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
The latest spasm of invented grievance and badly disguised conspiracism is a hybrid of post-covid paranoia and the recently invented defence of the ‘war on the motorist’. It is the attack on the idea of the 15 Minute City (which we analysed – and celebrated – back in 2020 here Cities of Tomorrow).  

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“.

As Emily Maitlis responded: “We are now in a brand new world where policies that were never going to happen are being “cancelled“ or where we are being saved from “sinister” practices that don’t actually exist.” 
This is a new, and slightly desperate Conservative tactic of manufacturing grievance out of the ether. Remember the brave Prime Minister recently slaying the imposition of Seven Recycling Bins?

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 (

But instead of protesting the hardening of the surveillance state – or the criminalisation of the right to protest – which are terrifying aspects of the Conservatives regime – people are, as Oliver Wainwright pointed out, protesting the “international socialist conspiracy afoot, to make it easier to walk to the shops.”
In February of this year Wainwright wrote: “It is not the first time that an online conspiracy theory has made it into the Commons chamber, but it may be one of the most surreal. Simply put, the 15-minute city principle suggests you should have your daily needs – work, food, healthcare, education, culture and leisure – within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from where you live. It sounds pleasant enough, but in the minds of libertarian fanatics and the bedroom commentators of TikTok, it represents an unprecedented assault on personal freedoms.”

“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:

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.

The latest phase in the new climate populism is racked with its own contradictions. ‘Net Zero’ – which has overnight become demonised as some lefty-invention, was in fact adopted under Theresa May, the Climate Change Act (also now being trashed) was backed by David Cameron,  and the updated Net Zero Strategy was delivered only this March under Rishi Sunak. But in the psychotic world of Toryism – in which Liz Truss reappears – fully rehabilitated and memory-wiped as saviour – anything goes. 

Comments (19)

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  1. Iain Lennox says:

    What a gratifying photograph.
    A largely empty hall .. looks like the long-standing “Scottish Conservative” disease has spread south of the border.
    Excellent news !

  2. SleepingDog says:

    I imagine by contrast the new series on Union with David Olusoga will be full of carefully-researched historical facts. I suppose Bella will be reviewing it (just started watching the first episode).

    1. Hi! – yeah we’re writing about it

  3. Mike Parr says:

    “Simply put, the 15-minute city principle suggests you should have your daily needs – work, food, healthcare, education, culture and leisure – within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from where you live.”
    Yup exists where I live – but it is not in the Disunited Serdom. Vile-tories, getting ever more desparate, & ever more “creative” in creating enemies that don’t exist. Still, all makes copy for the Daily Heil and the Daily V..mingraph & the The Scum. I pity UK serfs, groomed & they don’t even know it.

  4. Niemand says:

    My question about the 15-minute city idea is how it translates to where most people actually live – the suburbs, whether they be leafy and green or the opposite. If, like the Barcelona example it is mainly focussed on wealthy central areas it won’t change much.

    So many places literally have no decent shops or amenities, or any whatsoever within 15-minute’s walk or indeed a lot further. This never used to be the case of course but the onslaught of online shopping and retail parks that assume anyone going there, drives, have put paid to those small rows of shops and corner shops that were probably less than 15-minutes away. This is a massive societal problem. I would be interested in how the 15-minute city proponents suggest this crucial issue is addressed. This is what could really change people’s lives for the better. Focussing on trendy city centre areas is window dressing and frankly not doing the very good basic idea any favours.

    As for the Tories, they are shot, and I agree these manufactured ‘threats’ are laughable. To be honest though, I really don’t think the vast majority of people are taking any notice of them so I doubt it will do anything much for the Tories vote-wise.

    1. Hi – yeah that is the legitimate issue raised with the 15 Minute city. Not all neighbourhoods are as well serviced by shops (take the concept of fresh food deserts in Scotland), libraries, leisure, open space, work etc etc etc. The point is to redistribute these amenities and create cities around functioning neighbourhoods.

  5. John says:

    Mike you must realise that in the world of Liz Truss where she nearly wrecked the economy and sent up mortgages and national debt against expert advice she is the victim (not the public) and the experts whose advice she ignored are the real villains not lettuce Liz.
    I think I would ask the Tufty Club for political advice before the Tufton Street mob of lunatics.

  6. Derek says:

    Embra council is still allowing planning permission for folks that want to turn old shops into flats. Disnae fit.

    1. 230903 says:

      It ‘fits’ inasmuch as the proposal to convert redundant commercial premises into residential accommodation addresses the lack of such accommodation in the centre of Edinburgh and in the city generally. This doesn’t contradict the 15-minute city concept; in fact, it complements it in its ambition to create neighbourhoods across the city, and especially in the city centre, that have a healthier balance between residents, businesses, and visitors.

  7. SteveH says:

    All our parties and institutions are dominated by the graduate elite ruling classes. Elites who have long-since ceased to listen to, or consider the views of majority non-graduate and working classes. Their focus instead shifted to grievance minorities and performance activism to establish their critical social justice credentials.

    Why should non-grads listen to a bunch of elites who for a time couldn’t define what a woman is ignoring the binary nature of biological sex, and think it a good thing to gender-affirm and medicalise young gay/lesbian people. Or, to trash their own history and heritage encouraging the demonisation of the British minority by virtue if their skin colour.

    Attacking the gated Tories does not let you elites who support schemes that are not designed to meet all the people’s needs. But rather that of your need for imposing social engineering ideas.

    Most of you are no better than the Tories. Try listening to the people again, and not just the activists of your alma mater or social class.

    1. 230903 says:

      Let me ‘mansplain’, Stevie boy.

