What’s a city do when it’s frustratingly known mostly for concrete cows and roundabouts?
Milton Keynes (MK) needed to rebuff the myth, to use its 50th birthday to celebrate the city’s unique character, created by the diversity and creativity of its “newcomer” citizens who turned MK from a concrete joke into the most successful New Town in the UK. It also needed to signpost its MK Futures vision to become internationally recognised as a ‘creative and cultured city’ by 2050.
However, in common with other local authority areas, austerity-busting partying was not an option. So what to do? Milton Keynes Council (MKC) responded to these needs by devising an innovative democratic model, providing a framework empowering partners from the city’s cultural, voluntary and business communities to deliver a birthday programme: MK50.
Key to the success of this collaborative model was buy-in from the Milton Keynes community, MKC Members and senior MKC officers (the MK50 steering group included community members and the Councillor Cultural portfolio holder), and commitment by MKC of a budget for seed funding and provision of an MK50 project manager.
Seed funding for community groups was passed to the MK Community Foundation where, doubled by match funding, it provided community grants (e.g. for MK50 apps). Seed funding for high profile events levered sponsorship and external funding. The Stables working with MKC Economic Development Department increased its initial funding by a factor of more than 5, enabling the whole city to enjoy a free, large-scale spectacular birthday party, produced in conjunction with Walk the Plank. MKC’s project manager was the fulcrum for the whole project, proactively engaging with groups, organisations and the wider community, nurturing their ideas, signposting funding, providing an events toolkit and listings. A PR agency provided joined-up communications, backed up by printed What’s On Guides, a dedicated website, a social media campaign, and branded merchandise.
The actual Birthday on 23rd January 2017 achieved 47.9 million views of MK50 messages, and PR coverage worth £1.3million equivalent advertising spend. The outcome was a year-long cultural and community led programme, punctuated with high profile events, including a Royal Visit form HRH Duke of Cambridge. A groundswell of civic pride, celebratory buzz and general positivity was generated within the community. Over 110 ‘official’ events were delivered in addition to some unexpected ones (e.g. businesses inspired by the cumulative and contagious celebrations gave 50 free taxi rides, and free dinners for people celebrating their 50th birthdays, and Milton Keynes’ own Red Bull Racing couldn’t resist the MK50 party). One in three people in Milton Keynes attended or took part in an MK50 event.
Milton Keynes used its MK50 celebrations to mark the beginning of an ambitious cultural journey. During its birthday year it bid for EU Capital of Culture 2023, put plans in place for participating in European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018, creating MK European City of Design in 2019, Green City of Trees in 2020, all leading (if selected) to European Capital of Culture in 2023.