Otto English takes a deep dive into the chilling world of a big new theory that has caught the eye of libertarian influencers, extremists and members of the public alike
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Unless you live in the Don Valley in South Yorkshire, there is every chance you may not have heard of Nick Fletcher.
He was part of the new intake of MPs who swept to power with Boris Johnson at their helm in December 2019, seizing seats in the so-called ‘Red Wall’. Don Valley had been Labour since 1922 and Fletcher took it off Caroline Flint.
Fletcher kept his head down at Westminster for the next two years but made a leap out of obscurity in a speech on International Men’s Day in 2021, when he suggested that young men were committing crimes, in part, because women had taken traditionally male roles in the new Ghostbusters film, Dr Who and the Star Wars franchise. In essence, boys no longer had any men to look up to so, instead of playing with light sabres and making Tardis noises, they were becoming gangsters. Fletcher later sought to clarify his words and insisted that his “nuanced” point had been misunderstood, before retiring to backbench anonymity.
But earlier this month, he evinced a fabulous comeback with a question to the Leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, on a matter of pressing concern:
“Will the Leader set aside some time in this house for a debate on the international socialist concept of so-called 15-minute cities… ultra-low emissions zones in their present form do untold economic damage… however, the second step… will take away personal freedoms as well.”
Scary stuff indeed, and Fletcher added a dark warning: “Sheffield is already on this journey, and I do not want Doncaster, which is also a Labour-run socialist council, to do the same… 15-minute cities will cost us our personal freedom.”
His question led to ripples of laughter on the green benches in the House of Commons, and much mirth online. But, having dug into the issue he was highlighting, I have to say his words are not very funny at all. In fact, it’s all a bit chilling.
An Old Idea
So, what is a 15-minute city? The term was coined by Professor Carlos Moreno, the Columbian born advisor to Anne Hidalgo, the Socialist Mayor of Paris since 2014, who has tried to implement some of his ideas.
Prof Moreno set those out in a seven-minute TED talk in 2020 and, in essence, it goes like this. Many big cities don’t work. They are poorly designed, transport is a nightmare, the streets are often gridlocked, and everything is orientated towards the car – rather than the people who urban environments are supposed to benefit.
The academic advocates relooking at urban environments and reassessing how we can use them in a greener, more dynamic way. That boils down to providing everything that anyone might need ‘within 15 minutes’ of the city dweller: shops, healthcare, green spaces, education, housing and entertainment all should be easily accessible on foot or by bicycle or as Prof Moreno puts it:
“The 15-minute city should have three key features. First, the rhythm of the city should follow humans, not cars. Second, each square meter should serve many different purposes. Finally, neighbourhoods should be designed so that we can live, work and thrive in them without having to constantly commute elsewhere.”
This aspiration is by no means a new idea.
In 1898, urban designer Ebenezer Howard came up with pretty much the same thing in his book Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform. The notion was that people would be liberated from the slums of pollution-belching big cities and given new homes in bright, modern metropolises. These purpose-built conurbations would combine all the good things about living in a city (nightlife, energy, opportunity) with all the best bits of living in the countryside (clean air, nature, community spirit), and with everything on the doorstep.
Howard’s ideas inspired the ‘garden city movement’ that followed and both Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth were built on similar principles. The new towns that sprung up in the post-war years followed much the same path. The aim was to reduce pollution, make urban environments work in favour of the people living in them and make them generally better places in which to live.
Now, as with any utopic urban planning strategy there were, and still are, problems.
Not everything about the garden cities and new towns worked – far from it – and the 15-minute city model in established urban centres is less than perfect too, not least because it involves a lot of (necessary) traffic calming, which is often unpopular with residents, taxi-drivers and traders who use their vans or cars for work. There’s also the very considerable problem of individuals with restricted mobility, who rely on vehicles to get about potentially facing difficulties.
It is also, unfortunately, the case that some councils that have imposed traffic restrictive measures have done so in a relatively heavy-handed and not always beneficial manner.
But none of that should be insurmountable and the ambition of cleaner, more pedestrianised, low-impact, urban environments is a good one. Many city dwellers live in such communities already. Seeking to tackle the blight of congestion and the misery of noise while reducing pollution is to be welcomed. Fifteen-minute cities would also see a reduction in long commutes for many people and an increase in capacity on transport networks.
Of course, if you see amenities like parks, schools and hospitals as ‘Stalinist’ then you probably won’t want them near you. But most of us aren’t that foolish.
Somehow, all of this has been turned into a massive conspiracy theory; one which is almost impossible to untangle. But let’s have a go.
A New Conspiracy
Recent fears seem to stem from a viral post on 4 December 2022 on a website called ‘Watts up with that’, quoting another website ‘Jo Nova’, about a plan by Oxfordshire County Council to “trial a climate lockdown by 2024”.
According to the piece:
“Oxfordshire County Council yesterday approved plans to lock residents into one of six zones to ‘save the planet’ from global warming. The latest stage in the ’15 minute city’ agenda is to place electronic gates on key roads in and out of the city, confining residents to their own neighbourhoods.
“Under the new scheme, if residents want to leave their zone, they will need permission from the council who gets to decide who is worthy of freedom and who isn’t. Under the new scheme, residents will be allowed to leave their zone a maximum of 100 days per year, but in order to even gain this, every resident will have to register their car details with the council who will then track their movements via smart cameras round the city.”
