Cities are becoming more prominent as key partners in policy formulation and implementation.
We see this in the EU. The “Technical Support Initiative” financial assistance managed by the EU’s Directorate-General for Reform (DG REFORM) is set to service multi-country projects in which there is a need for city involvement. The European Semester, the EU’s monitor for economic and social policies, has also increased its focus on cities, with its most recent iteration including more data on local government. We find the same emphasis on cities in the EU’s criteria for accession countries in the Balkans, which is requiring reforms of public administration meant to empower the local level.
Knee-jerk conservative reactions against EU integration and bureaucracy will fail to identify what is positive in this city-focus, thereby also failing to articulate a strategy for capitalising on the opportunities presented by the new policy direction.
To begin with, multi-level governance and the inclusion of municipalities and urban areas in higher-level decision-making is a recognition of the principle of subsidiarity, which should be ever-present in the minds of any self-defining conservative. Specifically, local empowerment allows for fewer filters between the public and policy—a public that is still far less ready to accept hormone treatments for minors, for example, compared to much of the political class.
Resisting established structures and policies is necessary, but so is appropriating these to suit better ends than those intended by the prevailing caste of social engineers. However, this requires that we understand the potential dark side of those policies so that we can redirect them.
With respect to municipal-empowerment, at present, promoters of the sorts of initiatives pushed for by the World Economic Forum (WEF)—and comparable organisations—are aware that these are too comprehensive to be rolled out on a national scale, and that they require pilot-testing best carried out in municipal theatres. Increasingly, this threatens to reduce the national level to an intermediary between the international and local levels. The UN, for its part, has at times encouraged cities in developed countries to access international funding sources where the funders in question incentivise ideological commitments that may be at odds with national policy. The idea is that an elite may influence a set of individuals (or, in this case, local governments), so long as this set does not congeal into a community with strong horizontal bonds and its own channels of communication and decision-making (see Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism).
Where international actors provide funding and trumped-up crises—the carrot and the stick—city governments can experiment with subjecting their citizens to draconian designs of various sorts. The so-called “15-minute city” and “Zero-Emission Zones” (ZEZ) are the cutting-edge of such experimentation: in order to reduce CO2 emissions, cities are to concentrate everything a resident may need within a 15-minute radius of him, such that he does not need to drive.
Many cities, from Paris to Portland, are moving towards implementing the procrustean policies proposed by the WEF and others. One prominent example concerns the city of Oxford. In November 2022, the UK’s Oxfordshire County Council, together with the Oxford City Council, published a document outlining how Oxford may become a 15-minute city by early 2024. The idea is to divide the historic city into six districts and limit the amount of times a person may drive from one district to another to a total of one hundred per year, after which fines would be imposed. Predictably, the scheme requires the installation of a dystopian surveillance grid.
To those complaining that their daily commute to work requires they drive through several of the intended districts, the Council responded that they may use the ring-roads surrounding the city, which are outside the district system. This reveals the degree to which reducing CO2 is a minor concern, given that such circumvention of the districts will entail a longer drive in many cases. The point, it seems, is control.
The justification for this initiative was formulated in terms of evidence from the World Health Organization (WHO), as cited by the Oxford City Council’s “Air Quality Action Plan 2021-2025.” Indeed, these experiments come at a time when the WHO is also proposing its “One Health” initiative (my italics):
The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the need for a global framework for improved surveillance and a more holistic, integrated system. Gaps in One Health knowledge, prevention and integrated approaches were seen as key drivers of the pandemic … We now have an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen collaboration and policies across … many areas and reduce the risk of future pandemics and epidemics while also addressing the ongoing burden of endemic and non-communicable diseases … Surveillance that monitors risks and helps identify patterns across these many areas is needed … Critical gaps in One Health implementation include … a model for an integrated One Health surveillance system.
Two different “crises,” then, CO2 emissions and the possibility of viral pandemic, converge in one solution: controlling and surveilling movement. We should expect whatever novel threats are predicted over the horizon and media-blasted into the public consciousness at a trauma-inducing scale will, likewise, necessitate reducing freedom of movement and freedom to privacy.
We may conceptualise these developments as the imposition of a limitation to our accessing what was hitherto experienced as common property, not subject to legislative abrogation. In this sense, I would describe them as an attempt at a second “enclosure,” with its effacement of the commons:
Enclosure, also spelled Inclosure, [was] the division or consolidation of communal fields, meadows, pastures, and other arable lands in western Europe into the carefully delineated and individually owned and managed farm plots of modern times … To enclose land was to put a hedge or fence around a portion of this open land and thus prevent the exercise of common grazing and other rights over it.
Then, as now, technical advancement and the supposedly neutral requirements of modernization, efficiency, and survival are marshalled to present a scheme for the transformation of society as the only rational avenue.
Given that such projects require city involvement, potentially leading to an increase in local government competence and prominence, there is a chance, however, that this will constitute a weakness, a fissure in prevailing processes, one that might be exploitable by local civil society organisations and political activists, if they are able to use the increased local government protagonism, take its helm and resist these changes. This seems all the more viable when we consider that 15-minute cities and similar initiatives require massive public relations campaigns in the form of constant propaganda around the need to combat climate change, pandemics, hackers, fake news, and the like—propaganda which, more and more, is falling on deaf ears.