      It’s true that our speech situations (the matrix of social relations through which power is exercised in out society or ‘the establishment’) generally exclude or disadvantage certain classes of people (e.g. people who are poorly educated, people of colour, women, people who don’t identify with the gender assigned to them by society and/or the sex assigned to them by ‘God/Nature’ at birth, people whose bodies and/or minds deviate from the prescibed ideals, elderly people, children, etc., etc.) and privilege others (i.e. people who are middle-class, middle-aged, well-educated, straight, white men; the traditional ‘bourgeoisie’ and its lumpenproletarian ‘Uncle Toms’). However, this is changing as our speech situations or ‘establishment’ are decolonised and approximate ever closer to the democratic ideal and those disadvantages and privileges are ironed out.

      Progress is being made, but this doesn’t mean that we can be complacent. Our civic institutions are still deformed by disadvantage and privilege, and the economics that structurally underpin those power inequalities are still in place. Those institutions will never be completely decolonised until that underlying structure is deconstructed and surpassed.

      It also means that those who see their privilege being eroded by the ongoing decolonisation of our institutions will tend towards ressentiment (the psychological state resulting from suppressed feelings of envy, frustration, and hatred that cannot be satisfied) and the victimisation (casting oneself in the role of ‘victim’) that flows from this. It’s this ressentiment and victimisation that populists on both the ‘left’ and ‘right’ of the traditional political spectrum prey upon in the pursuit of their own material and ideological interests and that the ‘centre’ has tended to ignore or dismiss. This ‘deafness’ has only further contributed to the ressentiment and victimisation among those who are losing their ‘white’ privileges and traditional ‘white’ supremacy.

      Here endeth this morning’s lesson.

      1. Niemand says:

        It isn’t a lesson or explanation though, it is an opinion.

        I would say to SteveH, I agree about the societal imposition of certain ideas that most people don’t actually agree with and never will and put simply, is wrong, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Being educated does not mean you are wrong and don’t understand. To think that *is* stupid. It is like saying ‘we have had enough of experts’ – we know that being talked down to can be very annoying but the sentiment is basically ridiculous as anyone who needs major surgery or their electric fixed knows.

    2. John says:

      A rather long winded and tedious definition of inverted snobbery

    1. Niemand says:

      Thanks for this. I admit I had been baffled by the conspiracy element.

      What struck me is the way conspiracy thinking rules out any negotiation and development of a decent and arguably crucial idea to deal with the real problem of ‘their potential to fracture cities, furthering existing inequalities between richer and poorer areas’.

      15-minute cities must be applied equitably. In many ways traffic restrictions become pretty irrelevant if you are talking about the lack of amenities in the major outer sprawl of a big city. It is the total lack of any amenities in large estates that is the problem, not them being clogged with traffic.

      1. Yeah – exactly – 15 Minute Cities only work if they are part of a deeper democratisation and decentralisation of cities. As a traffic alleviation scheme they are a limited if positive idea – but beneath this – and I sense this is why there is such a visceral reaction – – there is more radical potential.

    2. SleepingDog says:

      @Editor, from worldview perspective, 15-minute-cities are a cellular (organic) approach, while some of its opponents seem to favour a mechanistic (robotic) approach; from a political history perspective, these ‘motorist’ opponents could be seen as an equestrian class, taking a place in social hierarchy below the rulers but above the pedestrian class.
      Hence the cavalier attitude (the code of chivalry appears to be either mythical, propaganda or an attempt to reign in the everyday atrocities of privileged, armoured knights wreaking havoc on the populace and green environment). Many adverts (praise poems for consumer products and services) feature this ‘go anyway’ trope, even a recent one for Twinings tea, in a way wholly unrealistic for the majority. You’d likely have to drink your thermos in a traffic jam than on a practically deserted beach.

      But also, the opponents of 15-minute neighbourhoods are likely users of sex workers, or worse, and prefer to drive further out from their own neighbourhood to increase the chances of anonymity.

  8. 230903 says:

    Yep, Mark Harper’s address to the Tory Party conference is a classic example of populist ‘grudge and grievance’ politicking; he’s seeking to exploit popular dissatisfaction with policies designed to reduce the number of journeys people make in urban areas using older, cheaper, and more polluting vehicles to garner votes for his party in the forthcoming general election.

    There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the global concept of 15-minute cities, which is premised on having shops, services and workplaces within a short walk or bicycle ride from people’s homes, thus minimising the need for vehicle use. Even Mark Harper accepts this; his populist appeal only extends to the ‘misuse’ of the concept for the purposes of social surveillance and control. The idea that government misuses CCTV and other management measures to control the public’s behaviour for it’s own safety and security is a classic populist trope.

    Mark’s proposal – to restrict the ‘overzealous’ use of traffic management measures by local government, by (for example) withdrawing councils’ access to the DVLA database and thereby restricting their ability to identify offenders – is, moreover, profoundly undemocratic. It’s councils, which are more directly responsible to local communities best, that should be trusted to make local transport decisions, not Whitehall – or St. Andrew’s House, for that matter. (Incidentally, the same goes for the licensing of short-term lets.) Local councils should continue to have the ability to work with local residents on any measures that might help to improve road safety and air quality and reduce congestion in their streets. Mark’s populist proposal would remove that ability.

  9. 230904 says:

    The 15-minute city exists where I live too: even though I live out in the sticks, the nearest village, where I can access all the facilities I need to meet my daily needs, is only a mile away.

    Our city also forms a real community or neighbourhood, in which every citizen knows every other at least by sight, and which would never see any of its citizens stuck for help when they need it. This really came to the fore when the normal service of government largely broke down during the pandemic and we had to rely more on ourselves than on the bureaucracy.

    The locus of government and public decision-making should be the real community of the 15-minute city, with more imagined communities or ‘unions’ or ‘communes’, like Dumgall and Scotland and Britain and Europe, serving only ever more subsidiary functions as and when required.

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