“These towns and regions are not left behind – they are held back”

Hartlepool: not left behind, but abandoned. Image: Getty.

The Children’s Commissioner’s report this week was a reminder that the UK has an inequality problem. The statistics it contained showed that place matters: a child from a disadvantaged background in Hackney is three times more likely to go to university than a child from a disadvantaged background in Hartlepool.

This is no surprise – the UK has the largest regional inequalities in Europe. While our worst off regions bear similarities to those in countries such as the Czech Republic, certain areas of London are by far the richest in Europe. We’re at the stage where you would need seven Liverpools to produce the same Gross Value Add as just the City of London and Camden.

Areas such as Hartlepool and Blackpool are often framed as being ‘left-behind’. This framing places the blame at their feet, implying something they have not done or an opportunity not grasped. But the opposite is true. These towns and regions are not left behind, they are held back – by underinvestment in education, skills, jobs and a welfare system that seeks to punish. ‘Left behind’ suggests that this inequality was a mistake. In truth, it was by design.

Despite the importance of regional inequalities, we are ignoring half the problem when we frame inequality hartlepas a purely about a north-south divide. Inequality is multi-faceted. As the most recent State of the Nation report noted, “Britain is a deeply divided nation. Those divisions take many forms – class, income, gender, race.” These inequalities intersect and, as such, are not just between but within regions.

We must therefore be careful not to frame this as poor kid in London versus poor kid in the North – there are huge disparities within the North, and within London. Last year, around 63.4 per cent of students in the North East got good GCSEs. At local private schools, this figure was closer to 90 per cent.

In London, young people in Kensington & Chelsea are almost twice as likely to have A-levels as those in Barking & Dagenham. Overall, children who receive free school meals are 27 per cent less likely to achieve five or more good GCSEs.

We need to remember these facts when we think about solutions, because the issue here is not that poor children in London are getting too much attention. The solution is not to take resources away from disadvantaged children in the capital, but to do more to tackle the underlying causes of poverty everywhere.

Of course, there is no easy way to solve this – as is clear from various different initiatives under various different governments the past 20 years. For example, the Northern Powerhouse has been criticised for focusing solely on big metropolitan areas at the expense of smaller towns. Calls to build HS2 or HS3 across the North overlook the need for better connections within many northern cities. The town of Leigh, in Greater Manchester, has a population of 50,000 people but no train station.

To begin to solve the problem, we need to make regional investments on a scale not seen for many decades. For years, the UK has lagged behind other G7 countries when it comes to levels of public and private investment. Investing doesn’t just makes good economic sense: not doing so leads to festering inequality and discontent. To this we need to get over our obsession with balancing the books and austerity.

We also need to build in distributional consequences into our policy process. The education select committee recently recommended introducing ‘social justice impact assessments’ to ensure that new policy proposals do not exacerbate inequalities. A quick glance at the distributional impact of eight years of austerity cuts will tell you that the current approach is not socially just. We need to be clear that, where policies are going to make inequality worse, they need to be redesigned – or binned.

Moving forward, things could get worse. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that inequality will rise over the coming years, and the government’s own Brexit impact assessments have shown that already struggling areas will be hardest hit by the decision to leave the European Union. These areas need protection and investment now. The status quo wasn’t working before Brexit –so we shouldn’t think a government commitment to match EU investment is enough.

Ultimately, though, we can’t tackle this country’s inequalities without stopping the cuts and without having a more progressive tax system. The statistics in this week’s report make shocking reading – but without a wholesale change in our approach, the life chances of millions of UK citizens will continue to be defined for them, not by them.

Dr Faiza Shaheen is director of, and Liam Kennedy a research officer, for CLASS (Centre for Labour and Social Studies).


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.