolutely disastrous for people and property values and all that sort of thing. Therefore, it was of vital importance that any work that was undertaken on this had to be absolutely confidential. In any kind of organisation absolute confidentiality can only mean one thing, that only one person really knows about it and a room was made available to me in a basement of a building adjacent to the County offices. I worked in that room entirely on my own for this particular period simply because of those reasons.
Question Did Fred work with you on this?
Answer Not for this particular fortnight, no, I was entirely on my own and, if you like, this is why especially it was a great creative high. I had to sit down and think and visualise what a city for the future could be like. Obviously, it’s the kind of thing one thinks about all the time but to sit down and have to bring ideas as diverse as a whole city down onto a few sheets of paper is a fascinating process and a great intellectually stimulating thing to have to do. You have to think about moving people around, you have to think about sewers but really what you have to think is about is the way people live and the way people might live and to live their lives.
Question Once that fortnight had finished you must have had to share ideas in order to get the best possible design. Did you share those with Fred then?
Answer Oh yes, of course, and Fred I found, and find today, one of the most interesting and stimulating people to be with in a very oblique kind of way. He has a tremendous perception and I think we worked extremely well together and the fact that we are still friends today demonstrates that. We sparked ideas off one another.
Question So when you went to the Development Corporation did you take these plans with you?
Answer No. We are talking about some seven years later when I came to the Development Corporation. We had argued the case for a Bucks new city, that had been accepted, if you like, as a principle. The job of doing it had been put in the hands of a new governing body in the form of the Development Corporation under Jock Campbell and a new set of planners, in the form of Llewelyn-Davies’ firm, had been created so our plans were completely abandoned. What remained was the notion of building a city for a quarter of a million which, heaven knows, is big enough.
Question How did you feel about that?
Answer Pretty upset.
Question But you still decided to go to the Development Corporation?
Answer Yes, because I believed in the whole principle of the thing, as I do now.
Question Were they good times when you first arrived at the Corporation?
Answer I can’t remember any, I really can’t. It was a very difficult time. Difficult in many ways because I think Jock’s attitude to in-house staff, certainly in the early days, was rather contemptuous. I think he felt that local government officers were people who drank tea and went at 5 and came at 9 and really weren’t of much worth whatsoever. It was the consultants really. They said black and everybody nodded sagely and said, “we agree that it’s black” even though it was manifestly white, but that’s not an unusual situation for consultants, they really did call the whole game at that time.
It was enormously pressured in many ways. No, there were, quite honestly, a lot of bad times, particularly for the in-house staff. We were busy recruiting people because we wanted to get on with the implementation. The Board had been very, very strong, rightly so, about its housing goals and didn’t want to build the slums of the future as it felt that yardstick housing might become. We were asked to produce housing which was fully in accordance with the housing goals which we did. Those came out above yardstick and it was felt that we should not compromise with the Ministry but stick out to build housing in accordance with our goals and not compromise and built yardstick housing.
I don’t recall, in those years, that I ever talked to Jock Campbell, I rarely talked to Walter Ismay and certainly he didn’t talk to me. I never went to a Board Meeting as I recall. Gerald West used to go to these meetings and time and time again I urged and he commiserated that we should give presentations to the Board on the issues of housing and on the issues of density but, as I understand it, we were always kept at arms length, we were never permitted to do that.
Question How long did this last?
Answer Well, another problem arose too, which is relevant to the point. It’s fine to design a Master Plan and a very difficult job which Llewelyn-Davies’ people did admirably. I’ve got a lot of time for John de Moncheaux particularly and for Suzanne Beauchamp but a Plan has to be built and it has to be built in a certain order because of the whole interaction of various things. It was put down as our task in the Corporation to produce an implementation strategy, a phasing strategy. One of the major constraints on development is drainage and how you do that. The kind of strategy that Walter Bor and Llewelyn-Davies wanted to follow was to put development straight up the A5 from Bletchley to Stony Stratford and that was completely impossible. We produced a strategy which followed the pattern of the drainage but not the pattern of the Plan which was in the form of this crescent which linked Stony Stratford, Wolverton, the Ouzel Valley and Bletchley. These two things don’t coincide and it’s one of the major faults of the Plan in my opinion. We put forward our plan to a meeting with the consultants, including Walter Bor. Walter Bor said, in effect, “that’s a load of nonsense, we can go straight up the A5”, Walter Ismay agreed with him and the work that we were doing was suspended. It took us more than six months to demonstrate that what we had argued in the first place was the only way in which the city could be developed.
