How Suffolk nearly swallowed Colchester, and other oddities from the Redcliffe-Maud report

Colchester Castle. Image: Alexis Ip/Wikimedia Commons.

It seems that every political wonk (or at least the subsection of them I follow on Twitter) has something in common. Amidst all their differences on policy, every one of them has a plan for how they would divide up the English regions into new administrative units. One interesting thing you can often spot from them, however, is where someone lives and/or comes from – as the further they get away from the areas they’re most familiar with, the odder some of their boundary proposals get.

I live in Colchester, Britain’s first city, and now part of the county of Essex (though there are structures within a few hundred metres of where I’m writing this that were built before there were Saxons in Saxony, let alone eastern, western and southern branches of them in England). However, if some things in the late 1960s and early 1970s had gone differently, then it’s quite possible that Colchester would now be part of Suffolk. How did that almost come to pass?

It helps to remember that local government in England, and especially its boundaries, have always more evolved over time than been deliberately planned. Throughout the centuries, various monarchs and Parliaments had made a variety of reforms to the system they’d inherited but no one had ever swept the map clean and started all over again.

Then the first Wilson government decided it was time to change that.

The Redcliffe-Maud proposals. Image: The Ares Project/DeviantArt.

In 1966, it established a Royal Commission on local government that was requested to look at all local government in England (with the exception of Greater London, for which the Greater London Council had been established in 1965) and make recommendations for how it could best perform all its functions, including new boundaries. The Commission, under the chairmanship of Lord Redcliffe-Maud, took to their task with enthusiasm, and proposed doing away with almost all the existing structures of English local government, and replacing them with an entirely new system. This would divide England into eight provinces, each of which would contain a number of unitary authorities. (See here for more details on what the different levels would do.)

You can click on the map (or this link) to get more of an idea of where these new boundaries would be, but crucial for this discussion is that Redcliffe-Maud introduced the idea that the Haven Ports (Harwich, Felixstowe, and Ipswich) should be part of a single local authority. So the Commission proposed a new authority in the East Anglia province that would bring together Ipswich, what was then East Suffolk, and Essex’s Tendring peninsula (including Harwich) as well as Colchester and the rural areas around it. (A side-effect of this would have been to put all the Dedham Vale into a single authority as well.) A rump Essex would have been part of the South-East province.

For an alternative, and perhaps more radical, set of proposals from a member of the Royal Commission, take a look at the map proposed in the splendidly-named Derek Senior’s Memorandum of Dissent:

Derek Senior's Memorandum of Dissent. Image: The Ares Project/DeviantArt.

As you might imagine, there was a big outcry about the Redcliffe-Maud report, because it would have represented a radical reform of local government and a lot of very small rural and urban district councils would have disappeared. Despite a campaign against it by many rural councils (using the slogan “Don’t vote for R.E. Mote”) and opposition from the Conservatives, by early 1970 the Labour government was committed to delivering the Redcliffe-Maud reforms. However, it then proceeded to lose the 1970 general election.

The new Conservative government of Edward Heath was opposed to the Redcliffe-Maud proposals but was still committed to local government reform, recognising that the system was in need of some rationalisation. Their proposals, in what became the 1972 Local Government Act, was for a principally two-tiered system but on a much smaller scale to Redcliffe-Maud. There would be no regions, with the highest unit instead being the County Councils and Metropolitan Counties, with boroughs and districts underneath them, and local parish councils within those boroughs and districts. (The main difference between a borough and a district is that the former have a civic mayoralty while the latter don’t.)

However, while the proposed counties would broadly follow their historic boundaries, there would be several changes as part of the reforms. In some cases, historic counties would lose chunks of territory to the new metropolitan counties that usually straddled old county boundaries – the West Midlands, for instance, included parts of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire. In others, new counties were proposed either as mergers of existing counties deemed too small – Cumbria formed out of Cumberland, Westmorland and the Lancashire County Borough of Furness, while Herefordshire found itself merged with its smaller but more populous neighbour to become Hereford & Worcester, which almost found itself called the County of Wyvern. Finally, other changes were made to recognise economic patterns, which included keeping the Redcliffe-Maud proposal of a single authority for the Haven ports.

In the Redcliffe-Maud grand redrawing of boundaries, a new Ipswich, Colchester and points east authority was easy to fit in, as it was the right size to be one of the new unitary authorities. In the new system, it would have been too big to be a district (which were based around single large towns) and too small to be a county (which needed lots of space and/or a large-ish city). So instead they chose to shift Suffolk to the south-east – and I do mean shift, not stretch.

The proposal was for the new, soon-to-be-formed Colchester and Tendring councils to become part of Suffolk. As this would make Suffolk quite large – it had previously been administered as separate East and West authorities – parts of the west of it would be detached and added on to Cambridgeshire. All rational, sensible and good, until it was announced and people realised that it meant Colchester (by now, home of the University of Essex) would thus officially become part of Suffolk.

This did not go down well. Essex County Council resented the idea that it would lose a big chunk of its territory (and a major port) to another county and a large PR campaign began to stop the move. As you can tell by my address (and my complaints about ECC) they succeeded, but there was some local support for the move including from Lord Alport (the former MP for Colchester) and some of the rural councils in the area. The boundary between Essex and Suffolk would remain along the Stour, and Harwich and Felixstowe would continue to be part of separate counties. There is now the Haven Gateway Partnership, a local government lobbying group for the area (disclaimer: I’ve been a member of its board in the past), but the prospect of any major change to county boundaries around here has been dead for decades.

Even if the change had happened, would it have stuck around to the present day? Some of the 1972 creations, such as Avon or Hereford &  Worcester, have disappeared from the map with little-to-no mourning for them, and some people still protest their “new” county designation, like those who campaign for Saddleworth to return to Yorkshire. Elsewhere, though, Cumbria seems well-established with no major campaign to return county boundaries through the middle of the Lake District.

It’s very easy to draw a line on a map and declare that one side of it is now one place and the other side another place, regardless of what they may have been before. All those lines are arbitrary, no matter how old they might be, but all of them help to create imagined communities on either side of them and sometimes across them.

We can argue for years – in fact we’ve probably been arguing for decades now – about where you might draw those lines to make English regions. But the choice at the end is always going to be the same: do we want to reflect the imagined communities that are already there, or seek to create new ones that time could prove to be stronger and more useful than those that already exist.

Nick Barlow is a researcher and teacher at Queen Mary University of London. This article first appeared on Medium.


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.