I’ve known more than a few weird conspiracy theories in my time. “We didn’t put people on the Moon” (We did. I’ve helped bounce a laser off one of the mirrors they left there), “Global warming isn’t real” (If you can prove that, there are SEVERAL Nobel Prizes in Physics waiting for you), “Vaccines have tracking chips in them” (they don’t. The one in the phone you’re using to read this article is MUCH cheaper). One of the absolute weirdest one starting to surface at the moment though is one that rails against the concept of the “15 minute neighbourhood”. The idea that your community should contain all basic amenities within a distance equivalent to a 15 minute walk for a fit, able-bodied adult and that it should be as easy as possible for everyone to reach and access those amenities.
I don’t want to delve into the details of the conspiracy theory too much (others have done so) other than to say it is apparently rooted in the idea of a “climate lockdown” where your freedom to move outwith your designated “15-minute zone” would be curtailed. It’s obvious nonsense and appears to have been pushed by people with a vested interest in keeping you burning the fuel you’re buying from them but such is the nature of misinformation in our digital age. As Pratchett once wrote “[A] lie can run around the world before the truth has got its boots on”. For the avoidance of doubt, a 15-minute neighbourhood won’t stop you from driving for an hour and a half to visit a post box. It just questions your need to do so.
Out of the world of conspiracy and back to the world of policy, what would such a neighbourhood look like? In some ways, we can already see it in the communities around us, embedded in the very placenames that still cling on within the homogenising sprawls of our modern cities. This mapping tool by Travel Time allows you to pick a location in the UK, pick a travel time and pick a mode of travel and to see how far you can go in that time. Have a close look at our towns and cities. Look at the neighbourhoods within them. To a decent approximation, if you’re in the centre of a neighbourhood, you can walk to the centre of the next neighbourhood over in about 15 minutes. If you look at our more rural villages, you can walk from the centre to the edge of many of them in about 15 minutes. It’s almost as if that radius is something that makes some kind of deep, logical connection to our sense of self, our sense of community and, of course, to the history of these places given that many of them were founded in past years and centuries when walking was the main mode of transport for most people, most of the time. A 15-minute neighbourhood isn’t about trapping you in this bubble, but about making you feel part of your own community and not just someone who sleeps there between work shifts.
Just as people seem to have a good sense of what their neighbourhood is, they also seem to have a good sense of what they want from that community in terms of amenities. This week, YouGov published a poll asking people what they expected to see in within a 15 minute walk of their home compared to what they could actually access near their home.
In general, there’s a good correlation here. People expect to be able to easily reach amenities such as a park, or a bus stop, or a school (especially a primary school) and to a reasonable degree the higher the demand for one of these things, the higher the chance that they are provided or protected. Some stand-outs are apparent however. Some service sector businesses are perhaps “over-represented” in communities. I wonder how many of those restaurants are fast-food joints, overcompeting with each other to the point where they can only ever provide the most low-paid jobs possible and thus do not provide the community a great deal of benefit but are providing a wide radius of brightly branded litter spreading out from their store. I’m not saying we shouldn’t eat out (it’s one of my great pleasures – both for an excellent artisan pizza or the odd sad looking, guilty cheeseburger) but perhaps we should think a bit more about who is setting up restaurants and the like, what kind of food they are providing and whether or not they truly are contributing to the wellbeing of our community.
On the opposite side of the demand/supply line are those things that we want but, for some reason, can’t have. The lack of pharmacies and GP surgeries perhaps speak to the ongoing crisis in health and care in the UK at the moment and this is a topic worthy of its own column but it’s the lack of banks that really stands out to me. If you listened to the PR releases from banks as they embark on yet another round of branch closures, you’d perhaps start to believe their line that folk just don’t want them or need them. Why bother with a physical bank branch where you can handle cash, have critical documents scrutinised and verified, talk to someone about the process of financing a new business, or get a properly financed and appropriately affordable loan for your house when you can simply download an app, click a button, get money?
Of course, running a bank branch means overheads for the bank and in their world, overheads mean lower profits and lower profits mean unhappy shareholders and…you can now see the real reason why they’d much rather take your money while providing the absolute bare minimum of anything called a service. “Your call may be important to them”…but not quite important enough to hire enough staff to answer the phone when you need them.
There are a couple of solutions to this. A stopgap is one that the Scottish Government is currently supporting where banking hubs are set up in which multiple banking companies share the same physical space and share the overheads. A more sustainable solution in the long term is the one that the Welsh Government is currently supporting where a modular network of community-owned, customer-owned banks are set up where they are needed. If this means a fully staffed bank branch, then great but if your community truly is too small for this then a mobile solution or even a virtual branch built into a shipping container are also options. If you want to read more about this kind of relationship-banking and why it’s important, then please read Common Weal’s blueprint which is based on the same technical standard as the one being adopted by Wales.
I can’t finish an article like this without raising the question of accessibility. A 15 minute walk for a fit, able-bodied adult is not something that will be possible or desirable for some. It might not even be necessary in some very high density cities where a 5 minute radius may be a more appropriate distance to aim for. On the other hand, out in the more rural areas of Scotland, a 15 minute walk might not even get you to the roadend, never mind your nearest neighbour. Don’t, therefore, take the “15 minute walk” rule as anything more than a convenient guide. Local transport solutions must be able to accommodate everyone within the neighbourhood and must be built to suit that neighbourhood (A challenge for readers: look again at the travel time mapping tool. Try to find an area where you can’t walk to a park because there’s a motorway or similar barrier in the way)
This is where locally tailored solutions are absolutely required and, as I’ve moaned about frequently in these columns, Scotland isn’t nearly democratic enough to be able to do that yet. Scotland’s local tier of democracy is itself too far away from our 15 minute neighbourhoods. This is the final lesson to the politicians who want to help deliver these services that we want, in our immediate communities and who are determining which amenities or services should count towards their quotas and metrics when they start drawing up our 15 minute neighbourhoods. We shouldn’t have to drive half way across the country to find the person making those decisions either.