That delay, which was basically caused in my opinion by Walter Bor and his lack of understanding of the Plan, plus the problem of building housing, created a major delay in implementation. The staff was growing, the spending of money on many things was growing but no houses were coming out at the end of the pipeline. Naturally, the Minister and the civil servants were getting terribly agitated about this and I think there was considerable concern about Walter Ismay’s ability to handle it all.
This is where we get into a difficult area because one wonders about things like libel in cases of this sort. A civil servant explored with me my own opinion as to Walter Ismay’s capability and I regret to say now I was loyal. Perhaps loyalty is a bit of a fault in that sort of a situation but I said, “bear with us, bear with us.” Nevertheless, there was no production, or very little production, and things became rather tense.
Question What part did you play in Fred Lloyd Roche coming to Milton Keynes?
Answer It’s difficult to know. I can remember having a discussion with Fred Pooley, who was Special Adviser to the Board, about these trials and tribulations that we were having and saying to him that I knew of a fellow who could sort this out and that was Fred Roche. Whether he took that further I have no idea.
Question Didn’t you go to Runcorn at one point to see Fred?
Answer Gerald West and I did go to Runcorn and I was very cross with Fred (Roche) at that time. Gerald West had little idea of what you might call ‘total city image’ and I was endeavoring to urge Fred to persuade Gerald to let me deal with the overall city image but Fred wouldn’t. I was cross with Fred over that. I don’t think our trials and tribulations had begun or at least become manifest to the outside at that stage.
I have subsequently been reminded by Fred’s first wife Sheila Lindsey, that I did indeed go to Runcorn to see Fred to tell him about the Milton Keynes situation and what needed doing. That was just before the job had been offered to him. In the time between Fred leaving Runcorn and his arriving at Milton Keynes I had many discussions with him to give him my view on the difficulties we had. He was totally incredulous of the state that things had got into. I particularly recall just before he came to take up his position our discussions concluded with a dinner with my wife Sheila and Fred and his wife Sheila at the County Hotel in Bedford – we drove home to Stony Stratford in a most tremendous thunder storm! (added by Bill Berrett.)
I was also reminded of a much earlier meeting (perhaps 1964) with Fred Roche and our wives in Coventry. Fred was still with the Midlands Housing Consortium. I went to tell him that I was working with Fred Pooley on a new city project!
Question Why do you think that they approached Fred Roche?
Answer Because I think it was felt that he could sort the situation out.
Question Did he have quite a reputation?
Answer Yes, he had a reputation as an architect and a manager of architectural matters and as a person with an ability to tackle difficult problems of that kind.
Question So he came. What was he called?
Answer He wasn’t the General Manger, he was Director of Works, DDM, something like that, but certainly not as General Manager. One of the reasons I felt very badly about all this was because Gerald West, as I understand it, more or less got the push and I think that was absolutely unjust. I don’t think that the problems could be laid at Gerald’s door, I think he was made a scapegoat. In fact, some months before, I had written to Gerald something along the lines of, ‘I know we’re having terrible problems but I would like you to know, from the position in which I sit, I do not think that you can be held responsible for them’. I’ve still got a copy of that somewhere but whether he put the letter any further than that, I don’t know.
Question So once Fred Lloyd Roche appeared on the scene, did things get moving then?
Answer Yes. I think the major thing that happened which enabled him to move was his ability, his credibility, with the Board to persuade the Members that if they were ever going to build any housing they had to build some yardstick housing. The Ministry agreed that the first scheme, which was a bit over yardstick, could go ahead on the basis that we built subsequent housing at yardstick.
The housing yardstick is a financial control device upon which the subsidy from central Government to the people building housing was based. It was related to the actual costs of building at any particular time and was reviewed annually, as I recall, or thereabouts. It defined very precisely what sum of money was available for particular kinds of housing.
The Corporation believed that it should build houses which people will want because there was a goal of not building houses which were identifiable as council housing. The yardstick didn’t really permit that. The yardstick really said that you could build any kind of housing you like as long as it was two storey and in terraces of about eight with garage courts and so on. To build things like semi-detached and detached houses would cost a lot more money but that was the kind of thing that the Corporation wanted to build. It was coming out at around about, as I recall, 15 per cent above yardstick and that sort of money was not forthcoming from central Government.
