“Is not-London the new London?” What England and its capital can learn from one another

Was this man so wrong? The Samuel Johnson statue in Lichfield. Image: Elliot Brown/Flickr/creative commons.

The novelist AL Kennedy recently said that “being out of London is the new being in London”. Ironically we were both moving to the same place for largely the same reasons, though my exit was less newsworthy and (possibly, who knows?) more agonised.

And it seems that those we'd categorise as thinking people have to consider their reasons for leaving London. We may decry gentrification, pollution, the struggle of managing children. And, after we have emotionally and physically extracted ourselves from this “problem”, we await a better life on the outside, in whatever “like London but without the bad bits” location we have chosen.

Yet nagging doubts claw away at our consciousness. Practically each and every article on the topic references Samuel Johnson's “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life” quote, and so we feel a need to justify our actions. Life will be much the same, we say, just in a bigger house and fresher air, as we rampage around the countryside elevating house prices, only to then feel culturally displaced and alien.

Because, if the EU Referendum vote told us anything, it was that there is a huge symbolic gulf between London and the rest. London is hated for its imagined wealth, the volume of foreigners who reside in it, and its cultural cosmopolitanism. And London hates England because of its assumed backwards-looking parochialism. But all this is just a projection. The two are more similar than they’d like to believe – and making England more like London and London more like England could radically change the fortunes of this troubled island.

So why should England become more like London? London is incomparable for sheer hyperactive energy. Everything gets used – time, people, buildings. Businesses are continually being set up, new restaurants appearing. Innovation is central to the London environment. Want to set up a multi-use space where creatives chat over coffee by day and musicians play a gig by night? Great, just don’t try it in Zone 1.


Arguably, this dynamism happens because of the impact of the City of London, financing hipster businesses to revalorise a locale. But it is more than that. London has, first with reluctance and then with enthusiasm, embraced immigration, and consequently, it has revitalised our culture, our high streets, our food, and our economy. Diversity acts upon the brain in such a way that we get used to considering differences between people, thus increasing our empathy as well as our ability to handle complex information. It gives us ideas, big ideas, just like those migrants who were brave enough to travel across countries, continents and seas for an outstretched dream.

Compare that to not-London, where I am surprised by the sheer wastage of people, buildings and places. Older women and men, incredibly talented and imaginative, not engaged in productive activity of any kind. Young people criticised for anti-social behaviour when the reality is there’s nothing cool to do. Mothers, raising their kids wonderfully but outside of paid employment, all the while feeling bored and unmotivated. Poor wages and expensive houses; small parks and playgrounds. Immigrants, still energetically trying to build new lives, isolated and often ghettoised by an unforgiving racism.

And still locals mutter about there being too many people in their spacious towns and villages, with driveways and garages. Lonely people and empty streets. Incredible buildings not yet converted into an art gallery, bar, restaurant or home. Art galleries built in a fit of over-achievement that lay fallow and rejected. It is wasteful and gives a lie to the brave new world promised by English Brexiteers.

For the most part, in London, councils have set aside parochial considerations to boost development and creative activity, either through flagship projects or seeding. They build relationships. They aren’t always successful, and sometimes the make decisions which are downright socially unjust. They struggle with implicit corruption. But even the most entrenched local boroughs get it eventually, after sustained assaults on its fortresses by activists and entrepreneurs.

The other side

In the zone of not-London, progress is always sluggish, and councils seem reluctant to let go of the shibboleths of large-scale housing developments, roads and supermarkets. Frankly, it is hard for them to do anything, without being weighed down by the population’s conservative muttering and resistance to any change.

But looking at it from the other side – how London should be more like England – another picture emerges. Consider London’s vast swathes of poor, left to rot in sub-standard housing and moments away from being cast out beyond the city walls. And it has a fair percentage of mothers, older people, disabled people, and so on, with underutilised skills.

Nor is London is as welcoming to immigrants and each other as it claims. Jock Young once referred to London as a place of “lightly engaged strangers,” while Tim Butler argued relationships between ethnicities in London were “tectonic”, meaning coexisting in segregation, even if we do live on the same street. We all know the narratives about the isolationism of hipster entrepreneurialism, but it applies more broadly. We live in the same place, but do we speak across the garden fence? Perhaps London could learn from the civility of the English village, but apply it to a multicultural context instead.

The rat race in action: London Bridge. Image: Getty.

Time is lost in London like a running stream. Merely getting from one place to another to see a doctor, dentist, or even do the shopping takes hours of your time. And in London too, prising people out of their cars is seemingly akin to trying to hack off their arm from their body, with devastating consequences for health (for the ageing, the elderly, the infirm, children).

London is too tightly packed for sanity and could benefit from the size, looser spatial frames and amenities of not-London. Not everyone wants to embrace the city and all it can offer, but they are forced there because of work or the racialised prejudices of elsewhere. Too many people in the capital know nothing beyond their neighbourhood and fear the outside. Just as England fears London, so London fears England.

And its commercialism has pretty much done for its subculture – the London I knew as a mardy teenager – judging by the ongoing closure of clubs and pubs. In the zone of not-London, eccentricity abounds, even if it is homeless.

London is not the Promised Land, though it is a hugely important social experiment. The debates we are having represent our very skewed culture where the imposed reality is, on the one side, overwork and hyperactivity, and on the other, under activity and waste. 

There needs to be a redistribution of economic activity so that London does and contains less, and England – the not-London – does more. But that implies the regions should try to create more to entice young people to stay. It means more cultural entrepreneurialism and other hipster amenities, and less bucolic countryside preserved in aspic. More Richard Florida and less Jane Austin. Local governments need to encourage culture, economic activity and regeneration more effectively, to lead, not follow – or worse, disrupt. And yes, sometimes people from elsewhere can show us how. Maybe it’s time we stopped complaining and listened.

So is not-London the new London? It could be if people and governments allowed themselves to become more porous. But we are still a long way from that, and, with an impending Brexit led by Randian ideologues and nouveau fascists, aided by a large dose of incompetency, it feels like an ever more distant ideal.

Deborah Talbot is an ethnographer and journalist specialising in culture, society and all things urban.

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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.