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Doncaster MP airs bizarre conspiracy theory in Parliament

Tory Nick Fletcher has been widely mocked for sharing an eccentric theory that compares liveable neighbourhoods to prison camps.

Stannington panorama
Rachel Rae Photography

Showing your security pass at a checkpoint to pass between the militarised zones of Crookes and Walkley. It sounds more like a scene from Children of Men than a viable or likely future for Sheffield, but this dystopian vision was alluded to earlier this month by Don Valley MP Nick Fletcher in the House of Commons.

Fletcher, a Conservative MP since 2019, informed the house about what he called the “international socialist concept” of 15-minute cities – the idea that, if you live in a city, all of your basic amenities, such as your GP or a supermarket, should be within a 15-minute walk or bike ride.

This innocuous concept has been subject to a range of far-right conspiracy theories online, which falsely claim that the 15-minute city is part of a sinister global plot to control people by making them prisoners within their own neighbourhoods.

Despite there being no evidence behind this outlandish claim whatsoever, Fletcher alluded to it by tweeting that “keeping us prisoners in our communities is not the way.” He also claimed that the concept would “take away your personal freedoms,” but didn’t elaborate as to how.

On the Northern Agenda podcast, the MP said: “What people need to know is that to travel from one district to another, you’ll be allowed to do that so many times a year – maybe a hundred times a year… and any more journeys than that you will be fined for.” There is no evidence of any 15-minute city proposal in the world restricting residents from travelling between neighbourhoods.

Fletcher's short speech in the Commons was roundly mocked online, with writer Huw Lemmey quipping:

Others were alarmed by an MP of the ruling party airing a conspiracy theory that has its roots in the far-right anti-vax movement.

“They’re getting more Trumpist by the day,” said environmental journalist George Monbiot, while LBC presenter James O’Brien said the idea was being jumped on “by right-wing conspiracy theorists, anti-vax loonies & other attention-seeking weirdos.”

A white man wearing a grey suit in front of a grey wall

Nick Fletcher MP

Richard Townshend

Many planners, architects and active travel campaigners also rushed to defend the idea of 15-minute neighbourhoods; by making public services easier to access for elderly and vulnerable people they would, in reality, enhance personal freedoms rather than limit them.

The concept was central to the successful 2020 re-election campaign of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who said that she wanted to “transform the city so Parisians can learn, do sports, have healthcare, shop, within 15 minutes of their home.”

Some cities in the UK have become interested in the idea, with Oxford City Council taking steps to incorporate it into their planning policy, partly with the aim of reducing traffic congestion in the ancient university town.

In South Yorkshire, Sheffield Council recently passed a motion resolving to “put in place the building blocks for compact and liveable 15-minute neighbourhoods,” prompting Fletcher to say that he “did not want Doncaster, which is also a labour run socialist council to do the same.”

Aside from the issue of liveable cities, Fletcher’s statement, which was treated as if it was a serious political point by Leader of the House Penny Mordaunt, also raises questions about the quality of representatives in our political system. His Don Valley seat, which incorporates south Doncaster and the surrounding towns and villages, is one of many so-called ‘red wall’ seats that the Conservatives probably didn’t expect to win in the 2019 general election.

As with Jared O’Mara for Labour, it’s unlikely that the party put too much thought into selecting a candidate for a seat that had been held by Labour continuously since it was created in 1918. The mainstream of the party now face the potential headache of having a renegade MP airing wacky conspiracy theories in their name – and incumbent MPs are notoriously difficult to get rid of.

“Something went seriously wrong with our candidate selection process in 2019,” tweeted one young Conservative activist. “How did we end up with so many low quality MPs like this?”

Now Then asked Nick Fletcher to explain how 15-minute cities would "take away personal freedoms." He did not respond.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)
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