In defence of... Telford

The Southwater development, Telford. Image: Richard Law/Wikimedia Commons.

A little over 50 years ago, the British government decided to designate a “new town” in the rural county of Shropshire, taking in the smaller towns of Dawley, Oakengates, and Wellington. Thirty miles north west of Birmingham, it helped to deal with the increasing urban sprawl, and eased congestion, in the West Midlands. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went to school in Newport – another one of these towns which forms the borough of Telford & Wrekin. 

Telford is unusual amongst New Towns, in that it took in sizeable pre-existing settlements. As Labour councillor Concepta Cassar explains: “Although Telford is classed as a new town, it’s one built on the venerable shoulders of a number of far older towns that have as much, if not more, history and character as other towns and cities in the UK.”

“In the early days of Telford’s history in the 1960s, Telford was going to be called Dawley New Town. But Dawley itself goes back to the Domesday Book and is one of the oldest settlements in Shropshire.” In the end, it was named after the engineer Thomas Telford, hugely influential in developing the infrastructure of the county.

There’s been a lot of investment into Telford in recent years. As of summer 2019, the new “Fashion Quarter” is deep into development, with the likes of Next and New Look moving from their previous plots to larger builds. The showy Southwater area just outside the shopping centre, which opened in 2014, cost £250 million, and hosts the usual chain restaurants: Nando’s, Bella Italia, Zizzi. Asda moved from a large plot inside the centre to a standalone supermarket opposite the bus station. Think Birmingham’s attempts to move away from a concrete jungle landscape, but on a smaller scale.

There’s also been a new bus station to replace one that had long been looking exhausted. “Areas like the bus station are extremely important for residents across the borough,” explains Concepta, “Though I hope that in time we will see change at a national level that prioritises municipal control of bus services so that they can serve the public and not profit.”

But for all of this investment, the centre of Telford feels slightly uninspiring. Bleak consumerism – grandiose shopping quarters slap bang in the intersection of numerous small towns. Nearby Shrewsbury, Shropshire’s county town, has a rich history and picturesque town centre with pedestrianised shopping areas alongside a couple of indoor shopping centres. They might not have the sheer volume of shops that Telford can offer, but the experience feels more natural.

Cassar is full of praise for the town centre, highlighting the green spaces that still remain: “There are many fine achievements to celebrate in the centre of town,” she says, “including Telford Town Park which has received the International Green Flag Award for the fifth year running. This forms part of a vast network of green spaces and corridors which really bring home why it was referred to as a ‘forest town’ in the early days of the new town.”

Although not a ‘garden city’, this combination of urbanisation and green spaces can work well for residents who desire a mix of the two. For people who have lived in the area prior to the New Town being built, there’s been a definite transformation over time. For long-time resident Mick Balshaw, “Telford has changed to the point that if someone had been away for 20 or 30 years, they wouldn’t know the place.”

I ask him if he thinks there’s been a loss of character in the town, with local shops closing down as ASDA, Aldi and Lidl prevail, but he sees Telford as no different to anywhere else. “They have definitely lost out to the big boys, but it’s down to internet shopping, and who wants to walk down a rainy high street when you have an indoor shopping centre?”

Mick has lived in Lawley Village for nearly 60 years. One of the smaller towns that make up Telford, it’s had its own bit of redevelopment in recent years. With a large Morrisons supermarket in the centre of town, new build houses, and an eyecatching primary academy, it showcases the best of what Telford can offer. Likewise, Madeley, in the south of the town near the famous Ironbridge contains two secondary academies built in the last ten years, and a plethora of shops and eateries, from Aldi and Lidl to KFC and Tesco, though a few independent stores still stand strong. 

Telford is a polarised town with its fair share of issues. Earnings are lower than the national average, and a number of areas make the top 10 per cent most deprived in the country. Local MP Lucy Allan is a fervent Tory Brexiteer, and under her watch Telford is set to lose it’s A&E centre, meaning that residents will need to travel to Shrewsbury. 

It’s interesting to compare Telford to other new towns. Milton Keynes is considered something of a success story as far as new towns go, with its gridsquares and redways. It might also be without much character or antiquated charm – just ask any supporter of AFC Wimbledon for their thoughts – but economically speaking, it’s one of the most successful cities in the UK and perhaps the clear winner of the ‘new town’ project. It’s all well and good for a town like Telford to have glitzy shopping quarters, but when vital services are being closed down, you have to stop and think about what the residents would actually prefer. 

All these years later, in Boris’s Brexit Britain, can we say that Telford has been a success? “There is an awful lot of history of which to be proud in modern-day Telford,” says Cassar, and she’s not wrong. Despite the issues of deprivation which still lie in the town, there is a concerted effort to improve, and it seems that despite the occasional Lucy Allan-influenced flashback, it is gradually happening.

Or as Mick puts it: “I have lived in Telford for 59 years and can honestly say it’s is a better place to live now.”


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.