What a load of bollards: Oxfordshire County Council’s plans to reduce urban traffic have led to protests © Stephen Bell / Alamy Stock Photo

What is freedom? 15-minute city conspiracies show just how little some understand it

Critics of low-traffic neighbourhoods and walkable cities say that such plans threaten their liberty. Stuart Jeffries reports from the frontline in a new culture war
April 5, 2023

“Very soon,” says Katie Hopkins, “you will have only 15 minutes of freedom here in the UK.” The fact-light spawn of the post-truth swamp—who used her Sun column to call migrants “cockroaches” and left MailOnline by mutual consent after claiming that areas of Britain were controlled by a “Muslim mafia”—may not be everybody’s go-to expert to explain Oxford’s new traffic-calming measures. But that doesn’t stop her.

“The plan is in Oxford… to divide the city into six parts and you will only have the freedom to operate in the part that you live,” she explains in a video on new traffic measures that has been watched more than 115,000 times since it was posted on her YouTube channel in late December, and hundreds of thousands of times on TikTok and Twitter.

She sketches a pie chart representing Oxford divided into six zones. “If your mother lived over here, you wouldn’t be able to go and see her… You in your area will only be allowed within that 15 minute zone you have been allocated. The number plate recognition will know if you leave your zone and you can apply for permission, a permit to leave your zone and travel to another zone. But you’ll only be allowed to do this about 100 times a year.”

“This is real,” Hopkins says, with a performed incredulity that is part of her self-described persona as a “war zone on two legs.” “This has actually been passed by Oxford Council. This is happening in the next two years.”

Only it isn’t. Forget for a moment that it’s Oxfordshire County Council not Oxford City Council that is responsible for next year’s trial of traffic filters. Forget that the filters amount to cameras that read number plates on six roads with the aim of limiting car use through residential areas at times when traffic is, at present, particularly heavy. Forget too that buses and taxis will be able to pass freely, that people can walk or cycle through at all times. Forget that there will be a range of exemptions and permits for blue badge holders, emergency services, health workers, care workers and people receiving frequent hospital treatment. Forget that Oxford residents will be allowed fine-free access to drive through the filters on 100 daysin a year.

If Hopkins’s drawing and opinions were accurate—which they aren’t—the city of dreaming spires would become like Cold War Berlin, with the necessities of life airlifted from Summertown to Blackbird Leys because all the roads were closed by Stalinist goons tooled up with the latest surveillance technology. “We want to be absolutely clear,” says Liz Leffman, Liberal Democrat Green Alliance group leader and county council leader, “we are not planning a climate lockdown or a lockdown of any kind.” But for Hopkins and likeminded conspiracy theorists, this is exactly what is going on. 

“During the pandemic, when the likes of myself and others warned that we were setting a precedent, allowing the state to encroach so much on our lives, controlling our movements to ‘stop Covid’, we were labelled mad conspiracy theorists,” GB News presenter Mark Dolan told viewers in February. “Well, state overreach is now the norm and these 15-minute cities, low-traffic neighbourhoods and Ulez zones [ultra-low emission zones, like that recently extended into suburban London areas by mayor Sadiq Khan to reduce pollution] are just another example.”

The battle for Oxford is a proxy for a bigger conflict. Among the 2,000 people who demonstrated against the proposals in February were climate change denier and weatherman Piers Corbyn; anti-vaxxer and populist Reclaim party founder Laurence Fox; 1990s one-hit-wonders turned conspiracy theorists Right Said Fred; and the far-right Patriotic Alternative group.

“Say NO to the new world order. Say no to 15 mins prison cities. Wake up, people, wake up,” read one placard at the event. One @PeterSweden7 tweeted his support: “Resist globalism. Resist the great reset. Resist tyranny. Resist digital ID. Resist digital currency. Resist wokeness. Live free and be happy.” 