Question What were your feelings when Fred actually came down, your personal feelings?
Answer I was delighted, absolutely delighted because I had every confidence in his ability to sort things out and to have someone at the top of the organisation who really understood what it was all about.
Question And then, very shortly after that, Walter Ismay left?
Answer Walter was a very nice man. I don’t really think that he understood what building a city was all about but that’s not in a sense a criticism, I think relatively few people do. I don’t think he understood the complexity, the interactive nature of the whole problem. He’s probably a splendid engineer but that was not his forte.
Question Fred was, I believe, the first architect that was actually appointed as General Manager in a new town.
Answer I don’t recall any others that had a building background but I do think there’s a very considerable difference between a new town of 60,000 and a new city of quarter of a million. Also, there’s no doubt about it that the kind of participatory, responsive nature of the Plan which John de Moncheaux and company had brought to Milton Keynes demanded quite other skills, particularly the tremendous emphasis on the social content of the plan.
Again, I don’t really feel that Walter Ismay understood it too well. I can recall one evening in his flat talking to him a little bit about this and I didn’t feel that he had a good grasp, any more than some of the architects had a good grasp, of these issues.
Question It was also then that Derek Walker was appointed Chief Architect. What were your feelings when he arrived at the Development Corporation?
Answer Well that’s a difficult one and very personal. Naturally, I had aspirations in that direction myself but maybe not tremendous hopes because I’m not a flag waver and maybe that’s what Jock Campbell particularly wanted. I had a very bad experience over that. We were recruiting staff at the Corporation at that time, architects. I made my application and went through all the procedures and an interview was fixed. I think the interview was on a Tuesday. On the previous Friday a young man came for an interview at the Development Corporation and we had a talk because I interviewed a lot of staff who came to the Development Corporation at that time. He said something like, “I’m not really sure about coming here because Derek Walker has just been to our office seeking people because he’s told us he has been appointed as the architect at Milton Keynes”. So, I had the weekend to think about that and I came away from that interview knowing that it had been hopeless all the time.
Question How did Milton Keynes Development Corporation and Buckinghamshire County Council differ as organisations?
Answer The basic difference is that the County Council is answerable to elected Members whereas the Corporation has nominated Members who are not always looking to their backs to make sure that they get their votes for re-election. At the County Council I was working in a particular department and had little to do with treasurers and engineers and all that sort of thing but at Milton Keynes it was much more interdisciplinary.
It’s very difficult to answer this question because between the start of the Corporation in 1968 and when I left it in 1975 it had gone through enormous transformations and I think had become an extremely efficient, entrepreneurial unit. The fact that all the building was achieved more or less against programme is testament to that. Some of the greatest bureaucratic silliness of a local authority office, which was reasonably well absent in Buckinghamshire, was totally absent in the Development Corporation. A good public face was attempted and achieved, a sensitivity to ordinary people and a responsiveness to ordinary people’s wishes was, to some degree, achieved, certainly on a day to day level. I felt that the Corporation was the most efficient unit of administration and implementation that I’ve ever been involved in.
Question When did you start to become disillusioned with what was happening?
Answer I quickly became increasingly disillusioned about the kind of architectural and planning manifestation of what was being built. That happened very, very quickly because it cut right across my own personal beliefs of what Milton Keynes should be achieving. I’d long felt that the greatest opportunity presented to us in Milton Keynes was to create an entirely new kind of environment. What I mean by a new kind of environment is one in which the people who actually live there could respond to what was being created on their behalf, not the kind of environment which was the genesis of the modern movement which is an essentially middle class and capitalist kind of environment. I believe that it was possible, and is possible, to create for those people a new architecture which is vital, progressive and has meaning for them, and meaning for the specialists as well. Now that opportunity has almost totally been thrown away.
Question In a paper that you wrote for the Open University you state, “… architecture which the man in the street will want to have and which posterity will admire”. Isn’t this guaranteeing conservatism?
Answer Certainly not, because this is something that has never ever been sought or achieved. In fact this would be quite radically different, quite radically new, because architecture as we’ve known it, certainly through the renaissance and the modern period, has been something which has been the manifestation of the ruling group in society. That ruling group has either been the king or the prince in the renaissance or the capitalist in the victorian era, certainly not the man in the street. Architects didn’t design, until very recently, for the ordinary person, they only designed for the wealthy client.
