A victory for democracy or a dangerous message that Milton Keynes is closed for business?
It is safe to say opinion is divided after two huge planning applications for Central Milton Keynes collapsed within a matter of days of each other.
Firstly, Primark withdrew its application for the Secklow Bridge site following continued lobbying from market traders and protest group, Xplain.
The plans would have seen the market moved to a new location and the bridge demolished.
Then, at last Thursday’s (February 21) development control committee meeting, proposals to extend Midsummer Place and build new restaurants were rejected.
Such was the opposition to the plans that members of the public cheered when councillors criticised the development, and booed when they backed it.
Some councillors even addressed comments to the public gallery, and Xplain chairman Linda Inoki in particular, rather than to committee chairman, Brian White.
The success of the opposition to Primark’s plans has been praised by everyone from city MPs Iain Stewart and Mark Lancaster, to ward councillors and market traders.
But there are some who fear the lobbying of groups like Xplain could give the impression that Milton Keynes is closed for business.
This week Labour politician and former MP, Mr White, and Conservative leader of Milton Keynes Council, Andrew Geary, both told the Citizen they were worried the city might be putting off potential investors.
It is a view that is rejected by Ms Inoki, who also sits on Central Milton Keynes Town Council and CMK Alliance – the group formed to come up with a neighbourhood plan for CMK.
She said the main aim of Xplain is to help CMK develop in the best possible way, while protecting core elements of the city centre.
At the centre of the argument is the Government’s Localism agenda, which would see more power passed to people living in an area to decide their own future.
Mr White said: “As always it is a balance between people who volunteer to put time in and becoming a vested interest.
“It is always getting the balance right. Different people have their own point of view on where that balance should be struck.
“One of the dangers of localism is that it becomes nimbyism. That isn’t the MK way.”
He told this newspaper that old ideas shouldn’t be allowed to prevent developmnent.
“It is important that as the city grows we continue to be innovative,” he said.
“One of the dangers is that people of my generation dominate thinking rather than looking to our young people. Linda’s group is the same age as me.
“Old fogies like me should not stop development for the future.
“It is important that the people that are going to make this city great are given the chance and are not crowded out by people of my generation who know how to use the system.
“We must find ways of hearing everyone.
“What is important is that we have different points of view. By discusssing and challenging we move forward.
“That is not to say one group is right or wrong. The process of discussion is what achieves results.”
He added: “There was a lovely quote from Peter Marland during the council’s budget meeting: ‘we must avoid being analogue politicians in a digital world’.
“It applies here too. We need politicians who understand how to take this city forward, not constantly look backwards.
“What is important is not whether one group has an outlook or not, but that we don’t put up barriers to people looking forward with ideas.
“We don’t want to become the Arsene Wengers, brilliant at the time but whose skills are fading.
“It is important that groups like Xplain exist and put their views forward, but it is also important other people’s views are heard as well.”
And Mr Geary backed his political opponent.
“Do Xplain do a good job as a lobby group? Yes they do. Do I always agree, no I don’t,” he said.
“They champion the issue of the market and I agree with that.
“But I am concerned, concerns that I have expressed, that the role Xplain is taking in championing some issues may be giving the impression that MK is closed for business.
“These are messages sent out with the right intentions, but they are giving the wrong impression.
“That is a real concern. MK is a thriving and growing city, and we are not going to stand still.
“We don’t want to give the wrong impresssion to potential investors.
“There is no evidence that the owners of the shopping centre are going to walk away. We would welcome an application from thecentre:mk that addresses the concerns the council has.
“There is a significant amount of the city centre that is not developed.
“What we don’t want to do is give the impression that unless you come along with exactly what we want then the answer will be no.
“That is the kind of message that Xplain could inadvertantly give.”
Their views were refuted by Milton Keynes South MP, Mark Lancaster, though.
The Conservative politician called the collapse of the Primark application ‘a victory for democracy’. He also proclaimed Milton Keynes as ‘open for business,’ saying strategic vision is needed to bring all the elements of the city centre together.
“I represent 85,000 constituents and 20,000 people signed the petition to save the market; a huge number. It is a collective of individuals,” he said.
“The main point of localism is to devolve power down to a more local level.
“What people often ask is ‘what say do I have?’ – here they had that say.
“For the first time in a long time people are taking an active role in what is happening.
“This has really fired people up and it is great people are interested in the future of our great city.”
Speaking about the collapse of the two planning applications, Ms Inoki said it was a victory for the principles of Xplain.
“It was so obvious to the man in the street. While everyone wants development, it must not be at the expense of infrastructure, jobs or communities like the market.
