Having rushed between the two shopping centres of Centre:MK and intu Milton Keynes, escaping the sudden blast of cold wind that often whips down Midsummer Boulevard or even just running the gauntlet of smokers not allowed to smoke indoors these days, my children have on a number of occasions questioned why these two buildings are not connected. On those occasions I have told them that Centre:MK is a grade II listed building and that the builders of “the new bit” were not allowed to join to it. This, as you might imagine, results in a further barrage of questions about why such an ugly rectangular box of a building should have been granted listed status. I confess that it is only recently that I have begun to understand the significance of this building.
When the shopping centre opened in 1979 it was a remarkable building on a number of accounts. It was, at the time, the largest shopping centre in Europe. These days it is only the 14th largest in the UK yet it still possesses qualities that those other shopping centres lack and which everyday shoppers may not even notice.
Its interior limestone cladding looks a little dated these days but it does offer a sleek finish (and the perfect surface for a bit of shoe-skating, as many children have discovered). The lines of seating and extravagant planting in between offer a welcome respite to the weary shopper or hungry take-away eater. The vast space of Middleton Hall, so often filled with an exhibition and famous for its Christmas displays, is perhaps underestimated as a useful feature that most other shopping centres simply don’t have. This is mirrored further down the mall by the outside open space of “Queens Court”. Once the home of the “Infinity Pool”, this open space was regenerated in 2010 to be used as a food court, surrounded by prestigious branded eating establishments, such as Nandos and Yo!Sushi, and occasionally filled with outdoor traders for special markets.
These features are probably the more obvious ones. Anyone arriving at the centre of town and parking in Debenham’s multi-storey car park and then making their way down past the Frog Clock to ground level will probably have forgotten that one of the most remarkable features of Centre:MK is that it is all built on one level. Given that building work started in the 1973, it is amazing that it was designed so that someone could arrive by car or bus and walk in and access every shop without even having to raise a foot up over a threshold. Over the years, it has won awards for its accessibility.
Allocating 4500 car parking spaces within a 4 minute walk of the shops in an era of a 3 day working week and scheduled power-cuts, when car ownership was less wide-spread, was indeed visionary.
Whilst the shoppers are blissfully unaware of how conveniently they are enjoying single-level shopping down below, above their heads deliveries are made to the roof, meaning that no space is wasted at shop level for untidy loading bays. You may, if you happen to glance up at the right moment, glimpse a delivery lorry through one of the high level windows.
But for the rest of the time those high level windows are serving their function to bathe the indifferent shopper in natural light. With most other shopping centres of a similar size being buried beneath car parking or other shops or storage, this use of natural light is a positive plus point for Centre:MK. It becomes more apparent as you move from the end of the original building near House of Fraser into an extension that houses M&S. Before 1993 this used to be another outside space called “City Square” but now it serves to lengthen the shopping centre yet further. However, you will notice that it has a much lower ceiling and a distinct absence of natural light, feeling gloomy and enclosed in comparison.
The shopping centre was conceived as a covered High Street and when it was opened in 1979 there were no doors – just openings in the walls. However, it wasn’t long before it was realised that this was a mistake and doors were added. The open, long corridors of the mall acted like a wind tunnel and it also made security an issue. Although it was supposed to be monitored, like other High Streets, by the bobby on the beat, there were issues with people loitering at night and even anecdotes of people racing minis along those limestone corridors.
One of the problems was that there was no nightlife at the time to keep the centre vibrant and busy after the shops had closed. I remember this feeling even in the early 90s when I first moved from Kempston to Milton Keynes. There were a few pubs, such as The City Duck and the Rose and Castle, and a cinema at The Point had opened in 1985, but there was nothing like the amazing array of entertainment that there is today to draw people into the centre for food and entertainment even when the retail establishments are shut.