The interesting thing is that we did see in this country a manifestation of this kind of building and architecture, particularly arising out of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement, being converted into physical reality in the garden city of Letchworth. Letchworth to me is a fantastic achievement, achieved without any New Towns Acts or Development Corporations in that kind of sense. If you go there today it really does express what I’ve tried to express in that statement. I can go to Letchworth as an architect and I can look at ordinary people’s housing and I can see that it is done with great architectural skill. The people, I would suggest, are probably living in those houses today quite as happily as they did on the first day that they moved in and the roofs didn’t leak or blow off. I think that the whole movement, which was very much of the people, very much of this country and our traditions, very much of our land and climate and building materials, was steamrollered aside by the modern movement.
Question You criticise the modern movement, I think, in your paper. Were its believers working in Milton Keynes?
Answer I don’t entirely reject the modern movement because many many new building types have been required over the past few years and I think this has been expressed particularly well by the modern movement. In fact I would say, for example, that factory and the employment type buildings in Milton Keynes are extremely good. The modern movement, particularly, arose from the German, Austrian and French middle class. It was associated particularly with the early growth of Soviet communism. I think it was authoritarian in its nature, although it was socialist in its origins. About the time of the beginning of the implementation of Milton Keynes, in the architectural world there was a great revival of the heroic days of the modern movement, the era of the students from the Architectural Association, and with-it young architects were very much into re-looking at this period. There was a big exhibition in London on revolutionary art and architecture. They carried these images of the white walls, the flat roofs, the circular windows which had gone out of fashion rather in the early 1950s and 1960s and they’d brought in this revival. If you go to central Milton Keynes, particularly to Netherfield, you can trace back almost each and every part of the buildings and their overall concepts, back into this early period of the modern movement. Even the style of drawing is directly traceable to those particular times.
Question How do you achieve an architecture which is full of relevance and meaning?
Answer You gradually begin to build a new architecture. The nearest I can think of this kind of thing, in a structured way, was a guy who worked in the early 1960s in the United States, particularly on trying to produce the city as a system, particularly as a computer type system. His name was Christopher Alexander. He seemed to work his way completely through that and come out of the other side and he turned his attention to looking at what it was that people actually liked in buildings, what they responded to. If you had a room, what was it that made it comfortable? If you had a garden, how did it stand in relation to the sunshine and then to plants? What about the human proportions of the building, the human scale of the building? How do spaces in towns interact? He began to analyse what it was that made those places interesting, made them attractive, made them the kind of places where people wanted to be. He didn’t reason from an intellectual point of view that one had to be true to materials or one had to be honest in expression.
Question That really wasn’t achieved in Milton Keynes, was it?
Answer It wasn’t attempted in Milton Keynes. No, I think I do a disservice. I think there were one or two people, I did talk to one or two people about this in the months before I left and I have the greatest admiration for the work they did. There was almost an underground which daren’t speak. Now this business of ‘daren’t speak’ is a very important thing. I can remember giving voice to my opinion in a little pub on the other side of the M1. When Derek first came, when there were only a few of us in the office, we had a discussion one evening and I gave vent to my beliefs. I was absolutely ridiculed for what I had to say by several people and I knew that I was right. Nevertheless, I was severely put down.
I think Wayland Tunley has that kind of feeling for architecture and I think a number of others did. In a sense we didn’t have a ready made language. If we were to put this forward, as people are putting this forward now, we wouldn’t have made the architectural press and that was what it was all about. Derek said, when he first came, that he was going to produce a book in five years time and therefore the drawings and all the models were done with that intention.
Question Does flexibility allow for change in the future do you think?
Answer What I said in my article about flexibility, when it was studied, or not studied, it became very much a buzz word in the 1960s. No-one really went into what it meant. It really arose, particularly as far as Llewelyn-Davies was concerned, out of the problems of hospital designs. I think a subsequent word is much more appropriate which is responsiveness rather than flexibility. That is the ability to be able to respond to changing situations and changing aspirations. In a sense, that is what I would be for and I would be for responsiveness.
Question The Corporation got into difficulties which caused delay and brought political pressure to get moving or else. Who suffered in this?
Answer Well, Gerald West did. I suppose Walter Ismay did. I suppose we all did in a sense in that we were getting terribly frustrated and felt we were being blamed, perhaps without justification. You could also argue that some of the people who came immediately afterwards, when there was this great pressure for housing completions and the massive contracts let like Netherfield, those people could have suffered too.
