Everyone wants to build houses, and five other things we learned from the first UK City Leaders’ Survey

Liverpool, which is a city. Image: Getty.

Something unusual happened in British politics over the last few weeks: someone bothered to ask city leaders what they think.

The inaugural UK City Leaders’ Survey, conducted by the Centre for Cities and those cheeky, publicity hungry tykes at Arup, invited views from the leadership of 63 cities, whether metro mayors, mayors or council leaders. Inspired by the Menino Survey of Mayors conducted by researchers at Boston University, the survey symbolises the growing influence of urban leaders in this ridiculously over-centralised country of ours. We at CityMetric are quite in favour of this, for the understandable reason that we, too, need to eat.

The results, the survey authors stress, are not statistically representative: the response rate was about a quarter, and the findings are indicative rather than scientific. But they do give some indication of what city leaders are worrying about at the moment.

So, what did we learn – and are there any pretty charts to illustrate it?

1) Building housing is everything

Housing and regeneration was identified, unprompted, as the biggest overall economic priority for the majority of leaders surveyed,” the report says.

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And within the housing sector, “supply was the overwhelming priority”.

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That’s nine out of ten respondents prioritising adding to their housing supply. Nearly half wanted to build more council homes.

So: the prime minister’s recent promise that she’d lift the borrowing cap to enable councils to build homes seems likely to be embraced with open arms.

2) Improving skills is everything else

Leaders highlighted inclusive growth as another of their broader priorities,” the report says. “When asked to provide more detail in this area, they tended to specify adult learning.

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Again, that’s quite the lead adult education has over other growth priorities, and the runner up is under 18 education. Both are running way ahead of other priorities including transport and public realm.

Adult education is an area that’s long been neglected by national government: governments of all parties have been far more concerned with schools and universities (which ministers and columnists vaguely understand) than further education or technical colleges (which they don’t). So it’s interesting to note that local leaders are worrying about this gap.

That said...

3) But care is, annoyingly, everything too

...it’s not clear they have the money to do anything about any of this.

Social care was identified by almost every leader as being the public service under the most pressure. This was also the policy area where most leaders would wish to see further funding allocated through the upcoming Spending Review.

This is unsurprising, of course, but here’s the kicker:

In turn, many were prepared to sacrifice funding in other areas, such as adult skills, to achieve this.

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It’s very easy to say that, were money available, you’d to increase spending on adult education. But the money isn’t available – and preventing adult social care services from falling over is a far more pressing problem.

You can see that from quite how universal concern about social care now is:

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That’s damn near unanimity. This is a problem.

4) Views on transport vary

Leaders tended to identify roads within their area and supporting a shift from cars to other modes of transport (such as public transport) as the two key areas.

In other words, everyone either wants to make things easier for cars or for things that aren’t cars.

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Glad we cleared that up.

5) City leaders are fretting about climate change

Of the leaders surveyed, 79 per cent agreed to either spending money or sacrificing revenues for the sake of mitigating climate change. Only one leader strongly disagreed with this.

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These findings are strikingly similar to those the Menino Survey found when it asked surveyed US mayors:

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I’m reminded of the late Ben Barber’s comment about why he believed mayors would save the world. National governments can mess around with ideas like sovereignty. Cities actually have to make sure stuff works.

6) On funding, they value certainty over flexibility

Would city leaders like to be able to move money around, based on local need? Or would they rather have longer budgets to give them certainty about how much they’ll have?

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That said, the difference is pretty narrow. I suspect a lot of city leaders would ideally have both.

The really interesting thing about work like this, of course, is how its findings change over time. So here’s to the 2019 UK City Leaders’ Survey. Nice to have something to get excited about each December isn’t it?


You can read the whole survey here.

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

 
 
 
 

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.