The 20-minute neighbourhood and individual freedom

“The TCPA is today delighted to announce that it has received over £1 million in funding from the World Economic Forum. The small, plucky planning charity has long had close ties with the most powerful financial organisation in global politics, but recently their shared interest in promoting the international socialist concept of ‘20-minute neighbourhoods’ has cemented their cooperation…” 

Sorry internet conspiracy theorists – but that is a press release I have never written. 

In recent weeks this ‘international socialist concept’ has become the focus of a growing social media frenzy. It kicked off in earnest when Nick Fletcher MP excoriated 20-minute neighbourhoods in parliament, decrying the risk to personal freedoms. 

At the TCPA, we believe in personal freedom too. In fact, unlocking human potential is at the core of the Garden City model. Our founder Ebenezer Howard envisaged healthy, walkable neighbourhoods, where people had the opportunity to take an active part in local decision-making and social life. 

He pictured a ‘social city’ – a city made up of small self-governing communities, surrounded by and interspersed with nature but connected by speedy public transport.  

Access to both economic infrastructure and nature (the best of both town and country) should be the right of all – not the preserve of a privileged few. 

The 20-minute neighbourhood comes from the same well-spring of ideas. It’s an idea that has gained momentum in places as disparate as Paris and Melbourne. It goes by many names – 15-minute cities, for example – but in all of these contexts the idea is essentially the same. 

In smaller communities, it is easier to keep money and power in local hands. It’s also easier to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy if the majority of your daily needs are a 20-minute walk away, rather than, let’s say, an hour-long bus ride. The harmful effects of air pollution are minimised for everyone. You are more likely to form meaningful, fulfilling connections with your neighbours if they live nearby. 

In the long run, that might just lead to a happier Britain, a safer climate and a more secure NHS. 

Practical steps that the TCPA is taking to promote this sinister conspiracy include sharing learnings and resources with local councils seeking to implement some features of 20-minute neighbourhoods. That involves hosting webinars that are open to the public, and often free. 

The attention that this idea has received recently is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is being discussed in the media and parliament. On the other, the scale and depth of misinformation out there can be disheartening, and more than a little scary. As a small campaigning charity, we don’t have the resources to fight an endless social media war against thousands of angry people. 

The core of that anger seems to be a basic misunderstanding: that in the brave new world we’re proposing, citizens will be forbidden from driving long distances. 

As far as I’m aware, no credible proponent of 20-minute neighbourhoods has ever suggested stopping people from travelling further than 20 minutes if they so desire. Our argument is simply that to access the basic ingredients of the good life, you shouldn’t have to. 

The idea that good planning sits in tension with individual freedom is an enduring one. It has dogged the debate around planning reform in Britain since the statutory planning system was created in 1947. There are some people we will never convince: those who see any attempt at collaborative, democratic decision-making over shared resources to be Eastern Bloc-ish. 

For over a hundred years, we have been promoting the idea that individual freedom, growth and flourishing can be supported and sustained by group decisions.  

All the available evidence suggests that our environments can shape our behaviour and our life-chances. We, in turn, have the power to shape our environments. We believe that given the vast structural health inequalities faced by modern Britons, failure to use that power is a kind of moral abdication. 

So we will continue proudly promoting 20-minute neighbourhoods. As international socialist conspiracies go, it seems fairly harmless to us. 

Max Hunter is Communications Officer for the TCPA. The views expressed here are personal.

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