Westminster has blocked Sadiq’s plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street. So are London’s boroughs too powerful?

What might have been: artist’s impression of the pedestrianised Oxford Street. Image: TfL.

For most of its history, London didn’t really exist. The city out-grew its ancient walls many centuries ago; yet right up until the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1855, the resulting conurbation was run not by the City of London Corporation, but by a patchwork of different parish councils. Margaret Thatcher’s decision to scrap the Greater London Council, 131 years later, has gone down in history as a politically-motivated act of short termism, and it was – but it was also, in some ways, a reversion to tradition.

The capital got its legal identity back in 2000, with the creation of the Greater London Authority. But Sadiq Khan still has fewer levers to pull than, say, Anne Hidalgo in Paris or Bill de Blasio in New York. Being mayor of London is less like being a chief executive than being a feudal lord: getting stuff done tends to involve marshalling forces who have their own priorities, and who are very aware of the fact they don’t answer to you.

Which is why a single borough council has been able to effectively veto one of Khan’s highest profile plans.


Oxford Street is Europe’s busiest shopping street. It’s also horrible: a dirty, smoggy canyon, where the pavements are too narrow and the space between is rammed with buses and the pollutants they spew out. So the idea of pedestrianising it – turning the street into a place it might actually be pleasant to visit – has been talked about for years.

Under Sadiq Khan, it seemed like it might actually happen. The Labour mayor campaigned on the issue and, once elected, instructed Transport for London (TfL) to start quietly restructuring the bus network to make pedestrianisation possible. Last November, TfL unveiled plans to start closing it to traffic from this December, along with the inevitable concept images showing how lovely the new, motor-free Oxford Street would be.

But all this, it turns out, has been a colossal waste of everybody’s time, because Westminster City Council has changed its mind. Last week, its leader Nickie Aiken said in a statement that, following public consultations and council elections, “It was clear... that local people do not support the pedestrianisation proposals.” That may well be correct: over at OnLondon, Dave Hill makes a compelling case that it’s electoral concerns that put the council off.

The thing is, though, that the locals who object to the plan aren’t necessary right. They may have good and sensible reasons for opposing pedestrianisation – perhaps it’ll mean an increase in traffic on their own street, for example. But just because it’ll be bad for them, that doesn’t mean it’ll be bad for those who shop on Oxford Street, or for London as a whole.

TfL’s road network, in red, and the motorways, in blue. Every other road in London is run by the local council. Image: TfL.

But it isn’t London as a whole that gets to decide this one. London’s streets are the domain of its councils – and councils are answerable to their voters. And so, a project that could have benefited all Londoners has been stymied by the objections of a few.

This sort of thing happens with depressing frequency. There are many reasons why TfL has failed to produce a London-wide network of cycling routes (cost, inertia, black cabbies being a pain in the arse). But a big one is that doing so would involve altering streets controlled by the boroughs.

And not all the boroughs will play ball. Some – Camden, Southwark, Tower Hamlets – are quite enthusiastic. But Hackney, despite housing one of the highest concentrations of cyclists in the entire country, could not be persuaded that a Cycling Superhighway needed segregated space, and instead sent CS1 down a series of back roads.

Quietway 1 is split into two routes, north and south, each of which stops suspiciously close to the Westminster borough boundary. And not a single scheme has penetrated the borders of Kensington & Chelsea: the borough remains an impenetrable barrier to any route between west and central London.

Neither the mayor nor TfL are empowered to fix any of this. They can persuade. They can cajole. But they can’t command, and if the boroughs don’t want something, then there’s no way of forcing it upon them.

What might have been: the ringways. Image: David Cane/Wikimedia Commons.

This has not always been a bad thing: not all grand-projets are a good idea. Back in the 1960s, it was big road schemes that were all the rage, and it was only the intransigence of the boroughs that prevented an urban motorway from being driven through Hampstead and Highbury Fields.

Nonetheless, the fragmented nature of London’s local government means that plans to solve the capital’s problems will always be at the mercy of small groups of highly motivated NIMBYs. Unless TfL is granted more powers, at the expense of the boroughs, Oxford Street won’t be the last.

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

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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.