Mythical Creatures: reporting from the Conspiracy Party Conference
“It would also look at preventing the introduction of the concept of the “15-minute city” – where essential amenities are always within a 15-minute walk.”
– Rishi Sunak
At the Tory conference in Manchester Mark Harper transport secretary has just told delegates that the Conservatives will stop the “misuse of 15 minute cities“ … and the “sinister idea of local councils deciding how often you can go to the shops“.
Of course these ideas don’t quite come from the ‘ether’ they come from the petri-dish of online paranoia. As the journalist Nick Cohen writes “No local council wants to decide “how often you can go to the shops”. This is Mark Harper talking. A supposedly moderate Conservative minister who, out of desperation, is now endorsing the equivalent of QAnon conspiracy theories.”
So this is an importation of Trumpian post-truth politics, but it is also the manipulation – the amplification – of some of the crazier online dank memes and conspiracies. As Naomi Klein explains here it’s worth noting these are conspiracy cultures, not conspiracy theories. There is no ‘theory’.
The irony is of course that reactionary forces are magnifying genuine fears, that spring from the very real authoritarian rules and legislation that they themselves have enacted (such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 (legislation.gov.uk)
“Creepy local authority bureaucrats would like to see your entire existence boiled down to the duration of a quarter of an hour,” warned a furious presenter on GB News last week, as if describing a plot line from Nineteen Eighty-Four. The 15-minute city, he suggested, was a “dystopian plan”, heralding “a surveillance culture that would make Pyongyang envious”.
Ah, GB News? Yeah they’ve been lauded from the lectern of a stream of Tory Ministers and ex ministers in Manchester. Ah space where the far-flung/far-out conspiracies get an airing and a veneer of respectability from the deranged pundits that sour the airwaves.
The paranoia has been stoked by such luminaries as Nigel Farage, Jordan Peterson and Fred and Richard Fairbrass from (Far) Right Said Fred. So here we are.
But rather than the Tories tapping into some deeply unpopular policy initiative hated by all, the truth is these ideas are really quite popular. As YouGov explain:
A ’15 minute neighbourhood’ is one in which all essential amenities are within a 15 minute walk for everyone living in the area – and most Britons (62%) support their area becoming one (including 57% of Tory and 73% of Labour voters) pic.twitter.com/MhZ18w7ivM
— YouGov (@YouGov) October 1, 2023
In a sense that doesn’t matter because none of this is true.
In post-truth politics presenting facts is futile. There is no ‘war on the motorist’ and there are no 15 Minute Cities (certainly in Britain) – sadly. It doesn’t matter, that, as Leo Murray points out “Being against 15 minute cities as a concept is literally and very precisely being pro-deprivation.”
It would be wrong just to identify this as the desperate tactics of a party anticipating its own annihilation and trying to avert the scale of the disaster by creating weird fantasies, though it is certainly that. The wider framing of the attacks on the 15 Minute City idea is certainly to try and quash the attempts to re-make cities in the context of the climate and ecology crisis, and to maintain them for capital, for the rentier class and for cars. Cars are the epitome, the manifestation of hyper-individualism and the petro-chemical state. The idea of reclaiming urban space, the idea of affordable public transport, the idea even of clean air, is an anathema to the values the capitalist city has been built on.
As Ben Wray wrote for us: “The 15-minute city idea is not exactly new – Copenhagen in Denmark and Utrecht in the Netherlands have long since introduced the idea of hyper proximity into urban planning. But the triple combination of climate breakdown, the pandemic and the mental health crisis has breathed new life into the notion that public and environmental health are deeply interconnected with place.”
Wray observed that “Radical urbanism seems less utopian today than it was before covid-19; we’ve glimpsed a different city.”
He examined the idea of the Barcelona “superblock programme” writing:
“Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau was an anti-evictions activist before winning election to the top job in the Catalan capital in the 2015 municipal elections. Her citizen platform ‘Barcelona En Comu’ are committed to a politics of radical municipalism, and responded to the pandemic by accelerating their policy agenda, including:
- Stepping up the fining and expropriation of properties left empty by landlords in the city and using them for emergency housing accommodation;
- Pedestrianising public space, creating new cycle lanes and allowing restaurants and bars to set-up tables in space that was previously for cars to aid social distancing in hospitality;
- Supporting the “grassroots cultural sector” through a voucher scheme providing citizens with a 25% subsidy on all purchases at local bookshops, theatres, concert halls and cinemas;
- Supporting community organisations to stay in contact with one another by providing safe municipal spaces to meet and free videoconferencing facilities.
In November 2020, Barcelona City Council launched it’s 10 year vision for the “superblock programme”, a plan to turn the central district of Eixample from a concrete jungle with dangerously high levels of air pollution into an urban paradise, with homes never more than 200 metres from a public square or green hub; local spaces where people can relax, exercise, socialise, play, and community can start to develop where previously there was only traffic.
In combination with the rent controls introduced by the Catalan Parliament last year, the superblocks should make urban space more liveable without further gentrifying the city in the process. However, superblocks will have to be extended well beyond the Eixample district, which is relatively wealthy, to make the concept truly egalitarian.”
The dark irony is that while there are good examples of radical (or just sensible) urban planning in Europe, there is very little of it in Britain.
This will not stop the Conservatives railing against such mythical projects or valiantly slaying the fantasy demons of clean air, public spaces, or local amenities. But in doing so they are poisoning the well of public discourse and contaminating the discussion about how to re-make cities for the massive challenges we face. In Scotland we have seen a glimpse of these debates – as the arguments about the STL regulation (in Edinburgh) and the LEZ (in Glasgow) have raged.
In analysing the paranoia and conspiracy spouting out of the Tory conference we can better see the targets they are aiming at – and see the great potential of the 15 Minute City, and championing cities for citizens and places for people.