If you were planning a town to withstand a pandemic, it might look something like Milton Keynes, a past vision of the future coming into its own in the turmoil of the present.
Originally conceived in the 1960s as overspill from London, the best known of the UK’s new-builds was constructed halfway to Birmingham on a flat expanse of farmland.
Adjoining the northbound M1 motorway and within easy reach of the M40 heading west, it has become a logistics hub, sitting at the centre of an expanding ecommerce economy where virtual shopping becomes material. Vast, mile-long warehouses and distribution centres dot its outskirts.
The town’s comparative resistance to Covid-19 points to how past planning, as well as geography, will play a role in determining which places ride out the pandemic and rebound.
“We are where we are for a reason,” said Peter Marland, the town’s Labour council leader. “When they looked in the 1960s at where to build God knows how many houses, there was the varsity line — we are midway between Oxford and Cambridge — and we are in between London and Birmingham.”
Milton Keynes now harbours everything from the UK headquarters of multinationals and professional service companies to sole traders, fintech start-ups, tractor manufacturers and battalions of van drivers. It is strategically placed at the south of a so-called “golden triangle” from which nearly 90 per cent of Britain’s population can be reached within five hours.
“Because we sit on a number of axis points on the motorway network there is a huge push in terms of investment for logistics,” said Melanie Beck, who runs MyMiltonKeynes, a council project financed by local businesses to spruce up the central shopping and business district.
More than 150m sq ft of warehouse space has been created along the M1 corridor in recent years, with Magna Park in Milton Keynes housing vast logistics sheds for companies including Amazon, John Lewis and Adidas. Last month, Marks and Spencer joined them, opening a food distribution centre for the south-east.
“Parts of industry have gone through five gears in five months as a result of a seismic shift in consumer habits,” said Gavin Williams, managing director of the UK subsidiary of XPO, the logistics company that runs the Marks and Spencer site and eight others in Milton Keynes.
Historically, he said, it was a difficult area in which to recruit. Not so today. XPO has filled 350 jobs this year, absorbing losses locally from other hard-hit sectors.
“What we have seen is a material shift from bricks and mortar to ecommerce, and from hospitality to the grocery sector. People are eating a lot more at home,” Mr Williams said.
In Milton Keynes, a fleet of more than a hundred delivery robots makes eating in without going out easy. They roam the pavements autonomously, delivering via an app for 40 companies including the Co-op supermarket and a fish-and-chip shop.
The town’s pioneering spirit has provided the right environment for such innovation, said Andrew Curtis, who runs a branch of Starship, the Estonian company that first deployed the robots two years ago.
“Milton Keynes is facing similar problems to everywhere but it is unique in that it is happy to adapt to new things at the outset. It has always been futuristic,” he said.
Indeed, its garden city design seems prescient in the age of social distancing. Weaving in and out of 26 parks are 160 miles of bicycle and pedestrian paths, all sustained, like the local charitable foundation, by land endowments gifted at the outset.
Throughout the pandemic, transmission of Covid-19 has been relatively lower. The most recent data released by Public Health England showed that in the week to October 19, Milton Keynes recorded 67.5 cases per 100,000. The area in England with the highest infection rate in the same time period was Knowsley, Merseyside, which recorded 662 per 100,000.
“If you were thinking about laying out a place, given where we are at now, this would probably be it,” said Andrew Carter, director of the Centre for Cities think-tank. “It’s not only that it is not reliant on public transport, it has a road infrastructure that allows a lot of cars to move around at the same time without congestion.
“Because of the low-density nature of housing and office space, you don’t have thousands of workers all tightly crammed together,” Mr Carter said.
Built on a Los Angeles-style grid, interrupted by roundabouts and circled by carriageways, Milton Keynes has sometimes been derided as sterile and soulless. Its leafy, suburban neighbourhoods were portrayed, in the 1980s, as dystopian by the singer Paul Weller and the town does still harbour pockets of severe deprivation.
Its businesses have not completely escaped the chill winds blowing through the UK economy. The collapse in June of Adelie foods, one of the UK’s largest sandwich makers, cost more than 2,000 jobs, many in Milton Keynes.
Hundreds more jobs, especially for younger workers, have gone in the town centre where shops and restaurants are concentrated around a once ultra-modern shopping centre now protected by England’s National Heritage charity as an architectural relic. Footfall is down 30 per cent since last year.
But the town’s spacious layout lends itself readily to change, and the diverse nature of the local economy provides opportunities for residents to change course, too.
“There is no intrinsic reason why places succeed,” Mr Marland said, stressing that any jobs created recently along the M1 corridor, could soon be swept away by automation.
The key in Milton Keynes, he said, will be to create the skills locally to take advantage of the town’s position in “the arc of knowledge” between the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge where Britain’s place in global future technology will be determined.
“Jobs will always change,” Mr Marland said. “For every white-van man you lose, you have to gain two coders for the robots.”