Four thoughts inspired by three days in Birmingham

The new New Street. Image: Getty.

Last week, after returning from Labour conference in Liverpool, I wrote an article about both the city’s history and how I felt about the place. The piece got a lot of nice comments, from Scousers past and present. It also got – let’s be honest about this – a fair few complaints from those who felt I’d done the place a disservice.

Okay, so there were more of the latter than I would have liked. But I found the conversations that ensued interesting, and learned a bit more about Liverpool. And since only one person told me I was (and I quote) “just a bloated twat”, and in the intervening days I’ve been to Birmingham for the Conservative conference, I figured I’d repeat the trick.

What follows is, once again, a personal response to a city. If you disagree – and I’m sure some will – do feel free to get in touch and tell me why.

I actually know Birmingham rather better than Liverpool – my dad’s lived there for nearly 20 years, so I’ve had rather more chance to wander aimlessly around the place. But here are four things that occurred to me while I was getting myself lost on this occasion.

Birmingham city centre looks really, really good

You don’t often hear people say this, do you? When asked to list the most beautiful cities in Europe, people never say, “Paris, Vienna, Brum”.

And historically, there would have been a reason for that. Not so long ago, Birmingham’s most prominent physical features were the old Bull Ring Shopping Centre, which looked like it had got lost on its way to some forgotten province of the Soviet Union, and the inner ring road, which was so efficient at cutting the city centre off from the world around it that it became known as the “concrete collar”.

The old Bull Ring. Image: Star One/Flickr/creative commons.

Well, they’re gone. The silver roundels of the replacement Bull Ring, which opened in 2003, have become a symbol o f the new Birmingham. And much of the traffic from the ring road has been diverted, allowing it to switch from inner city motorway to, well, normal urban road.

What’s more, the dark and cramped New Street station has a new light and airy atrium, while the brutalist Pallisades shopping centre above it has been cleaned up and rebranded as Grand Central. (This confused me slightly when I noticed that the new tram stop outside was called “Grand Central New Street”.) Outside, it you’ll find plenty of grand Victorian buildings and arcades, as well as new offices and flats.

It’s an on-going project – the concrete Central Library was torn down earlier this year as part of the Paradise scheme, and much of the city looks like a building site. And the city probably still isn’t going to be listed alongside Paris any time soon.

Birmingham Cathedral. Image: Stephen McKay/

But there are places – around St Philip’s cathedral, along the New Street pedestrianised centre, by the plush office district of Colmore Row – where Birmingham is as fine a city as any you’ll find in Britain. So we should all start being a bit nicer about the place.

A big part of that is because of the canals

Birmingham, it’s often said, has more canals than Venice. This is true, but ignores the crucial fact that Birmingham is also an order of magnitude larger than Venice and anyway has rather a lot of roads, so it isn’t quite the selling point the slogan suggests.

The canals were crucial to Birmingham’s growth. There’s no obvious geographical reason why a major city should have grown up there: no docks, no easy river crossing (indeed, no river to speak off). The reasons why Birmingham did boom as the industrial revolution took hold seem to have been a combination of a cluster of innovative factories that began to appear in the late 18th century, and its position at the middle of the canal network that was built to serve them.

These days, those canals aren’t much use on that score. But they do provide a lot of nice waterfront, of the sort that make a nice setting for bars, restaurants and high grade office space.

Gas Street Basin. Image: Oosoom/Wikimedia Commons.

At any rate, Birmingham both looks more attractive and feels more affluent than those who haven’t visited recently would probably imagine. Except...

Suddenly, the city just stops

The Tory conference was held in the International Convention Centre (ICC) in Centenary Square. It’s a rather grand plaza, which also contains the new city library, a symphony hall and a theatre. Immediately behind the ICC you’ll find Cambridge Street, where the central business district suddenly stops, and beyond which is a windswept high rise estate.

It’s a similar story elsewhere on the fringes of the city centre, in areas like Birmingham and Ladywood. Suddenly, the grand public squares and newly built flats and offices give way to post-war housing estates.

To an extent, this is a product of Birmingham’s history: for several decades, the concrete collar prevented the business district from expanding, and now it finally has, it’s crashing slap-bang into derelict industrial spaces or depressing estates. But you’ll find variations on this theme in most big British cities – in Liverpool and Manchester and even Bristol, where you turn a corner and suddenly go from a booming city centre to an area that’s very visibly neither.

Maybe it’s a legacy of Blair era boomgoggling. But it’s a slightly disarming experience when you’re used to London, in which both gentrification and commercial activity go on for miles, and where there is no housing depressing enough that you can’t rent it to some early-career solicitors for about £600 a month.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about Birmingham is...

The whole place feels oddly American which I mean that it’s very clear that the city was designed for cars, and the idea you’d want to walk anywhere would baffle those who built the place.

In the city centre, those days are gone. Outside it, they’re not, and you quickly run into a world of six-lane highways and traffic jams that snarl up every rush hour because, in large chunks of the city, the only way to get to work is by road.

There are good reasons for Birmingham’s car-obsession: it was the centre of Britain’s car industry, and used to revel in its reputation as Britain’s “motor city”. That’s begun to change, but it means that the city’s planners spent several decades pouring money into roads rather than other forms of transport.

Once again, this might be my London-centrism speaking, but: this feels quite odd in a conurbation of over 2m people.

The West Midlands is slowly expanding its tram network (though it’s a long way behind Manchester’s, or even Sheffield’s). Its big idea, though, is also road-based: the Sprint network of bus rapid transit routes, which’ll take over some of the ridiculous number of lanes there are on routes such as the Hagley Road.

The first proposed Sprint route. Image: Centro.

How this’ll go down with local drivers, of course, remains to be seen.

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.