Monday, October 02, 2023

15 minute cities: what is it with the Tories and stupid?

I've spent the past decade and more living in a small village. Not exactly a remote one - it's not as though Creeting St Peter is out in the wilds or anything, but it is small. And one of the things that persuaded me to leave was the question of access to facilities.

You see, in a small village, the chances are that, in order to do anything, you need to leave the village. There is nothing within a fifteen minute walk except the church, which isn't exactly useful in terms of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread, and that means that residents are pretty much reliant on something with an engine.

Buses? We hadn't had one of those since 2011, when the once a week market day bus left the village mid-morning to head to Stowmarket and returned in the early afternoon. As far as I know, it wasn't terribly well used - my then colleagues on the Parish Council didn't seem to know that it existed - and probably required significant subsidy for very little value.

So, medical treatment, shops, schools, all of the things that we take for granted, none of them within fifteen minutes on foot, and often more than fifteen minutes by car.

And now, I live in the heart of Ipswich, with everything except a hospital within a fifteen minute walk. As I get older, I appreciate having things within easy reach, and the knowledge that, if neither of us (i.e. Ros) could drive, we wouldn't risk isolation or reliance on others.

Designing communities so that they have most key facilities within easy range is a sound idea, allowing us to use our cars less (if we want to), reducing air pollution in centres of population and thus improving public health. And nobody serious is suggesting that you can't drive around, or that you're going to be limited in terms of where you can go.

Which makes me confused as to why the Conservatives appear to want to side with the conspiracy theorists on the question of urban planning. Our historic town centres were never really designed for the motor vehicle until, in some cases, we tore down vast chunks of them to drive highways through. Finding incentives that encourage people to use their cars at home and use other means to travel to work or leisure opportunities makes sense, unless you want to use potentially valuable space building car parking.

There has never been a war on motorists, quite the reverse. Politicians have tended not to want to mess with the car lobby, weighting the economic argument in favour of cars and against public transport over decades. But, ultimately, trying to deny the direction of urban development is going to make us worse off, as urban centres hollow out through retail closures. Encouraging people to live closer in, providing the facilities to support them, and creating more lively communities will be the salvation of town centres, and as a liberal, I would like to see policies that reflect that aim.

But culture wars need to have tropes, I guess, and even if there isn't any factual evidence to support your claims, conspiracy theories will have to do...

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