“We’re denser than Manhattan!” The Isle of Dogs responds to claims of NIMBYism

Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs. Image: Getty.

The Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf Ward, Tower Hamlets, responds to criticism that his ward is fully of NIMBYs.

The Isle of Dogs was accused last week of being full of NIMBYs who perhaps deserve imprisonment for objecting to new homes. Actually, they deserve a reward for coping with the delivery of more new homes and office space than anywhere else in the UK – and suffering from construction related disruption, noise and dust in the meantime.

The accusation was made after we objected to 2,000 new homes on the ASDA Crossharbour supermarket site, on the grounds that it would lead to the loss of a local petrol station and overshadowing of the fantastic Mudchute City Farm. It was suggested we should roll over and let it be built, London has a housing crisis and nothing should stop new homes, and anyway who needs cars when you have Crossrail coming? 

The housing crisis is not our fault: on the Isle of Dogs, we have been building more new homes than anywhere else in London. We will have the tallest and densest residential buildings in the UK: buildings like the The Spire, also the tallest in western Europe at 241 meters (791 feet), with 861 apartments; the 75-storey, 239 meter high, 984 apartment Landmark Pinnacle, built on the site of a former pub; or the 68 storey 220 meter high South Quay Plaza with 1,284 apartments in three towers.

At the end of 2016 we had over 60 tall buildings – those over 20 storeys in height – with planning permission. The housing crisis has occurred because the rest of London has not delivered at the same pace as we have.

But we cannot continue this rate of growth without a major investment in infrastructure – and even then, is it sustainable to be building a place denser then Manhattan while most of the rest of London goes undeveloped and remains low density? How do we ensure that the best place to live in London remains so, and that we build rather than destroy a community through poor planning?

We have two great problems. The first is the lack of awareness about the scale of development happening here: the GLA and Tower Hamlets Council almost seem embarrassed about what is happening. One forecast suggests a population of 150,000 people in the future, compared to about 56,000 today and 12,500 in the early 1980s.

Under construction right now we have residential buildings of 75, 68, 67, 60, 55, 56 and 53 storeys in height – plus many more between 40 and 50 storeys (the tallest residential building in the UK right now is the 50 storey St Georges Wharf tower). Three minutes walk from ASDA is the recently completed 45 storey Baltimore Wharf tower. Next to that will be the UK’s largest co-living site, with 706 apartments with shared facilities.

We have 19,500 homes with planning permission, and counting all sites where there is development activity underway we get to a total of around 36,000 new homes. The GLA would also like to add office space for another 110,000 workers at Canary Wharf adding to the 120,000 there today: surprisingly few live locally.


The densest small place in the UK according to the Office for National Statistics is Millharbour, in the middle of the island, with a population density equivalent to 90,000 people per km2 as of 2014. By the end of 2017, when two new developments complete construction on Millharbour the density will be around 120,000 people. The Upper East Side of Manhattan has 44,000 people. The next densest place in the UK has 57,000 people per km2.

This is all happening within 25 minutes’ walk of the ASDA site. We are also an island – and a floodplain – with rivers on three sides, and motorways and docks on our northern boundary. We only have two road exits, on either side of the island: our beautiful docks limit transport connectivity.

You would expect this level of growth to attract record levels of infrastructure investment: Canary Wharf is the third most important economic centre in the UK, and half of the UKs internet traffic goes through data centres in Blackwall. But this is our second big problem: a lack of new infrastructure to support that growth. Money earnt on the Isle of Dogs to fund new local infrastructure has historically been spent elsewhere in Tower Hamlets: we are the local cash cow.

In fact, rather than gaining new services and infrastructure we are losing them.

For example, last year we had four petrol stations in the E14 post code area. Two have been knocked down for redevelopment, ASDA is due to go and the last one Texaco on Cotton Street is in a physically small site which is often inaccessible due to traffic jams waiting to enter the Blackwall Tunnel. Yet the E14 postcode is the fastest growing place in the UK: including Poplar, we may well achieve a population of 250,000 people. That’s one fuel station for a place bigger than Brighton, York or Hull.

Something will get developed at the ASDA site: developers already have planning permission for 850 homes up to 23 storeys, yet had wanted to replace it with 2,000 up to 38 storeys. But we should not sacrifice quality of life by allowing anything to be built just because there is a crisis: that just stores up different problems.

London usually rates poorly on quality of life in international surveys and we need to do more to remedy this. Rather than building homes which are poorly thought out, which are not beautiful, which worsen the provision of infrastructure and which reduce the quality of life of existing and future residents we need to build the best homes possible: BIMBY (Beauty in my Backyard), not NIMBY.

It is also why we set up the Isle of Dogs Neighbourhood Planning Forum to ensure development is sustainable. Such a unique place requires unique solutions.

And if you do not believe any of the above I am happy to give you a personal tour of the area.

Andrew Wood is a Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf ward on Tower Hamlets council.

 
 
 
 

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.