Something strange is happening in the United Kingdom. An innocuous idea, not particularly original and not in itself controversial, has become the focus of a kind of war. It’s a war between people and authority and an ideological war between different sections of the population.

At the heart of all this strife is the 15-minute city, an urban planning concept developed by academic Carlos Moreno to address the ills of modern city living and embraced by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo as part of her 2020 election campaign. The idea is that everything you need for day-to-day living, such as shops, employment, education and health services, should be found within a 15-minute walk or cycle ride of your home.

So far, so ideal. As a born Londoner who has spent most of her life living in the British capital, I understand all too well how the city that grew from a series of villages has the potential for that kind of self-sufficiency. Reporting on public services in the early 2000s, I’m also familiar with the way councils used to use their limited funds and influence to promote local living. Back then, the trend, expressed in faddish terms such as “regeneration” and “localism”, was benevolent and enabling.

But the 15-minute city has turned coercive. Oxford City Council is currently implementing a scheme to divide the city into six zones and limit the movement of cars between them. Drivers will have to apply to the council for a permit allowing them to make a hundred journeys a year – about two trips a week – between the newly-created districts, while those from the surrounding areas will be allowed 25 trips. The restrictions will be enforced with number-plate recognition cameras and drivers of unauthorised journeys will be fined. 

Unsurprisingly, the scheme has provoked widespread protest, both among residents wondering how they’re going to live under such conditions and people concerned that the 15-minute city will come to their patch too. Their concern is well-founded: a number of other councils have professed interest in following suit, while Canterbury is considering banning driving between neighbourhoods altogether. Meanwhile, more and more Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) are being introduced, with the planters used to close roads during Covid making a come-back in the streets of Britain. In London, the Mayor’s proposed expansion of the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) is causing a rebellion by councils who fear the daily charge to drive a non-compliant vehicle will close businesses and cripple poorer residents.

The bizarre intertwining of social engineering with traffic management thinly veils the blatant incongruity at the heart of 15-minute city: the fact that there are no plans to support the creation of facilities in the new zones. The assumption seems to be that limiting driving will cause the necessary services to appear, either because they are already there but ignored by joy-riding residents or because restrictions on movement will somehow force new amenities into existence. But jobs, schools, health facilities and businesses don’t manifest at will, nor do the people we want to see or events we want to attend conform to municipal boundaries. 

On your bike!

The response to objections by supporters of the scheme is simple: those who want to leave their zone more than permitted can walk, bicycle or get the bus (if there is one). And here comes another bizarre feature of the anti-driving movement: the lack of willingness to consider the human costs and practicalities. The fact that public transport is limited and some people are not able to cycle or walk any distance goes unacknowledged, as does the fact that others can’t get to their job or juggle work with family responsibilities without a car. Tradesfolk can’t transport tools and materials without a vehicle and householders sometimes need to pick up heavy items from a shop or take waste to the tip. Community events tend to depend on one or two good folks driving crockery, costumes or equipment to a nearby park or hall.

Yet – here’s more strangeness – none of this seems to matter to the supporters of such schemes. Instead of discussing the implications of the policy in a reasoned way – I’m old enough to remember when we did do this, more or less, in Britain – objections are dismissed with suggestions that are patently absurd: plumbers can use tricycles, the Underground or riverboats to transport their equipment between jobs. Far worse is the painting of anyone who objects as a “conspiracy theorist” or a member of the “far right”. These crude ad hominem tactics are coming not from angry keyboard warriors but the mainstream media, well-resourced publications with editorial standards staffed by people trained in critical thinking.

Conspiracy labelling

Hard then to make sense of this non-sequitur in The Times: ‘”What are 15-minute cities and why are anti-vaxers so angry about them?” or this strapline from Wired UK: “A movement to promote neighbourhood with amenities within walking distance has enraged far-right activists, climate deniers, and extremists.” A comment from the father of 15-minute cities sheds some light on the thinking: any criticism must necessarily come from a demographic that is recognisably mad and bad: “in an all too typical Venn diagram of tinfoil-hattedness,” says Moreno in this Forbes article: “they share climate denial, downplay of Covid harms, and anti-vaxxer beliefs.”

