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15 minute cities deserve more than 15 minutes of fame

By Jeevan Farthing

15-minute cities reduce the burden on the environment, so why are they so controversial to Conservatives?

There is no greater evidence that candidate selection processes are not working than the increasing regularity in which online conspiracy theories find themselves on the parliamentary record. In June 2019 Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi held a Westminster Hall debate where it was at least insinuated that 5G causes cancer, while a cursory search on Hansard post-2020 reveals three appearances of cultural marxism, a far-right antisemitic conspiracy. Most recently, Tory MP Nick Fletcher stood up in the House of Commons and asked for a parliamentary debate on the “international socialist concept of 15-minute cities”. While leader of the House Penny Mordaunt did not grant the debate in question, rather than calling out the conspiracy theory for what it is, she gave the concern legitimacy.

The idea of a 15-minute city is simple: it stipulates that the requisites of daily life should be located within a 15 minute radius of any point in the city, whether that be the workplace, the cinema, or the GP. By reducing the need for excessive commutes by car, the hope is that quality of life, air pollution levels and productivity would improve. Where designed inappropriately, blanket policies such as car-free zones can overlook the needs of some disabled people, but Nick Fletcher MP did not justify his opposition to 15-minute cities because they further eco-ableism. Instead, his twitter thread included an image, which has since been deleted, accusing organisations supportive of the 15-minute city – such as C40 Cities and the World Economic Forum – of “taxing, restricting, and monitoring your basic freedom to move around.” This aligns neatly with the general gist of right populist movements and conspiracy theories: that your life is being controlled by a shadowy global elite.

According to a tweet by James Austin, the reason why this resonates is that, in the context of pro-walking (and therefore anti-driving) policies, “for many people a car equals freedom; to travel, to work, to have space”. It’s why your 90-year old gran with cataracts is still adamant that she can drive on the motorway, and why younger people – who are less likely to drive – are not generally troubled by 15-minute cities. Indeed, for UofG students fortunate enough to live in the West End, a 15-minute city is something we are already used to. I can walk from my flat to my classes on campus in around 10 minutes, while multiple supermarkets, a pharmacy and a GP are even closer.

However, this is not the reality for everyone living in Glasgow, because the city is segregated by design. Even though the UK planning system does not use zoning – where different parts of cities are divided up to have different functions, such as residential, commercial or industrial areas – segregation still manifests because of historic housing policies. Slum clearance measures in the 1950s involved erecting large peripheral housing estates on the outskirts of cities. Drumchapel, in Glasgow, is vast: it takes nearly 40 minutes to walk from one end to another, but there is only one shopping precinct, which contains hardly any shops. This means people have to travel further afield – to Clydebank, or even the city centre – to fulfil their basic needs, resulting in longer, and therefore more expensive, trips on public transport. Because public transport is unaffordable and unreliable, people have no choice but to drive to these places. Car dependency furthers segregation: you sit in your car from your front door to the shops, and don’t interact with anyone along the way. It’s why peripheral housing estates feel so empty, as Lynsey Hanley noticed when she revisited the Birmingham estate she grew up in for her book, Estates: An Intimate History. No one else was walking around, because there was nowhere for them to walk to.

Are poorer people and ethnic minorities simply being shoved where they are not seen? BAME communities represent 40% of people living in high-rise tower blocks in the social rented sector, but building high, too, was incentivised by government policy: the 1956 Housing Subsidy Act gave local authorities more funding for every floor they built above the sixth. It is also no coincidence that most Gypsy, Roma and Traveller sites set up by local authorities are in undesirable areas, such as next to a motorway (St Michael’s Way, Brighton), in an industrial estate (Ealing, London), or by a railway line (North Cairntow, Edinburgh). This makes their nomadic lifestyle necessarily segregated, and contributes to significantly worse outcomes in health or education for GRT people than any other ethnic group.

Segregated cities not only facilitate inequality, by keeping social groups separate from one another, but exacerbate it, because only those already better off have access to amenities which can further improve, or at least maintain, their quality of life. An investigation by Which? found that areas with a lower number of large supermarkets than the national average, or lower than average car and internet use, were the worst affected by food poverty, for example.

Segregation is also self-fulfilling: where one particular area benefits from investment or has already established amenities, unless this is replicated universally across the city or region, it forces further segregation by driving house prices and rents up in only that area, and homogenising the social groups that can continue to live there. This is why the attainment gap between children who receive and do not receive free school meals is so large in areas such as Buckinghamshire, which continue to have grammar schools. If school standards in an area are not raised across the board, it is disproportionately wealthier children who benefit from them, by moving into certain catchment areas, or hiring tutors to pass certain entrance exams.

Nye Bevan’s vision of council housing was that it would be inhabited by mixed communities, where “the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street”. This integration is necessary to actualise a 15-minute city, and a segregated city is necessarily not an integrated city. The tendency for expectantly progressive policies to entrench segregationary effects must therefore be replaced with genuine universalism.

For example, right to buy, which was originally a Labour policy, segregated the poor and the poorest council tenants from each other, by only granting the former access to the wealth accumulation that comes with owning one’s own home. Even a Universal Basic Income alone does not fundamentally change a system where people’s unequal amounts of financial assets determine their ability to access amenities. In contrast, establishing Universal Basic Services, in which all public services are provided freely and unconditionally, as the NHS is at the moment, would create the conditions necessary to start establishing 15-minute cities. For example, a national education service would help resolve the educational segregation mentioned earlier. But the relationship between 15-minute cities and inequality is symbiotic: establishing the latter aids the creation of the former, while the existence of the former alleviates the latter. If everyone had access to a large supermarket with cheaper products, the unequal effects of food poverty would be reduced.

Urban planning can, and should, become a vehicle of progressivism, if accompanied by redistributive policies such as UBS, and a revitalised welfare state. Since segregated cities are designed, the inequalities that result from them can be designed out. Conservatives shouldn’t fear 15-minute cities because they embody a repressive state apparatus, but because they prove them wrong.


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