The High Street concept did have some advantages though, leading to a mix of shops and vendors that is somewhat lacking these days. Early shoppers reminisce about getting freshly baked croissants, pain au chocolate and French bread from Au Bon Pain, or bread from George Ort Bakery. There was Goddens the butchers, Gerrards the green grocer, shops selling nuts and dried fruit, roasted coffee beans and supplies for home brew. Waitrose sat close to Budgens and there was an indoor market open 6 days a week in Midsummer Arcade selling fish, cheese, fruit and veg and meat. The outdoor market ran from 1pm to 7.30pm every Tuesday and Saturday and there was a Craft and Collectors Market every Thursday.
These small independent retailers were knitted between the big brands such as John Lewis, Woolworths, C&A, BHS and Dickens and Johns. Even one of the first McDonalds in the country could be found here. It is perhaps remarkable that any of them came at all given that there weren’t actually many people living in Milton Keynes at the time. But it was seen as a new “regional” shopping centre and people would travel up to 50 miles from the surrounding area to visit it and big brands were proud to be part of it.
But things change. Whilst around the country other High Streets have suffered mass extinction, the centre of Milton Keynes has evolved and survived. The Food Hall opened in 1988 and Waitrose moved out of the centre building to join Sainsburys and Iceland and to bring convenient supermarket shopping into the heart of Milton Keynes. This heyday was not to last, however, and as Milton Keynes grew the regional centres of Kingston and Westcroft were built, providing the shopper an attractive out of town shopping experience.
Sainsburys moved into new premises in 2010 when The Hub was built and Waitrose moved out to the newly constructed Oakgrove estate in 2014. Where once the entertainment businesses of ice-skating, bowling and a nightclub stood, in 2014-15, the Leisure Plaza was redeveloped and a large Morrisons supermarket took up its place next to the railway station. And the development of MK1 by the new stadium has opened up yet more retail and restaurant space next door to the impressively large Asda (still currently the largest in the country). A new Asda opening in Oakridge Park in 2016, plans to build a Tesco on the old Aston Martin site in Newport Pagnell and plans to expand the existing Tesco in Wolverton show that the demand of out of centre shopping is in no way waning, although small convenience stores in the local centres have also recently become part of the supermarket brands’ areas of growth.
Although the Food Hall currently stands largely empty and underutilised, the rest of the centre is thriving, if somewhat changed from its 1980s template. Some of the UK’s best known brands have famously gone bust over the years as mismanagement and a changing retail environment have taken their toll. No longer do C&A, Woolworths and BHS have a place on any High Street. Where once it was reckoned that a company might need around 400-500 shops to cover the whole country, with the rise of the internet, it is now seen that 75 shops and a good website is all that is required. Filling the void are bargain brands and discount stores as well as small independent traders; with the internet providing a more level playing field behind the scenes.
With the opening of the Xscape in 2000 and the development of the Hub in 2008, entertainment, dining and hospitality have become an important part of the centre of Milton Keynes, even allowing the Jury’s Inn to break the old rule of “no building higher than the tallest tree” with the first 12 storey building in 2006. Although these entertainment developments ultimately led to the downfall of the iconic Point, it has also created the vibrant nightlife that was for so long absent from the centre. Restaurants have taken up units made vacant by retailers and the likes of The City Duck, Rose & Castle and Starting Gate have made way for modern chain pubs such as Weatherspoons and The Slug & Lettuce. There are now numerous reasons to enjoy the centre after dark.
With Milton Keynes’ 50th birthday weekend fast approaching, I took my daughter into the Centre:MK to see the exhibition in Middleton Hall about the history of Milton Keynes. We parked in one of the many ground level parking spaces and walked straight into the shopping centre without climbing a single step. As we walked along the long, limestone clad corridors I took the time to look up to the space above my head and to appreciate for a moment the daylight coming in. We paused to ponder Queen’s Court and to wonder whether its new food court designation was better suited now to today’s consumers than the Infinity Pool would have been. As we finally approached Middleton Hall we could feel in our feet that this is still the longest single level shopping centre in the country.
