How Birmingham is using property development to re-tool its economy

The new New Street. Image: Getty.

Something I’ve noticed when visiting Birmingham over the past couple of years: parts of the city have started to feel rich.

The new glass-fronted offices of the central business district, Colmore Row, blend in better with the grand Victorian architecture that surrounds them than you have any right to expect in a city whose architectural history is as chequered as Birmingham’s. The names of the shops point to a certain prosperity, too. Nespresso. Harvey Nichols.

Colmore Row is not the whole of Birmingham – as so often in England’s regional cities, you can turn a corner and find the city centre just stops, to be replaced by crumbling housing estates or derelict industrial land. And subjective impressions are, well, subjective. But there’s a core of prosperity in Birmingham that many cities would kill for.

Part of the explanation lies in the city’s proximity to London: a number of major financial or professional service firms, refugees from the capital’s property prices, have moved chunks of their operations to the Midlands. At a Centre for Cities event in late 2014, the American urban theorist Edward Glaeser suggested that Birmingham could have a bright future providing back office services to London. The following August, HSBC announced it was moving 1,000 jobs there.

But another part of the explanation is that the city has been, literally, planning for this. In 2010, the council published the Big City Plan, a “20 year vision... supporting transformational change to create a world class city centre, delivering sustainable growth”. Cut through the thickets of jargon, and that basically means building a load of nice new shops and offices, and making sure people can get to the bloody things.

The big plan

The recent extension of the Midlands Metro tram into the city centre fits into this plan. So does the New Street station development, in which the dark and cramped concourse has been replaced by an airy light canopy, and the grim brutalist Palisades shopping mall cleaned up and rebranded Grand Central. (The tram now terminates at the confusingly named Grand Central New Street; one day it’ll extend through the nightlife district into Edgbaston.) The shopping centre’s largest retailer, John Lewis, was “lured in by the Big City Plan,” says director of planning and regeneration Waheed Nazir, one of its authors.

The extending city centre. Click to expand. Image: Birmingham City Council.

The biggest idea in the plan, though, is to extend the footprint of the city centre by 25 per cent, by transforming under-developed land on the edge of the city centre – “book ends”, Nazir calls them – into posh new retail and commercial space. The city was prevented from doing any such thing for many years by the inner ringroad (the “concrete collar”), which made it impossible to leave the city centre on foot without using a dingy subway. Burying sections of that, and re-directing traffic where possible, made it possible for the city to expand.

The Big City Plan has already seen new developments around Colmore Row, and on the West Side (the “Paradise” redevelopment, currently separating the city centre from the ICC conference hall at Centenary Square). It’s also seen the city relocate the old fashioned Bull Ring Markets from the Smithfield area around the back of the shopping centre, on the grounds that it was occupying what Nazir calls “prime real estate”.

Much of this work will come from private developers, but the city is investing too. “The game changer was keeping business rates,” says Nazir. “Suddenly TIF [tax increment funding] was viable.” TIF is, basically, a mechanism for funding developments by capturing the uplift in property values those projects will create. Doing this will give the council at least £700m of investment capital to play with, and possibly up to £1.2bn.

The city’s biggest investment priority, though, is one which it can’t control: High Speed 2, the rail link which will shave a few minutes off the journey to London. During the recent Conservative conference the city’s enthusiasm for the new rail link was literally visible on seemingly every available surface, with posters plastered all over the place. (That said when I visited the city to speak to its leaders back in the spring, whenever I asked what the city’s priorities were, everyone gave me the same identical answer: protecting vulnerable children. I got the distinct impression a memo had gone around.)

Nazir denies that talk of HS2 has been the key to the city’s regeneration – Deutsche Bank moved there in 2008, before it was even a gleam in Lord Adonis’ eye, he points out. “But it brings confidence and changes perception of the city.”

The new economy

It’d be misleading to suggest that Birmingham sees its future entirely as a sort of commuter suburb of London. Besides the central business district, the Big City Plan also proposes a number of other economic zones where it hopes employment to grow: a food hub, an advanced manufacturing hub, and so on. Council leader John Clancy vision for the city is as a “nimble, tech driven manufacturing” economy. To that end, it’s investing in facilities like the BioHub life sciences centre on the edge of the university campus.

I meet Clancy at the Innovation Birmingham Campus, a sort of tech hub in the Aston area. He was in ebullient mood: the government’s independent improvement panel, which had been monitoring the city’s children’s services department, had just left the city (the cause of that memo, one assumes), and he’d just been talking to some American visitors. “They like big things,” he said. “Well this is the largest local authority in Europe. We’ve got a £3.1bn budget and own 40 per cent of the city.”

HS2 is an “absolute game changer” he tells me. Curzon Street, the currently derelict area on the Eastside where the new terminal will be built, is “absolutely an investment hotspot that the world is interested in”.

The Metro extension, because we love a map. Click to expand. Image: Birmingham City Council.

But the opportunity is as much about skills and jobs, he adds. “We’ve been known as a motor city. Now we may very well become known as a train city.”

The city has other investment plans, too. It wants to build a Bus Rapid Transit network called Sprint. It also wants to “upgrade its housing to make it a better asset”, says Clancy.

To fund this, it’s been talking to the Treasury about increasing its borrowing powers through by launching “brummie bonds”. (This one’s gone a bit quiet since Brexit.) It’s also trying to encourage local capital to remain in the city: “It’s about re-writing things so that the pension fund is feeding back into the local economy.”


From next year, of course, despite being the leader of Britain’s largest local authority, Clancy will have a bigger figure above him: the new West Midlands metro mayor, elected by the residents of Birmingham and six other boroughs. The leaders of all seven will make up his cabinet, however. “We’re not ceding power upwards, except possibly in transport. If anything, the power of local leaders will be enhanced.” The Big City plan is likely to continue.

In terms of selling the Midlands to the world, Clancy points to an unexpected ambassador. “People in the UK don’t associate Shakespeare with Birmingham – further afield they do.” Stratford-upon-Avon isn’t technically covered by the West Midlands metro mayor, but Warwickshire is a non-constituent (that is, non-voting) member.

Birmingham doesn’t have the strongest brands among British cities, and the West Midlands has often seemed to get forgotten in the race to build a Northern Powerhouse. But when I ask him if he feels that the city is overshadowed by Manchester, Clancy – a native of Stockport, albeit one who’s been in Birmingham for 27 years – professes to be relaxed. “This is about re-balancing the economy, and I’ve no problem with the economy being rebalanced to Manchester and Birmingham.” (I’d only asked about Manchester. The reappearance of Birmingham in that list is his own.)

“Good luck to Manchester,” he adds. “I wouldn’t say I think we will match [the Greater Manchester deal], because we were late to the game politically.” Yet he is certainly ambitious for his adopted city. “We might even see parliament move here,” he adds. “They’ve got to move it anyway – and I’m sure we could accommodate the United Kingdom parliament.”

This is part three of a series on the West Midlands. You can read part one here, and part two here. Next time: onwards to Coventry.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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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.