What are 15-minute cities and where will they be in the UK?

The new plan to improve urban living is also sparking some bizarre conspiracy theories. So what's going on?

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Oxford from above
Oxford's proposal to become a 15-minute city has attracted controversy. (Getty)

Proposed “15-minute cities” are once again being spoken about after MPs were given a guide on spotting conspiracy theories in the battle against disinformation.

To it's proponents, 15-minute cities are a way of cutting down commutes and improving quality of life. But to others, it's a sinister conspiracy designed to lock people in their neighbourhoods.

The concept of the urban planning scheme is aimed at encouraging walking and cycling. But it has recently been mistakenly held up by conspiracy theorists as proof of a deliberate plan to control people and their personal freedoms.

Now, leader of the House of Commons, Penny Mordaunt, has published a guide for MPs to “protect the public from the damaging effects of misinformation and safeguard the integrity of our democratic process”. Compiled by expert groups including the Antisemitism Policy Trust, Full Fact and Tell MAMA, the Guide for Members of Parliament and Candidates on Conspiracy Theories, was published on Tuesday.

As well as 15-minute cities, the guide gives examples of seven other conspiracy theories that have proliferated in the UK in recent years, including the QAnon movement, anti-vaccine narratives and climate change denial.

Manchester, UK. 02nd Oct, 2023. 02nd Oct, 2023. Mark Harper secretary state for transport  at the 2nd day of the Conservative conference 2023 Manchester UK Picture: garyroberts/worldwidefeatures.com Credit: GaryRobertsphotography/Alamy Live News
Transport secretary hit out at the concept of 15-minute cities during the Tory conference last year. (PA)

The guide appears to mark an apparent government U-turn on 15-minute cities. During the Tory party conference last year, transport secretary Mark Harper said he was “calling time on the misuse of so-called 15 minute cities”. Harper appeared to suggest that the concept would allow councils to decide “how often you go to the shops” and would be able to “ration who uses the roads and when”.

In the guide published on Tuesday, campaigners are accused of warning that governments “would impose travel restrictions” with 15-minute cities, and were being used as a “control mechanism”.

The idea has also previously been challenged by Rishi Sunak, who has said he will seek to stop local councils "waging a war on motorists". Speaking to The Sun, the prime minister said he would be consulting on ways to prevent 15-minute city schemes which “aggressively restrict” where people are permitted to drive.

He said: “There is just this relentless attack on motorists and a common misunderstanding from politicians in Westminster about the fact that most people around the country depend on their cars.

“What we want to do now is make sure that all these hare-brained schemes forced on local communities, whether it's low traffic neighbourhoods, whether it's in blanket 20-mile-an-hour speed limits, all of that… need to stop."

The 15-minute city idea was developed and popularised by French-Colombian professor Carlos Moreno, who envisioned a future where city dwellers could have access to everything they need within walking distance.

Shops, schools, workplaces, doctors, parks, libraries, and restaurants are all placed within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from home under the scheme.

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Now, the concept is being integrated in parts of Paris under mayor Anne Hidalgo's plans to create more self-sufficient communities with more diverse economies, while also cutting pollution and stress.

The notion gained ground during the COVID pandemic, which saw people spending more time in their local neighbourhood than ever before.

Oxford has set out to become a 15-minute city by the next decade under the 2040 local plan set out by its city council.

The local authority says this is to create a walkable city where people have everything they need a short distance away.

But the plan has sparked protests among people who have conflated it with Oxfordshire County Council's Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme, which has seen bollards erected on some roads to discourage driving.

Work began on installing traffic filters on six roads in February this year, which has fuelled conspiracy theories that this would result in people being "confined" to their areas.

And Sunak targeted the devolved administration in Wales for making 20mph the default speed limit on restricted roads and built-up areas such as town centres, saying: “What we want to make sure is that local communities are not having these things imposed upon them.

"We've seen that happening in Wales. That's not right. And we're going to take a different approach to this.”

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The iconic Selfridges building in Birmingham city centre, UK.
Birmingham is also aiming to become a 15-minute city in the future. (Getty)

Oxford county and city councils said in a joint statement that "misinformation online" has linked the two schemes to each other, adding that the 15-minute neighbourhood idea aims to "support and add services, not restrict them".

A city council spokesperson confirmed to Yahoo News UK that the two schemes are separate, although they will of course both affect the same city.

However, Southend Council appears to have conflated the 15-minute city concept with restricting people's movement and traffic fines, and has completely ruled it out.

Its councillor for the environment, Carole Mulroney, said: "This inter-zonal travel charging, I’m totally against. I’m totally against charging zones and restrictions on movements."

Read more: Conspiracy theories on '15-minute cities' flourish

In 2021, Ipswich announced its goal to become the UK's first 15-minute town in a "post COVID world", in a bid to improve connectivity and help businesses bounce back after the pandemic.

Birmingham also plans to become a 15-minute city, while Colchester has said the idea "should not be off the table".

Other cities and towns in the UK considering implementing 15-minute city schemes include Bristol, Sheffield and Canterbury.