March 2023 saw an unexpected explosion of political protest in Thetford. Demonstrations had happened in other parts of the country about plans for “20 minute neighbourhoods”, aimed at improving access to local facilities, and reducing accidents and traffic pollution. Campaigners alleged that there were similar plans for Thetford, and that this was a plot to restrict people’s freedoms. They called for people to besiege the Town Council’s meeting to protest. We were the first to report this latest surprising outburst of conspiracy theories.
An angry crowd of 200 on Tuesday night besieged a local council over plans they claim will restrict their movement and charge them money for using their cars in the town. The event was a meeting of Thetford Town Council in Norfolk. Though there was nothing about it on the agenda, the noisy crowd arrived unexpectedly to berate councillors over what they see as the controversial plans.
The council chamber was far too small, so council and crowd marched down the road to alternative premises. There, the crowd accused the council of planning to introduce what has become known as ’15-minute neighbourhoods’ (referred to as “20-minute neighbourhoods” by the protesters).
The idea is that everybody should have access to facilities such as shops, healthcare and open spaces within 15 minutes’ walk from their home. Oxford is a leader in the scheme, and it is their plans which have been misrepresented on social media and circulated widely. Detractors see the idea as what has been described as “another weapon of tyranny”.
Plans misrepresented, claims Full Fact
Critics claim the scheme is to pen them – in some way – in their own neighbourhoods and charge them for using their cars outside them. But the Full Fact website explains the Oxford plans, and the ways they have been misrepresented:
“It isn’t true that Oxford residents will have to apply for permits if they want to leave their local area more than 100 times per year. The new traffic plans do include a permit scheme for cars in certain areas, but it doesn’t prevent people from leaving their local area, and the planned scheme will only affect some residents’ ability to travel by car.”
It goes on to criticise a speaker on social media, who fails to explain the scheme properly and seems to imply that there will be a restriction of movement on people generally.
“In the video shared on Facebook, the speaker doesn’t say that the permit restriction only applies to those travelling by car. A partial screengrab from the council website explaining how the traffic filters work is briefly shown towards the end of the video, but appears for less than five seconds.”
“Waiting patiently to go to war!”
The Thetford protest came as a shock to residents, though they had been notified of something afoot through a poster, which claims “Our basic freedom to travel could be at risk, and our councils are in full support!”
It suggests there are plans to “implement restrictive ‘zones’ throughout our town” and “Automatic fines for travelling out of your ‘zone’ too many times a year”.
A man claiming to be one of the organisers posted a video on Twitter. Calling himself ‘A Proud Divergent’, on his Twitter page he describes himself as being “In An Abusive Relationship With The New World Order”, and claims he is “Watching it unfold and waiting patiently for a green light to go to war. This period in time cannot go unchallenged or unpunished!”
Film shows sinister music and shadowy crowds
Though the demonstration seems mainly to have been of local people, there were some there from elsewhere, notably Norwich.
It seems that there had been considerable organisation beforehand, and East Anglia Bylines was tipped off several days ago that something was mooted. A professionally produced film was released overnight, having been put together in a few hours. It featured Proud Divergent from Twitter, with loud sinister music and shadowy crowds marching through the streets of Thetford.
The film was by an organisation called LSB Films. Their Twitter account has now been suspended, but featured mostly unsubstantiated claims about vaccines.
Echoes of similar events from around the country
So the Thetford demonstration echoes similar events happening elsewhere across the country. At an event in Cambridge over the weekend, ostensibly concerning the proposed congestion charge for the city, 5,000 demonstrators had come from as far away as Leeds. One of those present at Cambridge was Piers Corbyn, who also leads protests on behalf of a number of other controversial causes, including the anti-vaxx believers.
East Anglia Bylines attempted to contact Liz Truss, Thetford’s MP, for her comments on what took place. But her Westminster office was unstaffed and a message refused to take calls from non-constituents. It referred our reporter to her ‘official’ website, elizabethtruss.com, which in turn referred readers to her constituency office number. This was also unstaffed, and a message directed callers to ring Westminster.