Protesters take a moment to catch up during a march against 15-minute cities in Oxford Protesters take a moment to catch up during a march against 15-minute cities in Oxford © Martin Pope / Getty Images

Viewed thus, the traffic proposals that council leader Liz Leffman and her colleagues are planning are a skirmish in the global culture war against motorists. Conservative MP Nick Fletcher told the Commons recently that British towns and cities with similar plans were implementing “an international socialist concept” that will deprive people of their freedom. Bristol, Birmingham, Canterbury, Ipswich and Sheffield are among those that aim to become 15-minute cities, whereby all of life’s amenities should be within a quarter of an hour’s walk. 

A similar initiative was endorsed earlier this year in Scotland. Scottish planning minister Tom Arthur argues “20-minute neighbourhoods” north of the border will make sure basic services—shops, gyms, restaurants, schools—are all within walking distance, thereby “tackling the climate crisis and reaching net zero”. But the aspiration is global: Shanghai’s development master plan calls for residents to be able to complete all of their daily activities within 15 minutes of walking by 2035. It has since been implemented in other Chinese cities, notably Baoding and Guangzhou. 

The Oxford protest, ironically enough, reduced one of the world’s cleverest cities to a gridlock of stupid. King Arthur Pendragon, arguably Britain’s leading druid, told reporters: “For many people in the 21st century, freedom is a set of keys, and basically any assault on the vehicle is an assault on the person. If they say you can’t go out of Oxford, how are you going to get to Stonehenge for the Solstice?” King Arthur, who lives in Salisbury, may have confused Oxford with the Eagles’ “Hotel California”: even after traffic filters become operational, you will still be able to leave any time you want.

And yet, for all that, King Arthur had a point. Without knowing it, he was endorsing Isaiah Berlin’s account of negative and positive liberties set out in the philosopher’s Oxford lecture 65 years ago. The former means freedom from, the latter freedom to. The druid’s suggestion was that freedom from official control had to be fought for, so that key-holding motorists had the freedom to drive whenever and wherever they wanted—irrespective of the conflicting desires of toddlers to be free from sucking down asthma-inducing fumes. That, he suggests, is what those opposing the council initiative are really concerned about. And no doubt he is right.

Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson was not able to attend the Oxford demonstration, but he made his views clear on Twitter. “The idea that neighborhoods should be walkable is lovely. The idea that idiot tyrannical bureaucrats can decide by fiat where you’re ‘allowed’ to drive is perhaps the worst imaginable perversion of that idea—and, make no mistake, it’s part of a well-documented plan,” he claimed. But then Peterson has a hair-trigger response when it comes to traffic reduction proposals. When it was reported in February that the Canadian city of Edmonton wanted citizens to cut vehicle usage by 50 per cent and rely instead on other modes of transport, he tweeted his outrage then, too: “It’s often 40 [degrees Fahrenheit] bloody below in Edmonton. Who’s going to bike? Your grandmother? I don’t think so. These 15-minute cities are just another fad hijacked by wannabe authoritarians using threats of apocalyptic doom to mask their desire for power.”

The Oxford protest, ironically enough, reduced one of the world’s cleverest cities to a gridlock of stupid

Ignore Peterson’s casual ageism. Ignore too the fact that some very cold cities have successful cycling policies. In the Finnish city of Oulu, where temperatures below –30°C (–22°F) are not uncommon, cycling and walking are safe for the youngest and oldest thanks to scrupulously well-maintained routes; “It’s never even occurred to us that we wouldn’t cycle in the winter,” urban wellbeing engineer Pekka Tahkola told the BBC in January. Peterson’s bestselling book 12 Rules for Life, one might think, needs a 13th rule: don’t underestimate the cycling grannies of Edmonton.

