’15-minute cities’: conspiracy versus reality

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


The idea of a ’15-minute city’ is highly fashionable – and hugely controversial. At the Conservative Party Conference in October, the transport secretary, Mark Harper, declared: ‘Right across our country, there is a Labour-backed movement to make cars harder to use, to make driving more expensive, and to remove your freedom to get from A to B how you want.’ But others believe that this view of ’15-minute cities’ is little more than a conspiracy theory, one no longer the preserve of fringe groups on social media but perpetrated by the mainstream such as Harper.

For supporters, the concept is simple enough: placing essential services within 15 minutes’ walk will ensure that we ditch our cars and walk more, improving health and the environment. Surely it is just common sense to have frequently used amenities withing easy reach?

And in those terms, the concept is popular. A YouGov poll published in March found that ‘a majority of the public (62%) would support their local authority making it a target to make their area a 15-minute neighbourhood, including three quarters of Labour (73%) and over half of Conservative voters (57%)’.

Local services, fewer cars and cleaner streets seem like a good idea. Like Ultra Low Emission Zones (ULEZ) and also Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), advocates say such initiatives are an important part of city and town improvements to make life better for all. But there are plenty of critics. Charging for driving the wrong type of cars or making car-driving more onerous, with longer journeys forced on those negotiating LTNs or even prohibited in 15 minute Cities, is causing a popular backlash. Many people work, shop or go to school further afield. Specialised services rely on customers and clients from the wider city and beyond, from niche bookshops to major hospitals. Moreover, when it means that people are forced to use services within their own neighbourhood, locality is being prioritised over the freedom to choose.

And what about the freedom to travel? Councils such as Oxford are proposing dividing the city into zones and placing limits on how often people from neighbouring zones can drive through them. Such policies, critics say, are authoritarian and akin to lockdown restrictions being expanded into new areas of our lives. LTNs, ULEZ and 20mph zones were installed without democratic consent and cause vast economic harm. Are they conspiracy theories? Some say it feels like a type of gaslighting when the media alleges critics of 15-minute cities are conspiracy theorists – a means of delegitimising the huge numbers of people worried about anti-car measures.

Are enforced restrictions against ‘unnecessary journeys’ illiberal, even authoritarian? Or is the reaction to 15-minute cities – that they are part of a grand plan to restrict our freedoms on the pretext of saving the planet – overblown? If restrictions boost health and the environment, is there anything wrong with the state taking the initiative and individuals making sacrifices? What is a city for and who should decide how we live and travel?

Emily Carver
broadcaster and columnist; presenter, GB News; former director of communications, Institute of Economic Affairs

Alan Miller
co-founder and chair, Together Association;

Ali Miraj
broadcaster; founder, the Contrarian Prize; infrastructure financier; DJ

Martin Powell
group sustainability director, AXA; former head of sustainability, Siemens Financial Services Americas; former mayoral advisor on the environment; editor, The Climate City

Austin Williams
director, Future Cities Project; honorary research fellow, XJTLU, Suzhou, China; author, China’s Urban Revolution; convenor, Critical Subjects Architecture School