Boris Johnson has promised to invest in Britain’s towns. He should give them greater powers, too

Rochdale, a town, in 2011. Image: Getty.

The authors are the founders of the Centre for Towns think tank.

The PM’s announcement on Saturday of £3.6bn funding for one hundred towns – out of the Shared Prosperity Fund created to replace EU structural funds – echoed themes that we at the Centre of Towns have been banging on about since we were founded in Autumn 2017: liveability, connectivity, culture and power. We are long overdue the government waking up to the profound changes that silently have taken place in many towns – perhaps most notably in former industrial areas and coastal towns, but also in towns that have not yet found a place in the UK’s 21st century economy.

The challenges that towns face are a product of fundamental economic processes – replicated across many advanced industrial economies. Deindustrialisation, a belief in cities as the only engines of growth, the expansion of higher education, an ageing population and immigration have all contributed to a fundamental fracturing in the demography of towns and cities in Britain. As we have shown, major cities are becoming younger, more ethnically diverse, more educated and better able to exploit opportunities afforded them by creative, knowledge and digital sectors – even when substantial parts of their population are in precarious work.

At the same time the populations of towns are aging, less diverse, and possess lower levels of skills and education. Coastal and post-industrial towns in particular suffer from high rates of deprivation and health problems, as well as lower levels of social mobility. Even within cities where agglomeration has been claimed to increase productivity, we see the same pockets of deprivation, undermining the claim that such a model should be replicated elsewhere.   

Until the side-effects of that agglomeration-based model is addressed, the same dynamics of decline will persist in peripheral towns that have become disconnected from the core arteries of power and economic growth. Splashing the cash won’t address the severe imbalance of the UK’s highly centralised system.

People need to be given agency and resources to deliver for their own communities, on a long-term basis; a need which the Prime Minister appears to recognise. What works for one town may not work for another. We need local people and local leaders to be given the tools and resources to take back control.

We have repeatedly called for power to be handed back to our towns. Trains have ground to a halt in the North whilst our bus network has been sharply cut since 2010. The loss of greenbelt has erased the identity of small towns and villages; health and social care services are increasingly concentrated in younger cities instead of the ageing towns that need them. Arts and culture, where the Arts Council now spends £8 in Islington for every £1 across the whole former coalfield areas of England; immigration decisions are so often imposed rather than negotiated, fuelling anger and providing fertile ground for the far right.

In all of these policy areas, empowering and trusting people produces a smarter, more humane and more sustainable response. We are pleased the Prime Minister has now put towns on the agenda but will hold his feet to the fire to make sure these words are matched by deeds, and we are ready to work constructively on behalf of our towns.

While others have been talking, we have been doing – often working in partnership with other organisations who get it. Our mission is to provide an evidence base that helps move political debate forward and inform policy-making.

In our launch briefing we revealed the stark demographic gap that had emerged between towns and cities since the 1980s – as towns have aged while cities grew younger. We also highlighted the higher levels of political disaffection felt in towns, where people feel that politicians don’t care about them or their area. If not addressed, that sense of grievance may prove toxic for our politics and society.

In further analysis of an ageing population, we showed how the widening gap in population projections will present major challenges in public policy – requiring us to adapt and revitalise our housing stock, transport infrastructure, healthcare services, and educational provision according to the distinct demands of particular places. We also have shown how access to health services differs wildly for the residents of towns and cities. Working with the Royal Institute of British Architects we have identified the pressure on housing due to an ageing population – and how towns are at the sharp end of the coming crisis.

In a report with Hope Not Hate we mapped out some of the deep divides between places in terms of values and identities. Concern or hostility towards immigration was highest in the former industrial towns and isolated coastal communities that have experienced sustained economic decline. Major cities and university towns were much more welcoming and embracing of diversity.

Our analysis with Ernst & Young showed that foreign direct investment (FDI) had increased four-fold in core cities over the last two decades, whereas investment in towns had flat-lined or fallen over the same period. Investors choose to invest in places with world-leading infrastructure and access to a skilled workforce. We have shown the wide gap in broadband speed between towns and cities and the clustering of jobs in the digital sector in London and the South East. Many of our towns are simply unable to compete on that basis.

All of this work, and more to come, has been with the intention of highlighting the challenges our towns face. Not only that, we feel a responsibility to give people in towns a voice in our national debate. We operate on a shoestring budget out of a shed in Bolton, whilst money floods into the think tanks and lobbying outfits of Westminster serving the interests of the few.

It comes as no surprise to us that our towns have been ignored or side-lined in our national debate. The Prime Minister’s speech in Manchester, and Labour’s own policies on towns, encourages us that change is coming. It can’t come quick enough for the people in our towns.

Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan. Dr Will Jennings is a professor of political science at the University of Southampton. Ian Warren is a co-founder of the Centre for Towns and the director of Election Data. Together, they founded the Centre for Towns.

You can hear Lisa talk about this agenda on our podcast Skylines 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.