“First, I am calling time on the misuse of so-called 15-minute cities. There’s nothing wrong with making sure people can walk or cycle to the shops or school. That’s traditional town planning.
“But what is different, what is sinister, and what we shouldn’t tolerate, is the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops, and that they can ration who uses the roads and when, and that they police it all with CCTV.”
“There are proposals out there for 15 minute communities, 15 minute cities, and I think people are worried that this is an infringement on their liberties and their freedoms, on their abilities to choose where they go to access services, to access what they need, be that shops etc and all the rest of it. We do not want local authorities dictating to people that they must choose to access those services within 15 minutes of their house or however often they might need to access those services.”
In his speech at the Conservative party conference on 2 October 2023, transport secretary Mark Harper MP announced that he was “calling time on the misuse of so-called 15 minute cities”, adding: “What we shouldn’t tolerate, is the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops, and that they can ration who uses the roads and when, and that they police it all with CCTV”.
In recent years a number of local councils in the UK have introduced plans or proposals referencing the concept of a 15 or 20 minute city or neighbourhood—based on the idea that residents should be able to access the services and amenities they need by a 15 minute walk or bike ride.
Some councils have also announced plans or proposals to introduce traffic restrictions, which have proved controversial, though these aren’t always necessarily directly linked to the 15 minute cities concept.
However, we’ve seen no evidence that councils are attempting to place restrictions on how often residents can go to the shops, or their ability to choose which services they can access, as energy minister Andrew Bowie MP also suggested when asked about Mr Harper’s comments.
Unevidenced claims about 15 minute cities and how these would work have the potential to mislead the public. It is important that government ministers ensure claims they make can be backed up with evidence. If a minister makes a false or misleading claim, they should take responsibility for ensuring it is appropriately corrected.
Honesty in public debate matters
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What is a ‘15 minute city’?
Broadly speaking, the concept of the “15 minute city” is a vision of a neighbourhood where everyone who lives there can access all the services and amenities they need within a 15 minute walk or bike ride.
Professor Carlos Moreno, an urbanist widely credited with popularising the idea of 15 minute cities, explained in 2021 that in a 15 minute city: “residents will be able to enjoy a higher quality of life where they will be able to effectively fulfil six essential urban social functions to sustain a decent urban life. Those include (a) living, (b) working, (c) commerce, (d) healthcare, (e) education and (f) entertainment.”
Despite the increased attention on this concept over the last few months, this isn’t a particularly new idea. To take just one example, the city of Portland, Oregon, in the United States began developing its own “20 minute neighbourhoods”, based on the same principles, over a decade ago.
However, in the wake of the pandemic, the idea has featured in policies set out by leaders in cities around the world, as well as a number of UK local councils.
Will 15 minute cities place restrictions on where residents can go?
We’ve seen no evidence that councils in the UK are using the 15 minute cities concept to place restrictions on when residents can go to the shops, or when and where they can travel in general.
It is true however that some councils, for example in Oxford and Canterbury, are considering traffic measures which may prevent some motorists from driving on specific roads, either during specific hours or at all times.
We’ve also seen no evidence that local council proposals based on the 15 minute cities concept would involve “dictating to people that they must choose to access those services within 15 minutes of their house”, as was suggested by Mr Bowie on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme following Mr Harper’s speech.
We’ve contacted the Conservative party and Mr Bowie’s office for comment and will update this piece if we receive a response.
What’s behind the misleading claims about 15 minute cities?
We’ve fact checked a number of misleading claims over the past year about 15 minute cities, including that they will confine residents to specific areas, or require them to have permits in order to leave.
Many of these claims appear to stem from inaccurate information surrounding proposals by Oxfordshire County Council to trial a new traffic filter system, aimed at reducing congestion by limiting traffic on six major roads in the city.
When Full Fact asked the Conservative party what specific local council policies Mr Harper was referencing in his speech, we were directed to a link to these plans.
The scheme, which was announced in November 2022, involves automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR) cameras being installed at certain points on these roads, with drivers who pass through them at certain times of day (in most cases, between 7am and 7pm on Monday-Saturday) without a permit issued with a fine.
The council has clarified: “Residents will still be able to drive to every part of the city at any time – but in the future, during certain times of the day, you may need to take a different route (e.g. using the ring road) if you want to travel by car.”
Separately, Oxford City Council is currently developing a new local plan: “Local Plan 2040”, which refers to the idea of 15 minute cities, or neighbourhoods, as a guiding principle for its plan. Local plans are submitted to the government by all local authorities in England, setting out their planning policies for the coming years.
Oxfordshire County Council also references the concept of 20-minute neighbourhoods in its Central Oxfordshire Travel Plan, of which the traffic filter plan is a part, saying it hopes to achieve “a travel hierarchy prioritising sustainable travel and promoting 20-minute neighbourhoods where everything people need for their daily lives can be found within a 20-minute walk.”
Oxford’s traffic plans have gained particular attention as a result of vocal opposition, with thousands of local residents saying they oppose the scheme, criticism from some local businesses and large protests.
However, the plans have also been the subject of misinformation by people on social media who falsely claim the filters are part of a wider conspiracy involving the implementation of the 15 minute cities concept.
Image courtesy of Rory Arnold