But why are opponents of 15-minute cities so incensed? The idea sounds benign enough when outlined by Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno, who popularised the idea of what he calls la ville du quart d’heure and now advises Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo on making that dream a reality. “First, the rhythm of the city should follow humans, not cars,” says Moreno. “Second, each square metre should serve many different purposes. Finally, neighbourhoods should be designed so that we can live, work and thrive in them without having to constantly commute elsewhere.” Strikingly, Moreno broached this idea at a Ted talk in 2020, right as Covid lockdowns came into place around the world, and people were beginning to work from home more and realise the benefits of walkable neighbourhoods.

But for Peterson and others, behind Moreno’s vision lurks an international conspiracy to establish an authoritarian world order that improbably links the King of England, the mayor of Paris and shadowy elites meeting in Davos—not to mention a global cabal of Big Brothers from Kent to Buenos Aires, all intent on scanning number plates to finance their diabolical authoritarian rule. 

Key to this conspiracy theory is the World Economic Forum (WEF), an international non-governmental and lobbying organisation based in Switzerland. It was founded in 1971 by German engineer Klaus Schwab and is now known for its annual meeting of high-net-worth individuals in Davos. WEF partners include some of the biggest companies in oil (Saudi Aramco, Shell, Chevron, BP), food (Unilever, the Coca-Cola Company, Nestlé), technology (Meta, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple) and pharmaceuticals (AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna).

The WEF, though denounced by leftists as offering a façade of social responsibility to cover a greedy profit-machine, is loathed even more by right-wing conspiracy theorists who suppose these non-elected influencers are a global elite with plans to reshape the world according to repressive, authoritarian values. A 2016 opinion piece published on the WEF’s website, titled “Welcome to 2030. I own nothing, have no privacy, and life has never been better”, confirmed this narrative to many. Matters became worse in 2020, when Schwab wrote his own opinion piece arguing for “the great reset”. “The pandemic represents a rare but narrow window of opportunity to reflect, reimagine, and reset our world to create a healthier, more equitable, and more prosperous future,” he argued. The great reset was extolled in a 280-page book and allied podcast, but details about what it means in practice remain sketchy. Veteran leftist broadcaster (and unsuccessful Labour candidate for Mid & South Pembrokeshire) Paul Mason described it as a “half-assed but well-intentioned idea by the WEF to design a sustainable version of neoliberalism-lite”.

The great reset, though it may be as fact-light as Katie Hopkins’s videos, has proved to be a lightning rod for conspiracy theorists and libertarians. Jordan Peterson recently told the Joe Rogan Experience podcast that he intends to launch a global consortium as an alternative to “that kind of apocalyptic narrative that’s being put forward, at least implicitly, by organisations like the World Economic Forum”.

Three years ago, our king, then Prince Charles, unwittingly entered this culture war when he addressed the WEF at Davos to launch his Sustainable Markets Initiative. “I have dedicated much of my life to the restoration of harmony between humanity, nature and the environment,” he claimed. “Do we want to go down in history as the people who did nothing to bring the world back from the brink, in trying to restore the balance, when we could have done? I don’t want to.”

True, this speech didn’t explicitly endorse the 15-minute city idea, but Charles has often backed something like it during a life committed to environmentalism. He is an outlier, being neither a politician nor city planner, in his advocacy for the kind of reforms that conspiracy theorists would charge are making his kingdom not so much green and pleasant—but potentially as repressive as North Korea.

Disneyland Dorchester: King Charles’ town of Pundbury bears many characteristics of a 15-minute city © Jack Sullivan / Alamy Stock Photo Disneyland Dorchester: King Charles’ town of Pundbury bears many characteristics of a 15-minute city © Jack Sullivan / Alamy Stock Photo

Take Poundbury, Charles’s 400-acre town on the edge of Dorchester in Dorset—British royalty’s belated retort to Marie Antoinette’s rustic village in the grounds of Versailles. Poundbury has its Waitrose, Queen Mother Square and Duchess of Cornwall hotel (modelled on Palladio’s Convento della Carità in Venice) all within walking distance of homes designed in a new architectural style that critics have called “Disney feudal”. It has the look and feel of a 15-minute city avant la lettre.

