Minister accused of 'misleading public' with false claim about 15-minute cities

Maria Caulfield faces calls to apologise for 'dishonest' claims that residents will have to pay road charges to drive more than 15-minutes from their home.

Maria Caulfield and '15-minute cities' campaign letter
Minister for women Maria Caulfield claimed that some councils were introducing 15 minute cities. (BBC)

A government minister has been accused of "misleading the public to save her job" after falsely claiming that people in some parts of England will have to pay a road tax under the so-called "15-minute cities" scheme.

Maria Caulfield, the minister for women and mental health, claimed in campaign literature that Lib Dem and Green councils wanted to introduce a road toll system in the future as she urged people to vote Conservative in last year's Lewes District Council elections.

As part of the scheme, Caulfield, MP of the East Sussex constituency, claimed that residents would be forced to pay a charge for travelling more than 15 minutes from their homes.

Responding to her claims, Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Daisy Cooper MP told Yahoo News: “Maria Caulfield owes local people an apology for these dishonest leaflets.

“After years of Conservative sleaze and scandal, the public desperately wants a return to integrity in politics, yet Maria Caulfield is spreading baseless claims.

“Maria Caulfield is deliberately misleading the public to try to save her own job. This is a new low for the Conservative party."

The health minister defended her claims about so-called '15-minute cities' during an appearance on BBC Politics South-East on 5 May, the Guardian reports.
The health minister defended her claims about so-called '15-minute cities' during an appearance on BBC Politics South-East on 5 May, the Guardian reports.

The concept of 15-minute cities has been jumped on by conspiracy theorists, who say it is a way to lock people in their neighbourhoods and reduce personal freedom. However, its proponents argue that 15-minute cities are simply a way of cutting down commutes and improving quality of life.

In her letter to voters, Caulfield refers to Oxford, which has plans to become a 15-minute city by the next decade, claiming the city has already introduced the scheme.

She claims residents in Oxford "now bitterly regret letting the Greens and Lib Dems run their council", adding: "Don't let this happen here."

Appearing on BBC’s Politics South-East on Sunday 5 May, Caulfield said: “Lib Dems and Greens want to introduce a road toll system, 15-minute cities, where you will have to pay a congestion charge if you travel by car more than 15 mins from home.”

When challenged by the host that council leaders have said it was not true, Caulfield replied: “It’s actually printed… on their draft local plan. It’s in their official documents that they supportive of 15-minute cities. I think they’ve probably dropped that plan because it’s so controversial.”

Pressed on whether council documents spoke of “road charges”, Caulfield said: “It says 15-minute cities… and that’s been introduced in Lib Dem councils across the country and there’s been uproar about that.”

Caulfield maintained her position that going outside of the 15-minute zone means “you will have to pay a road tax”, saying it’s a system “that works in other parts of the country”.

According to Full Fact, Oxford City Council is considering the introduction of traffic filters, which prevent cars without a permit from driving through at specific times - instead being directed onto other routes.

Residents inside the area would be given 100 free permits every year, while those living close by would also receive a small number of permits.

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Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK. 11th Feb, 2023. Protesters carry placards through the shopping mall warning of 15 minute cities and the covid-19 jab. Freedom campaigners march across the city centre and demonstrate outside media companies. The
Opponents of 15-minute cities say they will restrict personal freedoms. (PA)

Caulfield denied that it was a conspiracy theory, and that it was more that congestion charges in built-up areas.

She added: “If you speak to people in Oxford – that the sort of thing they’re having to deal with… I think they have to be honest with people. [London mayor] Sadiq Khan was the same when he said he wasn’t going to introduce Ulez, but he did.”

Yahoo News UK has contacted Maria Caulfield for a comment.

The 15-minute city idea was developed and popularised by French-Colombian professor Carlos Moreno, who envisioned a future where city dwellers could have access to everything they need within walking distance. Shops, schools, workplaces, doctors, parks, libraries, and restaurants are all placed within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from home under the scheme.

The concept is being integrated in parts of Paris under mayor Anne Hidalgo's plans to create more self-sufficient communities with more diverse economies, while also cutting pollution and stress. The notion gained ground during the COVID pandemic, which saw people spending more time in their local neighbourhood than ever before.

Aerial Paris Seine River Eiffel Tower Bridges 7th Division Dawn
The concept of 15-minute cities is being integrated in parts of Paris. (Getty)

Oxford has set out to become a 15-minute city by the next decade under the 2040 local plan set out by its city council. The local authority says this is to create a walkable city where people have everything they need a short distance away.

But the plan sparked protests among people who have conflated it with Oxfordshire County Council's Low Traffic Neighbourhood scheme, which has seen bollards erected on some roads to discourage driving. Work began on installing traffic filters on six roads in February this year, which has fuelled conspiracy theories that this would result in people being "confined" to their areas.

In December 2022 Oxfordshire County Council and Oxford City Council issued a lengthy joint statement seeking to counteract some of the "misinformation" being spread over the schemes.

Oxford City Council has since removed mentions of "15-minute cities" from its local plan, claiming the term had become too "toxic and incendiary", the Times reported in March this year.

Cabinet member for planning Louise Upton told the newspaper: “If we want to actually engage with people about what the real problems are and what the solutions are, we don’t need the phrase 15-minute cities any more."

She said dropping the phrase would make “no noticeable difference to our planning decisions”.

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