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One would have thought the Oxford city council announcing plans for more compact and pedestrianised urban planning this March would be a relatively mundane event. The small English city has instead become the front line of a ferocious debate, causing thousands to take to the streets in mass hysteria. 

The discourse surrounding the city’s proposed 15-minute plan has raised important questions about the issues we need to prioritise as a country, regardless of political affiliation.

Popularised in Paris by Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the 15-minute city aims to place all essential services within walking distance of all residents. City planners worldwide from the US to Colombia have begun to use this model which not only promises to reduce carbon emissions but also revitalise local high streets and strengthen community bonds.

To those on either side of the UK political spectrum this should be an attractive policy especially to its main opposition, the conservatives . 

Conservatism places significant value on the importance of community. It is the foundation of the traditional values it seeks to preserve and provides the basis for shared social responsibility. The values of conservatism are, therefore, embodied in the concept of 15-minute cities, which encourage “communities that foster belonging, familial life and a strong patriotic identity.”

However, the current urban sprawl that characterises many of our cities has made local communities almost redundant. In England’s towns and cities, it takes an average of almost an hour to walk to key services – rendering neighbourhoods irrelevant. This trend has left us disconnected from the communities that were once the bedrock of our social and cultural lives which conservatives should be trying to preserve.

So why then have attempts to implement the trending urban planning concept in the UK been denounced as an “international socialist concept” by popular figures on the far right, including some conservative MPs? 

The scheme is currently only being proposed by Labour majority councils, causing those on the far right to automatically vilify 15-minute cities as “climate lockdown” schemes pushed by “labour-run socialist councils”. For example, many have wrongly accused the 15-minute cities of implementing roadblocks and state surveillance “that would make Pyongyang envious”

But there is no truth to these allegations. If we take another look at Oxford, the centre of recent controversy, the plan is designed to ensure every resident is within a 15 minute walk of essential services. This involves increasing local service provision of local amenities like community centres. Residents will not be “locked” into designated zones contrary to what twitter users would like you to believe: they will still be able to travel freely, albeit receiving a small fine for travelling in six of the busiest routes in the city.

Therefore, conservatives need to get out of their own way and recognise that the initiative also supports their values, not just those on the left.

Take our high streets for example, which need rejuvenation now more than ever in the wake of a pandemic which caused in-person spending to plummet. Community-oriented schemes, like 15-minute cities, provide a viable solution and would undoubtedly boost footfall to our suffering high streets and retail centres, supporting employment for just under a sixth of our workforce.

Boris’s ambitious “Levelling Up” plan could also be aided through the 15-minute city initiative. Instead of just brute fiscal stimulus, the scheme will provide a more nuanced way to support flagging areas of the UK.  Just this year Newham council were awarded 20 million from the levelling up fund to implement their 15-minute city initiative. It is intended to curtail the flow of money out of their most impoverished areas and reduce the crippling regional inequality in the UK. This demonstrates the 15-minute city’s utility as a component of levelling up.

The 15-minute city initiative is also a green policy.  It creates a modal shift away from private vehicles as cities become more walkable. As a result, our cities will have cleaner air and reduced carbon emissions, a welcome change considering the levels of air pollution in our major cities.

While it is true that 15-minute cities come with concessions for car owners and require significant investment in local infrastructure, it still does not warrant baseless far-right accusations of a globalist conspiracy.  Such claims only detract from serious discussions around using 15-minute cities to create more sustainable communities, improve access to key services and improve the quality of life for all.

Instead, we need a cohesive effort involving members of both parties to create a cleaner and more connected future. 15-minute cities could have an integral role in “Levelling Up” the UK, provided members of the conservatives and centre-right realise their potential.

Henry Horton is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Victoria Heath]