Liverpool has two elected mayors. It’s time to scrap one of them

Double vision: Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson and Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotheram. Image: Getty.

If we didn’t have the local elections, we would need to invent them. It’s an opportunity – a valuable one – for political campaigners to listen to what the voters are saying and reflect on what they tell us. I’ve heard it loud and clear on the doorstep for weeks: Liverpool has had enough of being run by an elected mayor.

Time and again, it came up, reflecting what many of our party members across Liverpool and a sizeable part of our controlling group on the council also believe. There are three problems as I see it. The first, is that too much power rests at the centre with a single individual. At first, we thought this would be a positive – helping take decisive action to turn our city around after decades of decline. And, partly, we were right. The mayoral model has meant that decision-making is quicker and more decisive.

This is fine when the decisions taken are the right ones. But we know that’s not always going to be the case. Until last year, I served as Joe Anderson’s deputy, so I’m in a good position to not only praise him for so much that he has achieved as mayor of the city, but also to recognise when something now needs to change.

We’ve seen in rows like the proposed development of part of Calderstones Park, just how few checks and balances we have in place to stop a bad idea from gaining ground, before common sense prevails. (It took a petition of more than 50,000 ordinary people to get the mayor to see sense and drop his plans). 

Perhaps our greatest achievement as a Labour administration since we took back control of Liverpool in 2010 (and one frequently cited by the mayor himself) was to build or substantially renovate 22 new schools after the Tory/Lib Dem coalition pulled the plug on us by scrapping Building Schools for the Future. 

Under Joe’s leadership, we put together a funding package that allowed us to take control and develop the schools ourselves. The crucial point is that this was achieved before we switched to the mayoral model in 2012, when we had the standard leader and cabinet model. We simply don’t need a mayor to be bold. 


The second problem is that the freedom to take executive decisions needs to be tempered with the responsibility to consult, persuade and to bring people and communities along. So much that is wrong with our politics in this city is that there is precious little consulting and persuading and too much bossing and demanding. 

Diktat not dialogue is how it comes across to people in the city. It also leaves councillors as spectators when it comes to the running of their own city. Democratic adornments while key decisions about the city take place on the Fourth Floor of the Cunard Building. 

The third problem is that there is a risk the mayor’s personal ‘brand’ become synonymous with that of the city. While it can be useful to have a single figurehead when it comes to dealing with investors, it is not vital. Although Andy Burnham is the mayor of the Manchester City region, the renaissance of the city over the past 25 years has been led by Sir Richard Leese, the Leader of Manchester City Council. 

Widely respected and with an inclusive style, Richard has probably achieved more than any civic leader in the country on the very model I am urging my colleagues in Liverpool to return back to.

Moreover, if Liverpool is to have a single mayoral figurehead, it is better that this is our city region mayor, Steve Rotheram. At the moment, Liverpool has mayoral overload, with a metro mayor, a city mayor, a lord mayor, three deputy mayors and an assistant mayor.  Neither do we need to see our city mayor pulled into noisy spats on Twitter, or offering opinions on Everton’s starting eleven.

The mayoral model in Liverpool is no longer fit-for-purpose. What we need now is a style of leadership that brings people together. Less confrontational and needlessly divisive. No more personality politics and diktats from the centre. More open and collegiate. 

We need to relearn lessons that we have forgotten. The leadership of the council needs to engage with communities to win its case. No more instructions from on high. A new model for a new chapter in the life of our city. This is best achieved by returning to having a council leader and cabinet.

Councillor Ann O’Byrne is the former deputy mayor of Liverpool and deputy leader of Liverpool Labour party.

 
 
 
 

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.