Birmingham is planning to build 6,000 new homes on its green belt

The Bull Ring bull is just one of the many ways in which Birmingham is a bit like New York. Image: Getty.

Back in the early days of CityMetric, in those halcyon days of 2014 when summers seemed longer and we all thought we'd live forever, perhaps the most frequent complaint we received was that we'd been a bit mean towards Birmingham.

And perhaps we were. If so, however, we were following in a long and venerable tradition. Birmingham has long been thought of as England's second city – but it's never been fashionable, and it's never seemed cool. In recent years, what’s more, as everyone's started banging on about the Northern Powerhouse and Manchester has become the poster child for Britain’s urban renaissance, even its status as second city has come under pressure.

So, over the next few weeks, we're hoping to correct that a bit, with a series of articles about the West Midlands conurbation, looking at how Birmingham and its satellites are responding to everything from the devolution agenda to an over-crowded roads network. This is the first, and, for us at least, it's a biggie:

Birmingham is planning to build on its green belt, in a big way.

That I haven't noticed this before is, in itself, a pretty good indication that I should pay more attention to the Midlands. 

Here's the situation. Birmingham – not the entire conurbation; just the bit covered by Birmingham City council – is expecting its population to grow by 150,000 by 2031. As of last year, it was about 1.1m, so that's an increase of around 14 per cent. That means it needs to find room for somewhere between 80,000 and 90,000 new homes.

As if that weren't enough, it's also expecting to generate an extra 100,000 jobs, and more jobs need more space. So, Birmingham needs another 407 hectares of employment land, too. 

Waheed Nazir is the city’s director of planning and regeneration, and his team have looked at all the usual strategies for sating this hunger for land (brownfield redevelopment; densification around transport corridors). "The best we could get to was 45,000 homes and 235 hectares of employment land," he told me. In other words, if the city does absolutely everything it can realistically do with the previously developed land that it has, it'll get just over half way to its goal. "So we need to review our green belt."

The area covered by Birmingham City Council actually has relatively little green belt. The conurbation extends into neighbouring authorities on the east and west, and the edge of the green belt largely matches to city boundary to the south. It's really only in the north that the council has significant green belt within its boundaries. 

A map of the West Midlands green belt, taken from the Birmingham 2031 development plan (October 2013).

So that is where the new homes will be.  After reviewing the environmental and amenity value of all its green belt land, the planners decided that, rather than nibbling away at green land on multiple sites, they’d instead recommend a single urban extension of around 6,000 homes.

That way, Nazir says, it'll be easier to build the necessary services, including one secondary and two primary schools. "I'm not a big advocate of releasing green belt land," he told me. "But I am an advocate of meeting housing need."

Before and after. Again the images are taken from the Birmingham 2031 development plan (October 2013), but we've put them side by side and marked in red where we think the changes have been made.

There are two problems with this strategy. One is numbers: if you've been paying attention, you may have noticed that 6,000 plus 45,000 does not equal 90,000. 

Building on this one patch of green belt won't magically solve Birmingham's housing problems – meeting the city's housing need will mean building more homes in the wider conurbation, and in the commuter towns outside it. But nonetheless, another 6,000 homes will make a valuable contribution.

The other problem is, predictably, politics. Birmingham is a Labour council, and almost certain to remain so after this May's local elections. But the green belt land up for development is in the safe Tory constituency of Sutton Coldfield, currently held by Andrew Mitchell, the former chief whip. 

Mitchell, you will be shocked to learn, has been campaigning against the plans, telling the House of Commons: "There are between 40,000 and 50,000 existing brownfield opportunities in Birmingham, but alas, my calls for an independent audit of brownfield land in Birmingham fell on deaf Labour ears." 

And the reason Mitchell has been make such pleas is that a noisy group of his constituents want him to. His statement to the Commons was quoted in a Birmingham Mail story headlined: "Hope for opponents of Sutton Coldfield green belt housing plan as Ministers say they're listening".

Mitchell's statement is accurate – but it's also incomplete, since it totally neglects to mention the scale of the city's need. Nonetheless, Mitchell's intervention – and the residents' campaign, which persuaded him to make it – is a reminder of quite how difficult it's going to be make any significant changes to Britain's green belts. Even when a city is willing, the people who live closest to the affected land often won't be. 

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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.