To Milton Keynes Council: we are more than a city of chains
May 20, 2017
Tacos, pulled pork, burgers and other foods can be found in chain restaurants all around Milton Keynes. But why would you have mass produced uniformity when you can enjoy locally and independently produced artisan food?
That is a question I keep asking myself whenever I attend one of Milton Keynes' regular foodie events. MK has a burgeoning street food scene: Clucking Oinks, Good Times Cafe, Saf's Kitchen, just to name a few. Events have started springing up around town and each time there is someone new bringing delicious food to try.
But talking to a trader at a recent artisan food fair, it soon became apparent that despite the number of events that are starting to spring up, there is something missing: support, mostly from Milton Keynes Council.
Comments I have received on Facebook from MK vendors, and through conversation with friends, backs this up. Compared with other towns in the country, the decision makers at MK Council seem to be blind to the thriving community that is springing up. Their focus is largely on the larger businesses and chains, which is a shame. There have been reports of the council being unhelpful when it comes to organising street food events, which includes a reluctance to allow vendors to operate in the theatre district or The Hub for fear of upsetting the chain restaurants there.
Facebook comments include:
"It speaks volumes that on a couple of occasions last year when Queens Court in CMK hosted a street food market, the traders came from as far afield as London and Birmingham yet none of the growing band of MK based traders were involved. As for the council, my opinion is that they are more concerned about revenue from traders and telling them where they can't pitch up than supporting local businesses."
"It's truly heartbreaking to know that once upon a time MK council was seen as forward thinking and 'different'. I've never seen so many vendors under one roof that struggle so much with places to trade. I've even turned into an events organiser to support 'local'. It's just a shame the council don't see the huge potential in us!"
"In terms of support to food business, we are all too small to be of any material interest to MKC. They only seem interested in attracting the larger SME and corporations to MK - possibly driven by aggressive housing quotas to fulfil and jobs needed to employ those who will live in all those new homes. Growth is the agenda. What we bring is the culture, the interest, diversity, and the character to this 'new' city, which is most definitely not on the MKC agenda."
These are damning indictments of the council. Street food events are now being held regularly in and around MK, but in places such as The Buszy at the old MK bus station, Bradwell Abbey, and York House, in Stony Stratford. The events and locations are fantastic and proving to be popular, but they are in slightly out-of-the-way places and very much reliant on people being aware of their presence. Being able to hold these events in MK centre itself would also encourage people passing through to stop and take a look. But this can't happen unless the council opens its eyes and sees the benefits of shouting about local producers.
A project is underway to reinvigorate the theatre district and to relaunch it as 12th Street. This would be a perfect opportunity for the council to give street food vendors a push and allow them to hold events there. But looking at the 12th Street website, there is no mention of this possibility.
But it needn't be this way. Taking a look further afield at places such as Banbury, it's clear councils can do something to help local traders. Each year, Banbury holds a vigorous and busy food fair which attracts people from around the nearby Cotswolds as well as some vendors from Milton Keynes and further afield. The event is organised by Banbury Town Council, which goes to great lengths to publicise it - and it pays off. If MK Council wants Milton Keynes to shed its undeserved image of a boring city full of roundabouts, chains and with no soul, it needs to do a damn sight more to support micro and nano food businesses - and that includes not charging £70 an hour to give advice to new businesses on how to comply with legislation. People who live in MK and who have seen its true face know the city deserves more than the reputation it has been given by outsiders. Small businesses in the city having been working hard to help MK shake off this reputation and MK Council could do more to help, such as (suggestions by Laurence Connisbee of Wharf Cider):
- An annual trifold leaflet listing all the local food and drink producers, and street food with a map showing their location and outlets where people may purchase.
- A way marked 'Artisan Trail'.
- A Made in MK scheme perhaps adopting a logo to show that a product is actually produced in MK.
- Relaxing on the local bylaws around street food trading.
- Providing free advice on environmental health and trading standards.
- Possibly looking at their portfolio of commercial property and offering up a venue to become a hub for purchasing local produce (perhaps Bradwell Abbey?).
But this is just the start. Although MK's street food events are the hands of some brilliant people, it is time Milton Keynes Council stepped up to the plate. Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you agree.