As protests have mounted, the pattern of the repeating simple ideas, tainting by unwarranted associations has replicated across the media. The Guardian bemoans the fact that MPs have now joined “the online conspiracy theory” in expressing objections, a viewed echoed in The New Statesman while The Conversation dubs them “the hottest conspiracy theory of 2023”.

It looks increasingly as if the mainstream media is engaging in wilful misunderstanding, distracting from the right-under-your-nose point that the proposed restrictions do little or nothing to improve the situation that justifies them.

The reason given for this regressive discourse is that objectors are exaggerating, characterising the measures as “climate lockdowns” which will confine residents to their zones. And it is true that such language is inaccurate: beyond their permitted drives, residents will still be able to leave their area via the ring road, provided they have the time and money for the longer trip. But requiring residents to have a permit to drive locally grants local authorities unprecedented new powers, while the fines look very much like a tax on movement.

The feeling that a diminished way of life is being imposed from the top is heightened by evidence that authorities are blatantly disregarding public opinion. Oxford Council’s Duncan Enright told the press the scheme was “definitely” going ahead before it was officially approved. A Bath councillor responded to an objection with the statement that a scheme can go ahead in the face of clear public opposition “because the proposal will help to achieve wider council objectives”. In London, it seems that the results of the consultation about the expansion of  Ultra-Low Emissions Zone were skewed: the mayor’s office excluded 5,270 responses opposing the ULEZ expansion as “copy and paste” jobs but just three in favour on similar grounds.

Making sense of the non-sense

The tendency to take control and impose your own version of the world, psychologists and political theorists remind us, is a perennial temptation for humans. The authoritarian regimes of the 20th century, from Stalinism to the independent collectivism of Albania under Hoxha, are testimony to the evils of political perfectionism, how the intention to create a good society, when imposed by force and without regard for the diversity and messiness of human life, inevitably leads to dystopia.

Perhaps there’s something in the urban planning mindset, with its aspiration to create ideal spaces, that can tip into ideological thinking and make its proponents feel entitled to override the wishes of ordinary people. You can hear it in the words of José María Ezquiaga who, in June 2020, led an attempt to divide a Madrid neighbourhood into “superblocks” measuring 500 x 500. “With little more than a few cones and signage … vehicles that are not residents or merchants can be prevented from passing,” he remarked with satisfaction. (The plan failed.)

The bureaucratic mindset that prevails in the town hall undoubtedly shares this tendency, but perhaps money comes into it too. A recent investigation by Bloomberg showed how London councils are making millions in annual revenue from cameras at specific junctions. A revealing conversation between councillors suggests that local authorities are counting on fines from drivers to fill their coffers. “Is there a risk that the revenue we are predicting won’t be obtained because motorists wise up to the restriction and start complying?” asked Robert Canning in Croydon.

From civil strife to civil discourse

So how are we going to get out of this depressing civil strife which risks dividing citizens physically as well as ideologically?

Here’s a thought, in fact, three.

Firstly, if we have the slightest desire to have a peaceful society with any level of maturity we need to stop engaging in childish public arguments consisting of name-calling and willful misunderstanding. Secondly, we need to separate the issue of traffic restrictions from the complex question of how to create flourishing neighbourhoods and live in greater harmony with the earth.

The third thought, while somewhat old-fashioned, sounds radical in these coercive times. How about shifting the attitudes and emotions underlying the control-and-punish approach and replacing them with respect and trust for our fellow humans? What if, instead of spending millions on cameras and administrative systems to issue permits and fines, councils used that money to seed local community projects? Just imagine, instead of corralling, prohibiting and infantilising, the good that could come from citizens giving free expression to their own inner authority and creativity.

Alex Klaushofer is an author and journalist who has written extensively on social affairs, religion and politics in Britain and Middle East. She writes on Substack at Ways of Seeing.