Poundbury’s masterplan was devised by one of Charles’s favourite architects, Léon Krier. The town was intended as a rebuke not just to the ugliness of modernist architecture, but as realisation of Krier’s principles of New Urbanism. These principles envisaged cities with walkable communities in which places for living, working and leisure are built side by side rather than in separate areas. In this, Krier sought to recreate something akin to his beloved birthplace, the city of Luxembourg. The best cities were small, he counselled, or if they grew large, like Paris, were composed of relatively self-sufficient quarters that minimised car traffic.

Krier contrasted adaptable Parisian arrondissements with Milton Keynes’s rigid grid: “The whole of Paris is a pre-industrial city which still works because it is so adaptable, something the creations of the 20th century will never be. A city like Milton Keynes cannot survive an economic crisis or any other kind of crisis because it is planned as a mathematically determined social and economic project.”

This is probably unfair on Milton Keynes, but Paris’s adaptability has been demonstrated by mayor Anne Hidalgo, who made Moreno’s ideas for creating a 15-minute city a key plank of her winning 2020 election platform. The results are impressive: the Place de la Bastille has been renovated as part of a city-funded €30m revamp of seven major squares. Once a roaring island of traffic, it’s now a tree-fringed bucolic spot dedicated mainly to pedestrians. Before-and-after pictures of dual carriageways alongside the Seine show an incredible transformation: once jammed with cars, these roads are now haunts of strolling lovers, their idylls only slightly compromised by madcap hordes of rollerbladers. 

But there is a problem with Krier’s vision and perhaps, by extension, with King Charles III’s harmonious urbanism and Hidalgo’s newly serene city of light. Consider Krier’s masterplan for the Florida panhandle town of Seaside, built according to New Urbanism principles, replete with walkable streets and housing and shopping in ready proximity to each other. Seaside, like Poundbury, seemed to be an exemplar of how we should live. Instead, and partly because it featured in the dystopian movie The Truman Show but mainly because of cars, the town became a victim of its own success. To enjoy the whole experience, visitors now drive in intolerable numbers to Seaside. The region’s main artery, Route 30A, has become a parking lot jammed with tourists hoping to walk where once Jim Carrey filmed. And yet, within Seaside itself, the dream has been realised: a city without the ills of modern society—soulless freeways, traffic fumes and congestion—at least for those who can pay its rocketing property prices.

Indeed, this sense of low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) being oases of calm for those who can afford to live in them has led to a pushback against such ostensibly green initiatives. Critics argue that LTNs discriminate against the poor and vulnerable. In the London borough of Tower Hamlets, for instance, mayor Lutfur Rahman promised in his manifesto last year to remove LTNs that he claimed had “impacted thousands of working people”, not least taxi drivers. Rahman told Novara Media: “They [the previous Labour-led council] have created gated communities. The roads have been pedestrianised, have been closed where there’s nice terraced houses, expensive houses where people are quite affluent. It’s OK for them to have a low carbon dioxide area patch, but most of the traffic is going through nearby council estates which are densely built, which is cars emitting more carbon dioxide, it’s huge traffic each day every hour. It’s affecting certain kinds of people… That’s wrong.” 

Recent research from the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy contradicted Rahman’s assessment. Low-traffic neighbourhoods, the report claimed, significantly reduce the number of motor vehicles within their boundaries without appearing to push traffic on to roads around their edges. 

Rahman’s policy is controversial, and not just because it is proposed by a man who was removed as mayor of Tower Hamlets in 2015 after an election court found him guilty of electoral offences (he was re-elected last year). One night last November, council workers arrived to remove planters and fences erected outside Chisenhale primary school in Bow only a year earlier under the previous Labour administration’s school streets programme. Children and parents came out of nearby houses in their pyjamas to protest. One local, Sarah Gibbons, told reporters that the removal of the planters and fences blocking the roads to traffic during school hours could expose children to more car pollution. “This is one of the most polluted parts of London. Children in Tower Hamlets have a reduced lung capacity because of the levels here.” 