Admittedly we don’t come into the centre of Milton Keynes often but my daughter commented that she had never seen Middleton Hall empty. It is good to see that such a space is still so well used and I for one appreciate the introduction of markets such as the Handmade and Vintage Fairs that, since 2011, has allowed independent traders the chance to be exposed to the market place of this popular retail environment.
Having thoroughly digested the exhibit, we walked back along the mall towards our car. I waved my arms around, pointing to the outdoor market that continues
to this day, although it is struggling, some say due to ever rising car parking costs. I point to where the indoor market once was but where no evidence of its existence remains. We walk past a tiny hairdressers and a newsagents and the small barrow-like traders that fill the mall space between the shops and we are glad to see small businesses making a living next to the big brands. As we pass House of Fraser we spot the change in the floor tiles as we leave the original building and move into the 1990s extension. Now stood under a low ceiling under artificial light I scratch my head and try to remember what the City Square even looked like. That’s the funny thing about change, it seems so alarming at the time but then it is often hard to remember what it was like before.
Now, turning left, we leave the Centre:MK and head towards what we usually call “the new bit”, that once went by the name of Midsummer Place but is now called intu MK. This new addition was added in 2000 and holds a further 50 shops and infamously killed the impressive oak tree that had otherwise survived the urban development around it.
We stop for a moment in that windy gap because my daughter has asked how they close it off at night. The answer, of course, is that they don’t. Like the Shopping Centre before it this building was built with no doors and is open even after the shops have shut. What I can now tell her is that everything we can see directly in front of us is straddling what was once Midsummer Boulevard, cutting the road off. I learnt only recently that Midsummer Boulevard was so named because it was built on the line of the rising sun on Midsummer’s Day. I can’t believe I didn’t know that before as it seems so obvious and I had even stood in this same spot back in July 2012 in the early hours of the morning after helping out with the Midnight Moo, watching with amazement as the sun rose into this gap between the two buildings. How much more impressive would that have looked if this building hadn’t been here? Well, maybe it won’t always be here as it was a condition of its construction that nothing can be built in the bit that straddles Midsummer Boulevard that can’t be removed in order to reinstate the Boulevard in the future should planners decide to reopen it.
With that possibility on our minds we ponder what else might be on the cards for the future of the central retail environment of Milton Keynes. In 2016 Smash Burger opened their first UK restaurant in Milton Keynes, showing that Milton Keynes is very much a destination town but as this was in the Kingston Centre rather than Centre:MK does it suggest that the centre has past its sell by date? There are certainly things that need addressing. The former BHS store still stands empty, the market continues to struggle, Sainsburys and Hermes are still at loggerheads over the vacant tenancy in the Food Hall, and both car parking charges and retail rents continue to rise. However, plans were announced in 2015 to extensively redevelop intu , and Centre:MK will shortly be starting a £60 million redevelopment that includes internal improvement works, the building of a new multistory car park near John Lewis and digital investment in a new app, webpage and social media presence. This clearly shows that there is still ambition and drive to keep the centre vibrant and in touch with changing consumer needs. With Middleton Hall periodically utilised for specialist markets and fayres and intu exploring the possibility of hosting artisan markets in 2017, there continues to be scope for independent traders to enjoy the exposure of this popular retail space too. Having said that, I believe that people don’t go into Central Milton Keynes looking for an artisan shopping experience. They want the familiarity, buzz and kudos of the big brands, chain stores and trendy bars and the predictable menus of franchise restaurants. They are looking for a city centre experience, not an out-of-town-supermarket or a local High Street one. If they wanted those then they would shop at Kingston, Westcroft or MK1, or Stony, Wolverton or Olney and that diversity of opportunities is what makes Milton Keynes, as a whole, great.
I’m sure that retail and entertainment in central Milton Keynes will continue to evolve. There will be change. Some people will protest. Some will rejoice. Some businesses will thrive and others will fail. There will be mistakes and, with any luck, there will be triumphs. I feel Milton Keynes has come too far to be anything other than a destination shopping hub and entertainment centre that serves both its immediate community and the wider region, whatever that might mean in the future.