Question The Board didn’t understood net density issues very well, did it?
Answer There was an assumption that higher densities meant worse housing and that is not true. It is possible, certainly at medium densities, to produce housing which is perfectly adequate, as in fact has now been done in Milton Keynes. The Plan for Milton Keynes postulated a falling density but that hasn’t happened. The issues of having identifiable personal space attached to a house, of reasonable landscaping, about having the car on the plot, about having an identifiable dwelling, the very nature of these kinds of things could be manipulated and managed with architectural skill. I do not think this was understood by the Board. It never went to other new towns, like to Runcorn for example, to have a look at what other people were doing. It never permitted us to make a display or a presentation to explain these issues and, quite frankly, I think there was this doctrine in the front of the Members minds that higher density meant slums, we’re not talking about tower blocks and we’re completely inflexible in this regard, inflexible because we were not able to explain.
Question But Fred Lloyd Roche convinced the Board to compromise. What were his priorities and what sort of place did he want?
Answer Yes, I think Fred did convince the Board to compromise, to understand that unless something of this sort was done the city would never be built. Fred so often said that the business of building a new city was a matter of generating confidence and if you didn’t have not only the confidence of Government, but also the confidence of people who wanted to introduce jobs into the town, then you were nowhere. Therefore, it is necessary to get a programme moving for it to be manifest that things can and will happen.
Answer As to Fred’s vision of the town, that I find much more difficult to answer because I got a feeling that Fred’s vision changed over time. Fred, when I knew him at Coventry, had begun to take a more humane view towards architecture. As time went on I think he became increasingly disillusioned at the sort of thing what you might call the ‘arrogant architects’ were producing. He also tried to fall over backwards in not being an architect, in being General Manager and not to show favour in one particular direction. Again, my personal feeling was that when Wayland Tunley began to come through he was probably very pleased and probably fairly relieved as well.
Question Can I go back to another part of your paper? You say you don’t recall a brick shortage. Was Netherfield ever designed in brick?
Answer Netherfield, as I recall, was not designed in timber frame. It was adapted for timber frame. But no, I don’t recall a brick shortage but I think there was a tremendous reluctance to use the London Brick Company which the County had used for many years.
Question What were the issues, politics and actions surrounding the decision to build Netherfield?
Answer There was a group of people of which each has gone on to great things since. They had designed a competition entry for Runcorn which was much admired and I admired it too. They were almost like a separate group in the Development Corporation. They didn’t come to work in Milton Keynes very much, they worked separately. They were answerable directly to Derek Walker, nobody else, not even the area planners had much influence on what they did. They were almost like a sacred priesthood you might say and were therefore much resented by many people around.
They produced a scheme, in many ways a scheme that was quite an attractive one, very elegant in its solution, although thoroughly modern movement. The scheme came in much over price and some practical chaps had to be brought in to sort it out. One of those practical people was Jim Muldrew who had to organise the whole thing and get it all together. I know he had great difficulty because he was trying to get this group into shape and yet they were going over his head to Derek all the time and I think it jolly nearly drove him into a nervous breakdown. In fact the design had to be modified considerably to be adaptable for a timber frame and if you go down to the scheme now you’ll see that it’s got what used to be known in the 1930s as a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne back. The front of the buildings is very different to the back of the buildings. I don’t think it’s turned out as being a very successful design and it’s very different in many ways from the elegant solution of the group.
What irks me considerably is that one sees now illustrated housing by members of that group in North London which is very traditional housing, almost Regency replicas and using polychrome brickwork and decoration, and I doubt if they’ve ever said I’m sorry to the people of Netherfield.
Question A news cutting described Netherfield as being similar to the Nash terraces of Bath.
Answer To the Nash terraces of Bath? There are some straight ones, almost identical houses placed side by side in a long row, so in that sense they are similar.
Question In your paper you talk about the success of social development. Is it the Social Development Department that takes the credit for this or is it the spirit of the people?
Answer Both. I think it would be very difficult to have one without the other. I feel certain that the pioneering work of the Social Development Department, in its persistence against abuse from other officers and its understanding, was essential to getting that spirit developed in the early days. That too goes back into the Plan and I’ve already acknowledged the work of Suzanne Beauchamp as being a very radical component in a new town plan, very practical and very down to earth but very, very good indeed.
Question Can I quote again from your paper. You say, “We were trying to build a balanced city but we were not balanced in our lives”. Can you explain that?