Clearly, such initiatives are divisive. In the neighbouring London borough of Hackney, thousands of residents have formed a group called Horrendous Hackney Road Closures (HHRC), committed to overturning the Labour council policy of converting 75 per cent of the borough’s  streets into low-traffic neighbourhoods with planters, traffic cameras and bollards to prevent motorists using residential streets as rat runs. Co-founder Niall Crowley says: “The council is interested in virtue signalling about its green credentials and appealing to healthy, young, affluent cycling advocates, and those of us who have lived here all our lives or who don’t fit the picture can go to hell.” 

A similar conflict is being played out in the nearby borough of Islington, where some see LTNs as part of an undemocratic gentrification process. Back in March, I attended a demonstration outside Islington Town Hall organised by Keep Barnsbury Moving, whose members oppose an LTN they say is being imposed on them. “Undemocratic. Unwarranted. Unwanted,” read one flyer. 

“It’s very communist,” said one man who asked not to be named. “It comes from the top without proper consultation or consideration for the little people—taxi drivers, carers, tradespeople. All of them are going to suffer longer journeys and restricted access.” That, at least, is a common fear among protesters; whether it is true or not is less obvious. “And what’s it for?” the man went on. “There’ll be more pollution and congestion on surrounding roads when traffic is diverted from residential streets, which are going to become like ghost towns.” As we talked, cab drivers, bus drivers and other motorists on the thoroughfare of Upper Street tooted their agreement with opposition to Islington’s so-called liveable neighbourhood schemes. One passing cyclist hurling abuse at the protesters was shouted down.

Conspiracy theories find fertile ground in the issue of what can be done to stop the car from despoiling our cities

The sense I got from this demonstration was that protesters think the council is catering for special interest groups rather than long-term residents. Not all of the 50 or so in attendance were white and middle-aged or older, but most were. All were good humoured despite their shared sense of disenfranchisement. 

That isn’t always the case. “We intend to burn down your house while you are sleeping,” said one handwritten letter sent to Jon Burke, a former Labour councillor in Hackney who strongly promoted green initiatives such as LTNs and cycling routes in the borough. “Open all roads now or we will get violence [sic].” 

“You can’t be loved by everybody,” Burke says sanguinely. “I don’t think that I can come to a single example of progressive political change that wasn’t controversial at the time. When Churchill called for rearmament in the 1930s to counter the growing threat of Germany, that was controversial. [In 1946] one former member of the British Medical Association said the NHS was the first step on the road to Nazism.”

Burke has a point. Histrionic conspiracy theories find fertile ground in this divisive issue of what, if anything, can be done to stop the car from despoiling our cities. And no one is more histrionic than Mark Dolan, the GB News presenter who claims that Britain is, thanks to traffic reduction policies, establishing “a surveillance culture that would make Pyongyang envious”. 

Viewed thus, the vandals in Oxford who earlier this year tore up bollards and planters were heroes fighting against the county council’s tinpot Kim Jong-uns. And those residents who later blocked the street again with traffic cones and signs reading “Road closed” are dupes of an international authoritarian conspiracy. “I’m sorry,” says Dolan, “but in a free country, you ought to be able to get in a car and drive wherever you like. But that freedom is already starting to feel like a distant memory.”

Not really: Dolan, like Katie Hopkins and other conspiracy theorists, is confusing licence with freedom. Real freedom, as any Oxford philosophy undergraduate would tell him, involves taking responsibility for your actions.

“The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others,” wrote John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. The Victorian philosopher wasn’t writing in defence of low-traffic neighbourhoods, 15-minute cities, traffic filters or any of the other paraphernalia that drive some motorists to distraction, but his so-called harm principle stands in humane contrast to the untrammelled selfishness that conspiracy theorists extol.