Changes in London aren’t always down to politics. Sometimes, they’re down to the weather

Primrose Hill, north London, in the recent sunshine. Image: Getty.

I’ve got a reality check for politicians and civil servants in London: be aware that changes in your local area or city – positive and negative alike – are not always a result of your policies. The reality is that some changes in the capital are down to external effects beyond your control. And one of those is the weather.

As Brits, we love talking about the weather. It changes what we wear, how we travel, and our moods. But we don’t think about the broader implications for the city. And now new data shows the alarming impact that extreme weather events can have on things like crime, transport and air quality. The ‘Beast from the East’ also impacted our economy, with sectors like construction and retail hit by a lack of activity.

With climate predictions suggesting London is increasingly likely to experience more extreme weather patterns moving forward, how should we understand and respond to its impact on the day to day functioning of the city?

Crime in the capital is top of both politicians’ and the public’s radar given the spate of violent attacks and murders in the first few months of the year. A recent poll showed 67 per cent of Londoners thought that crime had got worse – a figure rising to 79 per cent for knife crime.

But figures for March suggest that the cold weather had a significant dampening effect on crime across the capital. Intuitively, this makes sense: in the cold, people are less likely to go out and less likely to be involved in crime of many types, especially violent ones. After years of rising, often at quite an alarming rate, total crime, violent crime and knife crime all fell in March this year, compared to the same month in 2017. Experience from international cities which typically get more snow than London, such as Boston, suggests this is not a statistical anomaly. And the hot bank holiday weekend, which saw several violent attacks in the capital, has led some commentators to suggest rising temperatures means more violent crimes.

There might, however, be seen to be a ‘peak temperature’ for crime. Analysis of Greater Manchester Police data suggests that, when the mercury rises above 18°C, crime rates begin to fall. So, while many people may complain about the increasing extremes in London’s weather, cold snaps and heatwaves may end up slightly dampening any increases in crime.

But changes to crime were not the Beast from the East’s only impact on the city. London’s transport network, despite some degree of preparation, also had a tough time.

 

The number of journeys on the tube and bus networks during February and the beginning of March was down compared to the previous year. Undoubtedly some of this was due to people staying at home during the snowy spell, as well as deficiencies in the network’s service as many train lines and bus routes ground to a halt.


And the roads fared little better, perhaps unsurprising given that the capital’s local authorities have cut winter service spending from their highways and transport departments by a quarter in the last seven years. The RAC suggests the snow will have longer term impacts, with a legacy of potholes developing as water froze in cracks on the road, a significant challenge for Transport for London and the boroughs. This effect of the snow was not good news for TfL, given its ongoing budget troubles and reliance on fare income – particularly the profit derived from tube passengers.

While recent cold weather has affected crime and transport, a longer-term view can show how weather affects other things in the city. One of Londoners’ top concerns is the poor-quality air in the capital, and Sadiq Khan has begun to introduce a range of measures to tackle the toxic fumes that come from London’s transport system and built environment.

While these policies are starting to take an effect, the monthly pollution levels continue to fluctuate, often down to the weather. High pressure and low wind tend to make London’s pollution worse, as damaging particles are not blown away from the capital, whereas low pressure can bring pollution from elsewhere into the city.

As Professor Frank Kelly points out, many of the mayor’s policies may fail to reduce pollution concentrations to legal and healthy levels, without complementary effects from national and even international legislation. London is not an island – the weather proves that.

So what can we learn from this? Policymakers at all levels should attempt to better understand how extreme weather will affect demand for services and their ability to provide these services, among a raft of other things. This is especially important given London’s likely volatile future climate, and can help them to better prepare for a more uncertain future.

These lessons are not just limited to modelling how the weather will affect the city, but can also be applied to areas such as population change or changing lifestyle habits. Some things will be easier to understand and prepare for than others. But the more we know, the less damaging their effects on everyday Londoners are likely to be.

The London Intelligence tells London’s story through data. Read the latest edition here.

 
 
 
 

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.