“There is a growing sense of outrage that this could have happened, it could have gone through.
“I hope it really alerted people to the value of what we have in MK.
“A lot of what Xplain does is tell people what goes on. Planning is quite a complicated area.
“We see this as a victory for MK.”
And she dismissed the idea Xplain was against development, citing a study into a transport route through the core of the city and a plan illustrating how retail and leisure areas can be developed, including the Food Centre and the Point.
“There are 100 acres of vacant development sites in CMK. The area hasn’t even been completed yet,” she said.
“If our council were to approve applications to build over public highway and grid squares then they would deserve a vote of no confidence.
“I know people like Andrew Geary are very much behind localism. The council commissioned the neighbourhood plan so they have been innovative.
“Residents and businesses have taken that up.
“I appreciate the concern, but if this had gone through the message would have been that we are so desperate for investment we will tear ourselves apart for some shops.
“Milton Keynes is unique, it works. It has a robust infrastructure.
“You don’t get MK unless you live here. We might see all these big boulevards and think we can build there and they can cope, but it doesn’t work like that.
“Nobody is against growth, but I hope people realise how important the original build and social fabric is.
“It is a difficult balancing act, but the city centre can’t be run for a private retail mall.
“All council policies talk about a lively, vibrant city centre, good for local people and visitors. There is a real danger big retailers will keep trying to turn it into an out of town shopping mall right in the middle of the city.”
And she added: “We do try to come out with some positive ideas.
“The way these planning aplications have come out we have ended up fighting a rearguard action.
“We do try to generate positive ideas and we have done a lot of work with the market since the Secklow fire.
“We would like to see recognition that Secklow Gate and the listed building is the focus of the city.
“Around that focus, we would like to see some imagination going into development.
“We would love for thecentre:mk to come back and say we understand where you are coming from and to work with us.”
But Mr White remains worried that lobby groups in CMK are too focused on protecting the original plan of the city.
He cites the case of the listed shopping centre building.
“The listed building isn’t the original design, which had no doors. If you want it how it was originally designed, knock the doors off.
“That is one of the problems. We are in danger of becoming like that. If that message gets out we will not get investment.
“No-one will thank us if we lose out because of the perception.
“We need to make sure we get the jobs we need and we get the investment. To be fair to Linda and her supporters they recognise that.
“It is not a black and white issue. People tend to put the arguement in extreme terms. It is about where you draw the line, the balance.”
And although he believes MK will suffer in the short term from rejecting the development plans, he believes the situation can be recovered.
“Whether it has long term lasting damage depends on the steps we take next,” he said.
“If we can engage and get a better scheme and one that reflects people’s concerns it can be to our advantage.”
It is a view echoed by Milton Keynes North MP, Iain Stewart, who is confident a solution can be reached.
He told the Citizen: “The view I take is that there is room in CMK for both the big retailers and the small individual stall holders.
“I would like to see them, using the new powers of localism, all working together and mutually benefiting from each other.
“They are not fighting over customers as they offer different services. If CMK can offer a diversity then surely that increases the attractiveness?”
The neighbourhood plan, already drawn up by CMK Alliance – which includes members of CMK Town Council, the borough council and business leaders, is due to be revealed in the near future.
Mr White called it a ‘very useful way to get all these strands together’.
“There are going to be two referendums on the plan – a business referendum and a residents’ referedum. Both have to pass for the plan to pass, and the plan has to conform to the council’s core strategy.
“The plan for CMK cannot be at odds with that.
“The town council couldn’t say we will have no homes or jobs. There has got to be conformity.”
What plans will come next from the city’s shopping centres remain to be seen.
But both Mr White and Ms Inoki agreed thecentre:mk needs to engage more with people in CMK.
The Xplain leader said the way the shopping centre didn’t consult directly with market traders was ‘astonishing’.
She blasted managers for coming up with a solution which she says would have meant the end of the market.
“I think that (lack of direct consultation) was a very bad thing. It might have meant they stepped back from this disastrous plan,” she said.
She added she felt thecentre:mk had been economical with the truth in community engagement reports submitted to the council, calling its presentation of statistics “misleading and inaccurate,” while an exercise to get shoppers to tick a box on a postcard to say they supported Primark was ‘a very bad thing’.
“I do think they have some explaining to do to the people of Milton Keynes,” she added.
“It is a shame because they are a major employer.”
And Mr White said: “Part of the problem was that the shopping centre management didn’t engage properly.
“Midsummer Place did, but there was a mis-match between politicians who succumbed to a crowd and what they would have done otherwise.”
What seems certain is that whatever plans come next will engender plenty of debate.