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Why you've nothing to fear from 15-minute cities despite Tory scaremongering

The Conservatives are railing against made-up "sinister" plans to stop you going to the shops.

15 minute cities

Transport secretary Mark Harper claimed 15 minute cities are a Labour plot. Image: Telegraph/YouTube

Imagine a future where you can’t travel more than 15 minutes from your house. Where socialists running your local council restricts how often you can nip to the shops. Actually, don’t, because it’s complete nonsense.

Looking for a straw to grasp as an election grows closer, the Conservative Party has seized upon the language of 15-minute city conspiracy theories, claiming nefarious urban planners are out to seize your personal freedom. It’s motorists vs everyone else.

Some UK councils, including Oxford, Sheffield and Bristol, have introduced plans for 15-minute cities. Rather than restricting freedom, the plans aim to ensure residents of a city live within a quarter of an hour of the amenities they need, with less need for car journeys. 

Controversy over 15-minute cities sits alongside far-right theories such as the “Great Reset”, and overarching ideas about a controlling global elite set on destroying personal freedoms, which gained popularity in the wake of Covid-19 lockdowns . One Tory MP, Nick Fletcher, said the idea was part of an “international socialist concept”.

This baseless rhetoric has now found its way to the heart of government.

As Rishi Sunak announced his “plan for drivers”, the Department for Transport confirmed it aims to “stop councils implementing so called ‘15-minute cities’”.

The onslaught continued at the party’s conference in Manchester. Transport secretary Mark Harper railed against “a Labour-backed movement” which will “remove your freedom to get from A to B how you want”, with the “sinister” idea that councils will decide “how often you go to the shops”. 

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This kind of talk will come as a shock to, uh, the government. In a response to a petition calling for local referendums on 15-minute cities, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said “15-minute cities aim to provide people with more choice about how and where they travel, not to restrict movement”, openDemocracy reports.

Pressed on the evidence behind their claims, ministers have struggled to come up with answers.

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“People are worried that this is an infringement on their liberties,” nuclear and networks minister Andrew Bowie said to BBC’s PM radio programme.

When told he shouldn’t make people concerned about something they have no reason to be fearful of, and asked for examples, Bowie simply said: “People are concerned already.”

The rise of the conspiracy theories has even led to death threats for academic Carlos Moreno, who coined 15-minute cities as a concept to make cities more sustainable and healthy,

Moreno called time on the government’s misuse of the idea, saying it raises “deep concerns”. He urged Sunak to avoid “rash statements that cater only to a segment of the population, specifically car enthusiasts”.

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