How the Essex new town of Harlow is rediscovering its founding ideals

The Harlow Water Gardens. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

Like many Londoners, Kimberlee Perry began eying properties outside the M25 when she was expecting her first child. She and her husband chose Harlow, the new town in western Essex, because of the transport links to London, and its urban-rural feel.

As it turned out, the London link wasn’t that important. Kimberlee didn’t return to her sales job after her maternity leave ended; and five years on, she’s fully invested in Harlow. She founded the global fitness franchise company Bounce – styled “((BOUNCE))” – when her son was a few weeks old, and has since established its 8,000 square foot headquarters – complete with a 100-trampoline studio – in the town.

Over 35,000 people now attend Bounce classes every month in the UK, New Zealand and Kimberlee’s native Australia – and soon the U.S, too. Many of them are mums who bring their children to class. This child-friendly attitude is part of Bounce’s DNA, and, according to Kimberlee, something she inherited from her adopted home.

“Harlow has a lot to offer,” she said. “It’s a great option for families, with lots of mummy groups and free activities for kids – and it’s very friendly. That’s true in business as well: local businesses, we help each other out, tag each other on social media. I don’t think I would have had anywhere near as much success if I’d started somewhere else.”

Sir Frederick Gibberd would be pleased to know that the features of the town he masterplanned are still attracting and inspiring talent like Kimberlee. Born in 1947 out of the idealism of the post-war Labour Government, Harlow was one of eight new towns designed to provide decent housing for survivors of London’s Blitz. Despite the very real austerity of the time, the New Town programme was underpinned by a belief in the power of planning to address wider social issues such as public health and social justice.

Reflecting the pioneering spirit of the early days, Harlow quickly chalked up a series of firsts: the first high-rise residential tower block, the first pedestrian shopping precinct, the first health centre. Mag Barret, a journalist who moved to Harlow in the 1960s, covered many of the openings for local papers including the Harlow Citizen, Harlow News and Harlow Star – all now defunct. “Mary Peters, an Olympic runner, came for the opening of the first purpose-built sports centre in the country,” she says. “And the first post war Odeon opened here, with a big fanfare.”

In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the young and ambitious were drawn to the town, with a feeling that things could be done in Harlow that weren’t possible elsewhere. So many families were started here – at one point 20 per cent of its population was under 5 – that Harlow earnt the moniker “pram town”.

From a peak in 1974, however, its population began falling. A lack of high-quality jobs and higher education offerings meant the town began to lose its youngest and most affluent, and with them went a number of large employers.

After the Development Corporation was wound up in 1980, the town centre was sold off to private owners. In common with other new towns, Harlow struggled with the fact that, because everything had been built at the same time, it all needed renovating at the same time. But because the assets had been sold off, the town council had few income streams to pay for maintenance.

A period of economic and social decline set in, reflected in the very fabric of the town. Potholes appeared in the extensive cycleway system that was part of Gibberd’s original masterplan, and were not filled in. Several of Gibberd’s landmark buildings, including the original town hall, were demolished and replaced by less imposing structures.

Then, in the tense aftermath of the 2016 referendum, a Polish man called Arkadiusz Jozwik was killed in a late-night altercation. The incident was labelled initially as a potential hate crime, although a court would later find this not to be true. The self-examination that followed would prove a turning point. Harlow came together, first to mourn the death of Jozwik, then – in a series of celebrations to mark its 70th birthday – to show to itself and the world that it’s a much nicer than even many of its residents had come to believe.

The Discover Harlow project was launched by the council in 2018 to bring together people and businesses as ambassadors for the town. It’s an attempt to challenge perceptions of Harlow. At an economic development conference last year, some professionals expressed surprise after discovering some of Harlow’s gems, from the beautiful Town Park designed by landscape architect Dame Sylvia Crowe, to the town’s many sculptures: works by Auguste Rodin, Henry Rodin and Barbara Hepworth are on permanent public display around the town. Discover Harlow wants newcomers and existing residents alike to know and appreciate these assets.

It is also working alongside other organisations to improve the town. Although the council doesn’t own most of the property in the town centre, it is trying to galvanise business owners into starting a Business Improvement District, where they collectively pay for upgrades to common spaces. And it funded a facelift to Market Square, which it does own.

One of the reasons Harlow began losing its youth was a poor higher education offering. That is being addressed by Harlow College, which has enlarged its offering to fill the skills needs of local employers with Stansted Airport College and the Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering Centre, as well as accreditation from Apple as a Distinguished School.

On the map: Harlow lies just to the north east of London. Image:

Job numbers are growing again – from 42,000 in 2009 to 48,000 in 2017, according to Office of National Statistics data – and are likely to increase further with the development of three science parks. On the site where fibre optics was invented – a discovery that earnt Sir Charles Kao the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2009 – will be a new 15-acre campus called Kao Park. Phase One is completed, housing a brand-new data centre and the offices of defence contractor Raytheon, Arrow Electronics and Pearson Education.

Nearby, also enjoying the planning and business rate advantages of Harlow Enterprise Zone, is the council-run Harlow Science Park. When completed, it will include a 15,000-square foot ARU Innovation Centre built in collaboration with Anglia Ruskin University.

Also in the works is the £400m move of Public Health England to the former site of GSK, a major pharmaceutical company who left town in 2010. PHE will create a centre for public health research, health improvement and protection employing 3,250 people, many of whom it says will be recruited locally.

New homes are planned – 23,000 of them – encouraged by the rationale that the reasons Harlow was chosen as the location for a new town in the first place make it an attractive place to live and work. With good road and rail links to Cambridge and London – only 30 minutes away by train – Harlow is also near Stansted airport.

It is hoped that the Harlow and Gilston Garden Town, delivered by Places for People, will fix some of the failures of the New Town programme, notably creating income streams to pay for future maintenance and ensuring stewardship remains with the community. It will also address the historic lack of diversified tenure, which made it hard for Harlow to attract people in higher income brackets.

“It’s about supporting the growth of Harlow,” said Mary Parsons, Group Director for Placemaking and Regeneration at Places for People. “Harlow has a lot of great things about to happen. I’d like to hear more people saying they feel proud to come from Harlow.”


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.