Now, if it were true, this would be appalling. A truly nightmarish vision of totalitarianism worthy of George Orwell, Philip K. Dick or the very real excesses of Nazi Germany and North Korea. But it isn’t true. It is complete nonsense and dangerous nonsense at that.
Oxfordshire County Council has no plans to lock people in their homes and restrict their movement and why would it even consider proposing such a thing? It would be illegal.
The medieval city has been long plagued by traffic problems and the scheme simply seeks to install six traffic filters, on six roads in the city, to encourage people to use their cars less during working hours. That’s it. There will be no physical barriers and people will be able to move freely about the city.
Residents in Oxford and some areas outside will be able to apply for a permit allowing them to drive through the traffic filters for up to 100 days each year. But that is quite different to what is being claimed by conspiracy theorists.
Whether deliberately or otherwise, the ‘Watts up with that’ site has misinterpreted and misconstrued the facts of the scheme and spread panic and fear. But incredibly – and perhaps in part because of the Coronavirus lockdowns – thousands of people have decided to believe it and we now have a situation where even a Conservative MP is asking questions about it in the Commons.
Meanwhile, across established anti-lockdown and anti-vaxxer accounts on Facebook and Twitter, the lie has spread that the citizens of Oxford are going to be locked in their immediate environs for 265 days a year from 2024 onwards – and this complete myth is gaining traction.
It has led to protests, including a large demonstration in Oxford on 18 February that saw as many as 2,000 campaigners and conspiracy theorists converge on the city and march against this and other ‘LTN’ (low traffic neighbourhood) schemes. Many present were carrying signs saying ‘Free Our Streets’ with the hashtag ‘#Together’ on them.
#Together is a ‘grassroots’ anti-authoritarian movement, set up to protest against the Government-imposed restrictions put in place during the COVID pandemic. It has a very professional-looking website and offers a range of ‘membership options’ from ‘Liberate’ for £50 a year, up to ‘Freedom’ for £799 per annum that gets you a tote bag, monthly live member call and hoodie.
Its team includes some names well-known to readers of Spiked Online – the libertarian website founded following the collapse of Living Marxism, the house magazine of the Revolutionary Communist Party, in 2000.
I have written before about how Spiked – and associates of the old Living Marxism network – have proved themselves adept at setting up these astroturfing (fake grassroots) movements and used their considerable influence across media and government to push libertarian causes. It cannot be a coincidence that we see so many of the same names popping up once again, including Lesley Katon, who played a significant role in setting up the Brexit Party; and Alan Miller, another stalwart of the online magazine.
Many Spiked activists and authors are prominent in the field of climate change denial and were active in opposing lockdown measures during the pandemic. As far back as last October, an article on the platform by another long-term contributor James Woudhuysen was decrying “the madness of the 15-minute city”. That piece ended with the telling line: “Not for the first time, or indeed the last, the net zero agenda seems to have taken far too much inspiration from those illiberal days of lockdown.”
So far, so very predictable.
But having taken a deep dive into the Facebook and social media accounts of those who attended the rally in Oxford on 18 February, it is quite clear that the ‘15-minute conspiracy’ has become more than just a protest against traffic calming measures. It has, in fact, become a focal rallying point for just about every other conspiracy theory out there in 2023.
Photos and videos show protestors carrying defaced pictures of Klaus Schwab, chair of the World Economic Forum, along with ‘wanted posters’ for Bill Gates; former US Chief Medical Officer Anthony Fauci; Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi, previously the country’s Vaccine Minister; and signs suggesting that children are having their organs harvested – a well-known QAnon/Pizzagate trope.
Another growing conspiracy, which suggests the EU is trying to replace meat with harvested insects, was also doing the rounds. As was the lie that MRNA vaccines have killed more people than the pandemic.
The far-right Patriotic Front movement was also present at the Oxford rally, carrying signs which read ‘not far right just right’. Fellow protestors, some of who were legitimately protesting against the traffic measures, seemed to have no problem at all marching alongside them.
A leaflet handed out to the crowd encouraged protestors to “question everything” and shared links to sites questioning the number of deaths during the pandemic, the dangers of 5G and electromagnetic fields, the “global pandemic of trafficked children”, and the ‘Great Reset’.
The 15-minute conspiracy has caught the eye of libertarian influencers including James Melville, Laurence Fox and Neil Oliver, who have all been busy spreading it.
On 15 February, Melville shared a video shot in China purporting to show “15-minute cities. Urban incarceration. Each neighbourhood zone is separated by a barbed wire fence. Anyone who wants to leave their zone requires a QR code/COVID passport and a face recognition scan.”
On New Year’s Eve, Jordan Peterson tweeted: “The idea that neighbourhoods should be walkable is lovely. The idea that idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you’re ‘allowed’ to drive is perhaps the worst imaginable perversion of that idea – and, make no mistake, it’s part of a well-documented plan.”
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect is that this is very far from just being ‘the usual suspects’. My deep dive into Facebook found that many otherwise ‘ordinary’ individuals had fallen for the lie hook, line and sinker and the similarities to the US QAnon movement were stark.
I wish I could end with a funny pay-off and some words of optimism – but I have a horrible, sinking, feeling that this is all about to get a lot worse.
Otto English is the author of ‘Fake History: Ten Great Lies and How They Shaped the World’
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