Can Phillip Hammond’s Treasury really revive Britain’s high streets?

Dartford. Image: Getty.

The Chancellor spotted a great deal for Britain’s economy by making city centres a key focus of his recent budget. In among the tax and spending tweaks was the launch of a plan to save the high street. Philip Hammond offered high streets a 3-for-1 deal, announcing a trio of policies to help city and town centres adapt to changing consumer preferences, including a business rates holiday, a new Future High Streets Fund, and consultation on an extension to Permitted Development Rights (PDR).

The government’s acknowledgement that high streets must “adapt and diversify” is welcome. Past policy has focused too much on retail-led solutions which do not address wider economic issues – but as our recent research has shown, many city centres have far too many shops and need to remodel away from this dependence on retail. The government also recognises this, shown for instance in the announcement of a new pilot to facilitate meanwhile use for empty high street properties. In particular, having more office-based businesses in city centres will bring both more footfall into shops and boost customers’ spending power by providing them with better wages.

Here are three thoughts on the government’s high street policies.

1) The Future High Street Fund should focus on remodelling struggling city centres

The city centres most in need of reshaping will find it hard to attract private sector investors and developers given their low property prices and unproven markets, so remodelling may not happen without public sector involvement (and funds). In recent years the European Regional Development Funds (ERDF) have been a vital source of funds, allowing cities like Bradford and Huddersfield to develop new quality workspace in their city centres.

As ERDF support ends with Brexit, the announcement of a £650m Future High Streets Fund is a helpful first step toward its replacement. The new Fund should be directed at the city centres with the highest vacancy rates and aim to support them to diversify. This means repurposing empty retail stock to other commercial uses and housing and developing additional high-quality office space too.

The Chancellor should go further than this, though, by making the £38bn National Productivity Infrastructure Fund available to make struggling city centres more attractive to investment from high-productivity businesses.


2) A more flexible planning system could help high streets adapt, but PDR may not always be the right tool

In some cities, greater flexibility over a property’s use could encourage both a reduction in excess retail and address housing shortages. In Basildon, for example, average house prices are 10 times average household income, signalling an urgent need for more homes. And the city centre has far too many shops (62 per cent of commercial floor space is retail and 20 per cent lies empty). So it makes sense to convert some of these empty shops into homes, which also benefit from being within walking or cycling distance of workspaces, amenities and transport hubs.

But most cities are not like Basildon, and a combination of high housing demand and high vacancy rates is unusual. Introducing the proposed extension of PDR to retail – allowing change of use to office or residential without planning permission  – risks losing quality commercial space in city centres with healthy high streets, and is likely to be ineffective in city centres most in need of help. (We explored these issues ahead of the Budget, in an earlier blog.)

Take Brighton, for instance. The city also has high housing demand but a low high street vacancy rate of 8 per cent. If PDR made conversions easy in the city centre, successful shops which residents rely on could be discarded for new housing.

At the other end of the scale, weak city centres with struggling high streets have low demand for both housing and retail, so take-up of PDR would be rare even though repurposing the buildings would help the high street.

So while the policy could benefit a select few cities, for the majority it would need to be handled cautiously to make sure it works with, not against, the city centre’s economy. Given the lack of control, local authorities have over PDR conversions, this could be very difficult.

3) Business rates are a red herring – other factors are causing the high street’s struggles

The Chancellor yielded to pressure from retailers and offered smaller shops business rates relief. But placing the blame for the struggles of retail on a property tax (despite its flaws) is misleading and distracts from the underlying factors leading to the decline of high-street retailers. While the discounts provide some welcome short-term help, it is not an effective long-term fix.

Business rates are higher in city centres because they are attractive commercial locations, offering firms the benefits of density and access to many customers and workers. Rather than indicating that the tax burden is too high, the difficulties shops are having in paying the rates instead highlight the lack of footfall past their doors.

The most effective way for the government to support high streets is to help cities overcome their weak economic performance. An empty high street is a sign of a lack of economic activity, without the spending power and footfall to keep amenities open. So to help the high street, policy must focus on improving the performance of the broader city centre economy both directly through improving commercial space and public realm; and indirectly, by raising the skills of the cities’ workforces.

The authors are analysts at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.