“It’s a nonsense to attack public sector pay rates in isolation”: In defence of council fat cats

Miaow. Image: Tripp/Flickr/creative commons.

Those loveable, low-tax-loving, government-hating free market fundamentalist tykes the Taxpayers Alliance (*not affiliated with actual taxpayers) are at it again.

Earlier they tweeted out the 10th edition of the Town Hall Rich List, “the most comprehensive list of council employees in the UK whose total annual remuneration exceeds £100,000”. The report actually comes from last year – something which, I'll level with you, I didn't actually realise until I'd started writing. But it's a good excuse for making an argument I've been thinking about for some time, so what the hell.

The Town Hall Rich List is a pretty easy win for pressure group like the TPA. To the first approximation, nobody likes the idea that their taxes are being used to pay people salaries they'll never earn themselves, let alone for jobs they don't even understand. What’s more, there are endless, copy-hungry local papers, plus an entire right wing-media with as great an ideological commitment to shrinking the state as the TPA itself does. Do the research, in other words, and the story is all but guaranteed to get picked up.

And it must be said that some of the pressure group's findings are a little, well, gross. The report found that, in 2015-16, there were 2,314 council employees earning over £100,000 (89 up on the last year), and 539 earning more than £150,000 (53 up). The London borough of Southwark alone paid 44 different people over £100,000.

Best of all, Sunderland City Council manages to spend £1.7m on just three employees, although this included pension contributions: the chief executive (£625,570), the director of finance (£605,958) and the “executive director of people's services”, who must be spitting blood because they only got paid £444,495. To put that number in context: the average house price in Sunderland is around £140,000.

So, yes: some of this stuff smells, rather, and hardly anyone out there is going to stick their neck out to argue that council employees should, sometimes, be paid six figure sums. Even though they work in the public sector. Even though they work for the council, of all places. What kind of weirdo is going to make that argument?


Okay. Look. Not all of those salaries are defensible – the Sunderland ones, in particular, feel bloody ridiculous.

But there's a sleight of hand in the TPA's report. By juxtaposing those £600,000 salaries in the North East with the fact that a couple of thousand council employees earned more than £100,000, it’s trying to suggest that both those things are equally appalling, and I’m really not sure they are. My job doesn't pay anything like £100,000 (though my DMs are open and I'm open to offers) – but I’m aware that there are an awful lot of jobs out there that do, especially in finance and management.

Are those people worth the money they are paid? I have absolutely no idea, but suspect that a lot of them don't work longer or harder than, say, their cleaners. Nonetheless, this is what the market has decided to pay them.

If councils couldn't also pay six figure salaries, what would happen? Well, for one thing, they’d struggle to recruit the sort of people who can earn six figures in the private sector. But that’s probably not the biggest problem, since most highly paid council staff, as I understand it, have climbed the ladder internally.

The bigger danger is that councils will lose senior staff to the sort of consulting and contracting firms they often find themselves working with – firms which aren't shy about paying big salaries, and whose salary bills the TPA seems a lot less interested in.

In other words, a hard salary cap in local government is a very neat way of guaranteeing that expertise flows from public to private sectors.

It also, it's worth noting, wouldn't actually save that much money. Let’s assume those 2,314 council fat cats are paid an average of £150,000 (almost certainly an over-estimate, since only a quarter of them are paid more than that, but let's go with it). Capping council salaries at £100,000 would therefore save 2,314 times £50,000, which is nearly £116m.

That sounds like a lot. It isn’t. In 2015-16, the total revenue spending by all local authorities in England (so not UK, but the vast majority of the UK) was £94.5bn.

That saving is a rounding error – just 0.12 per cent of the total budget. It’d hardly make any difference to the council financial situation – certainly not enough to justify that damaging loss of expertise and institutional memory.

So. Yes, at a time when food bank use is exploding because so many people literally can't afford to feed their kids, the idea that a tiny minority of people are earning these ridiculous sums is just gross. And yes, fat cat salaries are a problem.

But it's a problem across the entire economy – so any solution needs to look at the entire economy, too. It’s a nonsense to attack public sector pay rates in isolation. Attack high salaries in the public sector, while ignoring insane levels at the upper echelons of the private sector, and all you do is guarantee that the public sector will struggle to compete. That people and expertise will flow entirely from councils to contractors, and never the other way around. That the state will, in short, get worse at its job.

Surely that couldn't be what the Taxpayers' Alliance actually wants to happen? Could it?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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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.