“The council destroyed more than the Blitz”: For the third time in a century, they're rebuilding Coventry

Coventry's Millennium Square, and the Whittle Arch. Image: mintchocicecream/Wikimedia Commons.

I was hovering gormlessly outside Coventry station, waiting for Google Maps to load, when I suddenly realised I didn't need to bother. Some kind soul had installed large and obvious signs to point out the best way to reach the city centre on foot.

More than that, they'd made the correct route all but unmissable. A wide pedestrianised path wound its way past a half-finished new office development, across a buried ring road, and through a small park, Greyfriars Green. After that, it continued down a tree-lined avenue passed a venerable-looking parade of shops and bars. It reminded me of bits of Oxford or Cambridge. It was rather nice.

Which, if I'm honest, was a bit of a surprise. The standard narrative about Coventry goes like this: once a beautiful walled medieval town, the Nazis levelled the place in the Blitz, in an attempt to wipe out Britain's manufacturing base. What remained was finished off by the post-war planners who thought that old buildings were passé, and we'd all be much happier in concrete-themed pedestrian precincts surrounded by big roads. Coventry's reputation is as one of Britain's biggest planning blunders.

Today, though, the city is pulling out all the stops to turn that around. That route into the city that so impressed me is brand new: at the start of this decade, reaching the city centre from the station involved traversing a dingy subway under a six-lane ring road, then walking besides an under-used dual carriageway. Those trees, which now divide the pedestrian route from the road, once stood on the central reservation.

The pedestrian gateway: the far side of those trees used to be the southbound carriageway. Image: Google.

This route was originally marked by a blue line painted on the pavement. The fact that line was even necessary, says executive director of place Martin Yardley, was a mark of quite how badly the planners had failed Coventry. Now, as a sort of tribute, the gateway route is lined with blue street lights.


Shades of grey

Yardley is delighted when I tell him I'd been pleasantly surprised by the new pedestrian route: the whole point of the exercise was to change new visitors' first impression of the city, and my reaction is exactly what he'd been looking for. He's a Brummie by birth, but today he also heads the Coventry & Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership, and he has an infectious enthusiasm for his adopted home town. It used to be almost unnavigable on foot he tells me. “It's a bit embarrassing, but when I first worked here, I took a suit into a dry cleaners, and then didn't pick it up for weeks. I just couldn't find the place.”

Our tour of the city lasted only an hour, but we moved so fast, and covered so much ground, that it felt much longer, so determined was he to show me all that changes his team were making to the place. Before we get to that, though, let's talk a bit more about history.

The familiar narrative is, if anything, a bit too flattering, Yardley argues. The real problem for 20th century Coventry was that the medieval city had survived too well: the centre was a maze of narrow streets, without any of the wide Victorian boulevards that could be re-purposed for the motor age in other cities.

This, in a place with such strong connections to the car industry, was thought a bit of an embarrassment. So in the 1930s, the city started demolishing chunks of itself to give it space to install some decent roads. “The council destroyed more than the Germans ever did,” Yardley tells me. The Blitz was just a convenient alibi.

At any rate, one of England's most historic cities was almost entirely levelled to be replaced with what looked like a planned new town. Trunk roads crisscrossed the centre; an enormous multi-lane ring road cut it off from the surrounding districts.

And, in a sop to the fact that human beings still had feet, the central shopping area was re-developed as the pedestrianised Precinct: a sort of outdoor shopping mall, with lower and upper levels linked by stairs and slopes. In 1960, this looked like the future. 

The Precinct in 1962. Image: Ben Brooksbank/Wikimedia Commons.

Today though, such post-modern visions seem more tightly tethered to the time they were built than older architecture ever does. Much of the Precinct still remains: that tree-lined walk from the city centre runs out somewhere on Hertford Street, when you suddenly find yourself in something that looks a lot like a multi-storey car park.

I found this part of the city familiar, even comforting, despite the fact it's objectively horrible, and it took me a minute to work out why: it looks a lot like my home town Romford did during my childhood. As it turns out, medieval market towns that got trashed by the 20th century are my happy place.

Rebuilding Coventry

My reaction, though, is almost certainly a bit weird, so Yardley and his team are doing much to remake the place. And the heart of their reforms is changing the city's relationship to cars: taking space away from motor vehicles and giving it back to pedestrians.

During the 2012 Olympics, the city's Ricoh Arena played host to the football. So the council used the games as an excuse to extend the pedestrianised part of the city centre to the Broadgate area, creating a new public square. That in turn has encouraged a private property developer Guy Shearer to redevelop the neighbouring Cathedral Lanes shopping centre. As Yardley says, gesturing to an expanse of plaza no longer covered in traffic, “He spent £22m doing that, because we spent £5m doing this.”

Where this building stands there used to be a road.

Elsewhere in the city, the council has reclaimed part of an unnecessarily vast road junction, and allowed developers to build on top of it. It's buried sections of the ring road to make it easier to get in and out of the city centre (a trick it borrowed from Birmingham). It's replaced access roads with pedestrian boulevards, to make the route from the student quarter to the city centre more walkable.

Part of Coventry University. This used to be a road, too.

The biggest change, though, is that it's simply narrowed the roads. At one point, Yardley stops outside an old cinema, now occupied by Coventry University. “The pavement used to come out as far as that canopy,” he tells me – a width of just a few feet. Now it's nearly three times that. The forbidding dual carriageway has been replaced by a single lane road. Wherever possible, within the inner ring road, pavements have been made wider than roads, and all traffic is restricted to a 20 mile per hour speed limit.

The line down the middle of this photograph marks the boundary of the old pavement.

There's one more change the city has made to its roads: it's removed most of its pedestrian crossings. Particular crossing points are suggested by changes in the texture of the road surface, and marked with boulders – but there are no lights to force traffic to stop. There are no traffic lights either: to pass a junction now, drivers simply have to move slowly and wait their turn.

This, Yardley admits, has been by far the most controversial part of his programme. Some locals expected carnage, and the local media all but admitted that the first accident on the new roads would make the front page. “One taxi driver told me he hated it – 'because now when I approach a junction I'll need to think'.” (Not quite as strong an argument as the driver clearly thought.)

A new style pedestrian crossing. 

So far, though, everything's gone well: people simply driver more slowly. (One proper zebra crossing remains, on the request of the University of Coventry.)

Two big developments are still underway. The first is Friargate, that shiny new office development I noticed next to the station. The other is City Centre South, a redevelopment of the other end of the gateway into the city.

The obvious question is, how on earth has the city funded all this? Thanks to the post-war development, and some strategic buying down the years, the council already owned much of the land in the city centre, which has helped. Close relationships with the two local universities (Coventry and Warwick, which confusingly is not in Warwick at all, but on the outskirts of Coventry) have helped, too.

The council is also rennovating buildings, in an attempt to hint at the city's medieval heritage.

But much of the money required has come from two big sources, Yardley says: Heritage Lottery Funding, and the European Union. So does Brexit throw a spanner in the works? “I'd prefer it if we weren't leaving the EU,” Yardley admits. “But we've already done the big stuff. We don't need to do it again.”

So for the third time in a century, Coventry has comprehensively remade itself. With luck, there won't be a fourth.

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

This is the final part of a series on the West Midlands. You can read part one on the region as a whole here; part two, on Wolverhampton, here; and part three, on Birmingham, here.

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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.