Fred Roche: The man who built Milton Keynes

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THIS month ‘City Gardens’ in central Milton Keynes could become ‘Fred Roche Gardens’.

The re-naming of the three-acre site behind Christ the Cornerstone Church would honour one of the founding fathers of Milton Keynes, a man who built the city’s homes, planted its gardens and masterminded its shopping facilities.

Fred Roche

Fred Roche

The Fred Roche Foundation has been campaigning to raise awareness of this great man, with proposals to re-name Station Square in his honour – a move rejected by Milton Keynes Council in August.

But the authority did agree Mr Roche’s work needed to be recognised.

The plans to re-name ‘City Gardens’ are now open to consultation, but how many residents are currently aware of the great work Mr Roche did for MK?

CRAIG LEWIS looks at the life of the man who built Milton Keynes.

The centre of Milton Keynes under construction

The centre of Milton Keynes under construction

‘Milton Keynes must be regarded as living tribute to Fred Roche’s leadership of professional teams working together to design and build quality towns and cities’.

So an obituary for one of the city’s founding fathers concluded in 1992.

The report in the Independent was written less than a week after Fred Roche passed away on November 9, 1992. It referred to him ‘a special architect... a city builder’.

Mr Roche, pictured left, was a visionary who not only built houses, but designed city centres, championed the garden city movement and was responsible for Central Milton Keynes’ shining shopping centre.

Born in March 1931, Fred Roche seemed destined to be involved in the building industry.

His father was described as a ‘speculative builder on a grand scale’ working around the south-east of England.

Mr Roche believed the best developments involved a collaboration of architects, landscape designers, engineers and planners.

Multi-professional teams led by Mr Roche were responsible for the centres of Milton Keynes, Runcorn and Butlers Wharf at Tower Bridge.

His own career started in the more formal surrounds of Erith Borough Council in London where he was a housing architect, before he moved to Coventry in 1958 to work as the deputy schools architect. After a spell at the Midlands Housing Consortium, he became chief architect and planning officer for Runcorn in 1965.

His success in Runcorn, where he designed and built the shopping centre, housing and factories for families moving from Liverpool, persuaded the first chairman of Milton Keynes Development Corporation, Lord Campbell of Eskan, to recruit him to help build a new city.

Appointed general manager in 1971, Mr Roche’s first job was to boost housing production. He oversaw the largest programme of homes production in Britain, with 3,000 being built every year.

Despite being the mastermind behind this huge building programme, Mr Roche was also the man behind Milton Keynes’ exceptional landscape design. Even today MK is heralded for its 22 million trees and 4,500 acres of lakes and parkland.

Another of his vital contributions came from his work leading the team that developed Central Milton Keynes. His team produced ambitious designs for the city centre as a whole and the shopping building at a time when the rest of the country was working a three-day week.

Speaking to the Milton Keynes Mirror in 1980, Mr Roche revealed how the whole project had almost ground to a halt.

When he took over in 1970, doubts were being raised by the fledgling population, investors and even central government.

“There was a tremendous scepticism and a slight wearing off of the original glamour,” Mr Roche had told the Mirror.

“In a sense the task was getting it off the ground and getting it on the move. It was very much like a heavy vehcile, the revs needed to be high at first to get it going, but as time goes by it generates a much greater degree of momentum.”

He added: “If you look this Spring at the flowers and the leaves on the trees I think that large parts of the city will be very beautiful places in years to come.

“The lifeblood of Milton Keynes has been the generation of employment, which was more vital than with any other new town because of its distance from any other major conurbation.

“We have become a regional employment area.”

Mr Roche went on to found his own professional practice with Sir Terrence Conran in 1980; Conran Roche. The pair’s projects included London Docklands and Butlers Wharf.

When he left the development corporation, Lord Campbell called him ‘brilliant... imaginative... remarkable... the man behind one of Britain’s great post-war success stories’.

The comments, printed in the Milton Keynes Gazette on August 8, 1980, also included the incredible line: “Si momumentum requiris circumspice – if you want a mounument look around’.

“We started Milton Keynes in green fields from nothing, and everything you see has been completed under his remarkable leadership and drive’.

An obituary for Mr Roche in the Independent written less than a week after his death called him, ‘a special architect... a city builder’.

The report reveals how he ‘had the ideal personal characteristics for a city builder – incredibly hard working, he would pursue the creation of quality environments in a hard, single-mindedway’.

But it also highlights a modest man who ‘reminded his friends of Lord Campbell’s advice that the best way of achieving results is to let others take the credit’.

It concludes: ‘Milton Keynes must be regarded as living tribute to Fred Roche’s leadership of professional teams working together to design and build quality towns and cities’.

Given his involvement, it is no surprise Mr Roche was a staunch defender of Milton Keynes.

A profile of the citybuilder, written in 1983, revealed his frustration at critics of the new city.

“I’ve sat next to people at dinner parties who didn’t know who I was, and who have said that Milton Keynes must have been easily done – and speak disparagingly about it,” he said.

“Easily done – to make a city for a quarter of a million people inside 20 years out of bare fields and old villages? Just imagine taking representatives of pensions funds out on to a hill with nothing there except grass and selling the idea of investing millions in a shopping centre that doesn’t exist.”

Perhaps the greatest tributes to Mr Roche came from his co-workers.

In Roger Kitchen’s ‘The story of the original CMK,’ Trevor Denton, who headed the CMK housing team from 1973, said: “Nothing much had been achieved (for) about three years and Fred Roche took over.

“The whole project was in the balance... (so he set) a target of 3,000 house a year. There was a shortage of labour, of bricks. And we simply started!”

Former chief executive and planning officer Derek Walker, who worked at the development corporation from 1970-76, described him as ‘a real hard man, great with Government’ who knew all the ins and outs of Whitehall.

And Henry Diamond, who worked as a land agent acquiring land for the new city, said of Mr Roche’s team: “If there was a rule, you found a way to break it and you’d get the job done.

“It was just a great team to work for.”

So next time you are sitting in a park, enjoying a day’s shopping in the city centre or even relaxing at home spare a thought for Fred Roche, who made it all happen.

> The consultation period into the re-naming of the Fred Roche Memorial Gardens started on October 3. It will run for 21 days.

To give your views on the proposal call Kate Davidson on 01908 252109 or email kate.davidson@milton-keynes.gov.uk
It is hoped the gardens will be officially re-named from November.