Political battle lines have been drawn in Milton Keynes between the Conservatives and the Labour-Lib Dem partnership over the issue of growing the city’s population to 500,000.
The debate came to a head on Wednesday at the full MK Council where the Tory group said they weren’t against growth but wanted clarity on what they called an ‘arbitrary’ growth target up to the year 2050.
Labour leader Pete Marland said the Tory opposition was talking ‘nonsense’ because the Conservative Government wanted Milton Keynes to grow to 480,000 anyway. At the last census in 2011 the population of the borough was 248,800.
Councillors were debating the Council Plan, which has seamlessly stitched together the election manifestos of Labour and the Lib Dems. Both parties agreed to do this after the local elections on May 2.
Conservative John Bint (Broughton), said there is “lots of good stuff” in the plan, particularly over the environment. The council is to set itself ambitious targets to cut carbon emissions, and tackle other problems such as taking action on child poverty, and setting up a housing company.
He said: “At the moment this looks like a big number out of the air that has no rationale or justification or even any reason that it is something we should aspire to.
“Because there is no public buy-in we wait for an explanation to why anyone should believe it’s a good idea. We cannot support the plan in its totality because this aspect is so fundamentally problematic.
“We share the aspiration for growth, but not this number.”
And Cllr Peter Geary (Cons, Olney) accused the “coalition” of arrogance that would lead to the undoing of the two parties at the ballot box.
He said: “Rather than listening to the electorate, you continue to push forward. You want to carry on anyway, no matter what. You want to tell people what is in their best interests – you ought to listen to them. We as a party do listen.”
But Lib Dem Cllr Jenni Ferrans (Monkston), took “delight in supporting this plan, and in particular the parts that the Conservatives are taking such exception to.”
She added: “I listen week after week to people who have got major issues with housing. People who can’t afford the housing that they want to buy, people who are desperately overcrowded, the single mother who is single because her husband can’t stand it any longer staying in a single bedroom house with two adults and two children. That’s the sort of level we’ve got to – the market has run amok, there isn’t enough housing.
“For the Conservatives who believe that 400,000 is enough, you are kidding.”
Cllr Ric Brackenbury (Lib Dem, Campbell Park and Old Woughton) urged the Conservatives to think about their position. “Opposing growth as a nimby tactic is a dead end in Milton Keynes,” he said.
Summing up, Labour leader Cllr Pete Marland (Wolverton) said that the 500,000 mark has been in the council plan for three years.
“No one doesn’t want growth but like Brexit, people are being sold an idealistic dream if the Conservatives get their way. Because no deal will see growth go to 480,000. That is the trajectory on current government targets.
“For 500,000 and beyond we put forward a deal to government that would have delivered £30 million to this council to work through those issues. The Conservative MPs blocked it.
“They blocked the money to do what you want, so either join up what you want to do or shut up. We know that had that party been in charge in 1967 this city would not be here, but Labour said build it.
“You should stop putting up straw men, be they Brexit or 500,000. Let’s work together rather than debating something that’s just nonsense.”
The Council Plan to 2022 was approved by Labour and the Lib Dems while the Tories sat on their hands. But such is the extent of the partnership’s combined majority of seats on the council, it wouldn’t have mattered even if the Conservatives had voted against.