The creation of Milton Keynes began in March 1967 with the founding of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, tasked with delivering an ambitious project; the largest ‘new town’ development in the country. However, what is less spoken about today, more than 50 years on, is the futuristic Buckinghamshire town that never was – the North Bucks New City. Informally known as ‘Pooleyville’, the 1966 plans for the new town were the brainchild of County Architect, Fred Pooley, born from the County Council’s ambition to build a city of their own.
By the early 1960s, the need for an overspill town to relieve development pressure on the south of the county was becoming glaringly apparent. In 1962, Planning Officer Bill Berrett first came up with the proposal for a ‘North Bucks New City’, and Fred Pooley drafted a town plan.
These days, Pooley is perhaps best known locally for his divisive Brutalist tower block on Walton Street in Aylesbury, which opened in 1967 complete with the county council’s first computer. It’s somewhat disparagingly still known as ‘Pooley’s Folly’ today. Had his plans for the North Bucks New City come to fruition, Milton Keynes might look a little like a series of Pooley’s follies!
His vision was an artful, dragonfly-wing-shaped city between Bletchley and Wolverton, comprised of a series of townships each home to 5000 people. Rather than built round a network of roads, the townships would be linked together, and to the centre of the city, by the very epitome of 1960s modernity; a rate-payer funded, free-to-ride monorail.
The Observer’s architecture critic described Pooley’s plans as ‘the most adventurous and imaginative scheme in Britain’ in 1964, when the plans were up for approval by the county council, and even went as far as to decry that if this ‘city of the future’ wasn’t approved, the chance for something so bold, so modern, would never come again.
But was the plan for the monorail so modern?
Despite often being characterised as futuristic, the monorail was invented in the nineteenth century, in Germany. Often elevated, and operating on a single track, mid-20th century Britain viewed it as a brilliant alternative to the existing railway network, avoiding many of its traditional counterpart’s pitfalls: unsightly cables, space consumption and competition with pedestrians and drivers, pollution.
However, the rise of the motorcar meant that monorail systems never really got off the ground, as it were, outside of the odd example in the United States. In a climate that was seeing the shrinking of the UK’s railway network, it was impossible to justify new rail infrastructure, regardless of how innovative.
Ultimately, the County Council couldn’t fund the construction of Pooleyville anyway, and central government appointed Sir Jock Campbell to chair the new Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) in 1967. Pooley was appointed a local representative to advise MKDC, and still hoped to integrate some of his ideas into the plans. However, the corporation preferred a layout which put the car at the heart of city planning. Pooley didn’t give up easily, but was eventually forced to accept the failure of his plans, and the grid square layout the city has today is the result of the victory of MKDC’s vision over that of Pooley.
‘One of nature’s gentlemen’
In his long tenure at the county council between 1953 and 1974 Fred Pooley oversaw a number of important projects in Buckinghamshire, including several libraries, and was praised by critic Ian Nairn as ‘a remarkable man, completely free from pretension or arrogance…’.
He left the council in 1974 to work for the Greater London Council, where he was involved in the development of London Docklands and Thameslink. He was President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) between 1973 and 1975, and, on his death at the age of 81, was remembered by the Architects’ Journal in 1998 as being ‘Liked by almost everyone who worked with him, [and] a quiet-voiced pragmatist – but one whose leaps of imagination could surprise’ – perhaps they still do.
Learn more about the early vision for Milton Keynes in Guy Ortolano’s podcast, Building Milton Keynes, based on the research for his book, Thatcher’s Progress.