Have southern English cities grown faster than northern ones? The answer may surprise you

Watford Gap Services, 1961: the symbolic boundary between north and south. Image: Ben Brooksbank/Wikimedia Commons.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities. 

Last week, as all dedicated CityMetric readers will recall, we looked at how the 62 largest cities on the British mainland* had grown – or not – between 1981 and 2014. After crunching the numbers on offer from our trusty Centre for Cities (CfC) data tool, and producing a whole slew of graphs, we came to two important conclusions:

  • There’s a mysterious curse of the dockyard, in which cities which grew around shipbuilding industries have picked up a terrifying habit of shrinking;
  • The smaller the city is, the more likely it is to have grown faster than the UK average.

But surely, a few of you wrote in to say, we were ignoring a big variable. Surely where a city is a factor here.

Well, yes, almost certainly. The north-south divide is never far from these pages. But we like to do things by the book around here, so let’s look at the same data by region.

First up, let’s check out what the CfC refers to as the “Greater South East”: London, the South East and the East of England. This is basically a broad interpretation of the London commuter belt, the richest bit of the country. When people at the other end of England are hating on "the south", this is the bit they mean.

Click to expand.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, a majority of the cities here have grown faster than the UK average (shown as a thick black line). Milton Keynes, the 21st century boomtown par excellence, has grown so fast that it breaks the graph, so here's a version without it:

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What's more, only a couple of cities ever dropped below their 1981 population. From a modern perspective, they're not the ones you'd expect either: London, Oxford, Ipswich, Brighton.

Let’s move on. This graph does the same, but for the Midlands:

Click to expand.

This time, Telford – like Milton Keynes, one of the third and final waves of new towns – is way out ahead of the pack, and would be in the fastest growing group even if it was in the south.

The other Midlands cities, though, have been relatively slow growing. Three of them – Coventry, Birmingham, Stoke – spent over a quarter of a century with populations smaller than they had in 1981 (though they've all caught up with themselves now). And, of the eight cities shown here, five – slightly over half – have grown slower than the UK as a whole.

So, in the South East, most cities have grown faster than the UK as a whole. In the Midlands it’s about half and half. And in the north...

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Well, would you look at that.

Only two cities shown here have grown faster than the UK as a whole: Warrington, another new town; and York, which for statistical purposes often looks a lot like the more famous collegiate university towns in the south. (Preston, yet another new town, comes close but was overtaken in 2004. Huddersfield and Bradford are only slightly behind the UK average.)

In this group, indeed, there are a whole slew of cities that were smaller in 2014 than they were in 1981: Blackpool, Burnley, Middlesbrough, Newcastle, Birkenhead, Hull, Sunderland, Liverpool... Most of those places were built around heavy industries which just aren't there any more.

So. Yes, once again, the north-south divide obviously is a factor here. Population growth and economic strength aren't perfectly correlated, for all sorts of reasons. But booming southern cities are clearly more likely to have grown than struggling northern ones.

This may go some way to explain last week's results. Many of the smaller cities that have grown quickly are London commuter towns; many of the larger ones that haven't are depressed northern towns.

There are the other regions, of course. I'm reluctant to draw too many conclusions from these just because the sample sizes are small, but, for the sake of completism, here are the graphs.

Click to expand.

The South West looks a lot like the South East (perhaps because it’s, y’know, the south). It might be significant that the cities which are most commutable to London (Bournemouth, Swindon) have grown most. Then again, it might not be.

Click to expand.

As ever, Scotland is beset by its own divide: Edinburgh and Aberdoon boom, while Glasgow and Dundee don’t. All four of them, though, have grown less than the UK as a whole.

Click to expand.

Last but not least, in Wales, Cardiff has grown a lot faster than the other two.

Anyway, the point is: the north-south divide is clearly a big factor in how England’s cities have developed over the last 30 years. I am shocked, shocked, I tell you.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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*The only Northern Irish city included in the Centre for Cities’ database is Belfast, and for various boring reasons of changing boundaries it’s not included in the population data. Ah, well.



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.