Answer I not only said it in my paper but in an evening meetings we had of Chief Officers I said it at the time. We all were totally committed to building Milton Keynes, we all cared desperately about the place, we were all willing to devote all of our waking thoughts and actions to Milton Keynes, but Milton Keynes isn’t all of life. We have our own health, spiritual and physical, to think about, we have our own health as far as our nearest and dearest and families are concerned to think about. We have our own as a group, a working community, to think about. With such a one eyed view of everything I think it was quite impossible to be balanced in that kind of situation unless one worked on it quite positively. I think I know a lot more about that kind of thing but that was certainly something that we talked about and something about which I felt very, very strongly.
I’ve long believed that people are whole people and cities are whole cities. If you begin to look at individual components in a kind of one eyed way, then you run the risk of terrible problems and, I think, the problems manifested themselves in all kinds of ways. We were absolutely paranoid about territorial defence, Alan Aston mustn’t say anything about architecture and Derek Walker mustn’t say anything about the quality of some kind of rate of return. We were like a pack of fighting animals in many ways, competing with one another to be tougher, braver, harder than the next person. I found that all this kind of thing was very unhealthy. One began to see, over time, an amelioration of that, people did begin to pull together but the pressure of work, the pressure of completions, the pressure of the whole thing militated against people living a whole life. What’s more, I think it militated against seeing what was going on in the world around us.
Now I think I mentioned something about that in my piece on Milton Keynes, that when I left Milton Keynes I suddenly looked up and I saw a whole other thing going on, issues which are far more important to me than Milton Keynes, particularly with different approaches to environmental design and management.
Examples of this become much more difficult because I would have to talk about individuals. You look, for example, at the health record, to the people at that time. Fred had terrible problems, all severe physical health problems and I don’t believe that the physical body and the mental body are different, these two things interact. Again, you look at people’s relationships with partners and their families and I think investigation into this would show a terrible toll in human unhappiness and confusion arising out of this. I know it goes on in other parts of world in all types of businesses but I think it’s all part of the same process and I certainly think it was focused and magnified in that particular group of people in Milton Keynes. It seems to me that this is another part of education, another part of life, that if people are going to be in that kind of position then they must strive very positively to make themselves whole people.
It has caused me, after Milton Keynes, to devote a lot of time and attention to studying these processes. I got very interested later in the kind of situation you find yourself in as an officer. I think we were in a very, very dangerous situation in those days in Milton Keynes and I think that danger, to me, came to its great and unfortunate conclusion when Alan Ashton died when it seemed to me, before my very eyes, this was happening. We were at totally opposite ends of the spectrum, if you like, the planner and the social development aspect of my work on one hand and Alan’s commercialism and profit motive, but that didn’t make any difference.
Question You say that there is a missing component, that it “does not have a basic appeal for ordinary people”. Can you tell me what you think might be missing?
Answer In a society, in a land, in a climate, in a culture, I think we build into ourselves, through generations and generations, a kind of natural order of things. I think it’s best expressed by the way we find our way around. Now if you were to go to a Cathedral City I don’t think you really need much direction, you find your way around, you know how to get to the market place, to the Cathedral. It’s probably down hill to the centre because it was at a bridging point and the river’s always at the bottom of a valley. I think this is built into us. The fact that millions of people go up into the Dales and look at buildings and villages that no architect had anything to do with, or to the Cotswolds. Architects go too. These things have this kind of inbuilt underlying order and we all have that. It is up to us as planners to try and understand that order and to build it into new organisations. That is not built into Milton Keynes and, what’s more, it is willfully not built into Milton Keynes. It was rejected, that kind of notion. It was rejected with this sort of modernist notion that we must be revolutionary, we must be different. Yet there is an order for example in American cities of a rather similar kind but it is not present in Milton Keynes. It could have been.
Question Where do we go from here with Milton Keynes?
Answer I think a very lusty child has been fathered. I think the people will take over Milton Keynes, are taking over Milton Keynes. The very fact that I’m doing this now is testament to that. We hear about Milton Keynes now, my vision, if you like, and conviction that day when I came across the hill and said, “there’ll be a city there one day” is more than ever reinforced. It isn’t too late, I think, to really give the place a city image. One of the things that I find very encouraging about Milton Keynes is the sort of things that we were talking about, about participation, about new forms of people interacting, new forms of work, new relationships between home and work, are all possible and are happening, so keep going for goodness sake.