After a Norfolk council meeting attracted a crowd of 200 protesters voicing anger at plans for 20-minute neighbourhoods, GEORGE THOMPSON explains what the concept is and why it is proving so controversial


What are 20-minute neighbourhoods?

The town planning concept - described as 15-minute neighbourhoods by some - is that people should be able to walk to and from basic amenities like shops and parks in 15 or 20 minutes.

The idea is intended to reduce car use, thus reducing air pollution and minimising the impact on the environment, while also improving public health and making areas more pleasant for residents.

It has gained popularity since the Covid pandemic, when lockdowns forced people to remain in their local neighbourhoods, and the subsequent growth in home-working.


So why are they proving so controversial?

The role of councils in introducing measures to promote such areas - and therefore reduce car use - has angered some, who are worried about new restrictions.

The policy has become the focus of many conspiracy theories online.

Some of these claim that the strategy will lead to future 'climate lockdowns' which will see people restricted to small urban areas, in order to protect the environment.

There are claims online that councils have signed up to net zero carbon emission pledges and intend to restrict people's movements to achieve their targets.

According to some theories, people will not able to move from one neighbourhood to another.


What has it got to do with Oxford?

In the UK, opposition to the concept has increased as a result of a controversial traffic-restructuring trial in Oxford.

The project is not actually part of a 20-minute neighbourhood scheme, but critics have drawn a connection.

The trial involves a traffic filter scheme on six roads which will require cars to obtain permits in order to travel along these routes.

Traffic cameras will be used to scan drivers’ number plates, and fine those without a permit (with numerous exemptions).

Some locals dislike the scheme.

Other groups from outside the city have also become involved in the campaign against the trial, claiming it part of a wider conspiracy to limit people's freedom of movement.

Similar claims have been made about policies from London mayor Sadiq Khan to restrict car use in the capital. 


Is this just an online issue?

Until this point, much of the debate about 20-minute neighbourhoods - and the link to conspiracy theories - has taken place online.

But a series of public events - such as the appearance of protestors at a Thetford Town Council meeting - show it is moving into the mainstream.

Nick Fletcher, the Tory MP for Don Valley, recently demanded a parliamentary debate on 15-minute neighbourhoods.

He described them as an "international socialist concept" which will "take away personal freedoms".


What has happened in Norfolk?

So far very little has happened with the concept in Norfolk.

A motion was approved by the county council in December for the authority to explore working with other authorities and transport bosses to explore the creation of such districts in urban and rural areas.

Councillors want to see if, by working with other councils, such neighbourhoods could be created in Norfolk through good planning when it comes to homes, transport and infrastructure.

But, as the events in Thetford show, the lack of firm action has not stopped scepticism about the concept.