End of term report: How is Steve Rotheram doing as mayor of the Liverpool City Region?

Steve Rotherham, mayor of the Liverpool City Region, May 2017. Image: Getty.

Continuing the Centre for Cities’ round up of the first half-year of metro mayors, we look at Steve Rotheram, Labour mayor of the Liverpool City Region.

Steve Rotheram’s victory in the Liverpool City Region’s metro mayor election came as little surprise, with the former Labour MP for Walton securing 59 per cent of the vote in what is one of his party’s staunchest strongholds. This put Rotheram in charge of an Investment Fund worth £900m over 30 years, and gave him powers over transport, housing and employment & skills.

In his first speech after the election, the new Liverpool City Region mayor set out his priorities for his mayoralty, which include joining up the transport network and boosting digital infrastructure to better connect the six boroughs that make up the combined authority. Since then, he has appointed his team and set out a plan for the city region organised around five key words: ambitious, fair, green, connected and together.

After six months, it’s too early to gauge the impact of this long term vision, but it’s clear that Rotheram is already making an impression on the national and local level.

Progress and key moments

Rotheram’s impact has been most visible in his representation of the city region’s needs and interests on the national political stage. He has demonstrated the capacity to be pragmatic in his dealings with central government despite party political differences, while also challenging national leaders when necessary.

In his mayoral campaign, Rotheram consistently attacked the government’s austerity policies, unsurprisingly given the political landscape in the Liverpool city region. But moving from the poetry of campaign to the prose of office, Rotheram used his first speech as mayor to invite the Prime Minister Theresa May to Liverpool to discuss the issues facing the city region, and the potential for the mayor to take on more devolved powers. By doing so, Rotheram signalled his willingness to engage and collaborate with national government, which will be essential to bringing about change in his city region.

However, he has also taken the government to task when necessary in order to raise the concerns and needs of the people he represents. For example, Rotheram has been vocal in criticising the government over the introduction of Universal Credit, calling for the mayors to have greater influence and powers over managing its rollout. He has lobbied for the mayors to have control over the apprenticeship levy, arguing that the current underspend in this revenue could be used to deliver other employment training programmes for young people.

Most prominently, Rotheram – who made lobbying for Crossrail for the North a key election campaign – has joined with his fellow Labour mayor Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester) to campaign for greater investment in transport in the city region and across the north. Together, the metro mayors in the north west have put this issue at the top of the national political agenda. For example, when the Transport Secretary Chris Grayling cancelled the electrification of the Leeds-Manchester rail line in July, it was Rotheram and Burnham who stepped into the breach to voice the anger and frustration of people living in their cities.

This intervention – which represents the most high profile moment of Rotheram’s mayoralty thus far – helped to create a political headache for the government over the summer, and illustrated the leadership and representation that Rotheram (and Burnham) are offering to their cities.

Toughest challenge

One of the key challenges facing Rotherham is managing political relationships within the combined authority. Liverpool city region’s mayor, along with the West of England mayor, faces a different geographical challenge different from other combined authorities in two respects.

Firstly, both city regions are composed of one big local authority which accounts for the lion’s share of the combined authority’s overall population  – in Rotherham’s case Liverpool – along with other relatively smaller authorities (Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton and Wirral). Both city regions also feature a directly elected mayor within the main local authority – in Liverpool’s case, Joe Anderson, who had was pipped to the post of Labour candidate for metro mayor by Rotheram.

In this context, it was to be expected that there could be some tensions between the city region mayor and the city mayor. Resolving and managing these issues will be critical for Rotheram, who will need the support from local leaders across the city region to make the most of his devolved powers in the coming years.

Biggest opportunity

Our analysis suggests that the biggest issue holding back the economy of the Liverpool city region is skills gaps in its workforce. This is reflected in the fact only 53 per cent of students in the area achieve five good GCSE results (A*-C), lower than the average across England and Wales (58 per cent).

While this poses a significant challenge for Rotheram to address, it also offers the mayor an opportunity to have a long term impact. His plan for the city region recognised the need to address this issue, featuring pledges to map and bridge skills gaps, and to focus on raising school standards.  

Both will be critical in ensuring the city region has the skilled workforce needed to attract businesses and jobs – as well as boosting wages – and should be a top priority for Rotheram in the coming years.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.

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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.