Under-represented and under-funded: London politicians can’t keep ignoring the south-west

The most southerly point of the UK. Confusingly also known as the North of the South. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Long before England was divided over Brexit, commentators argued about the political differences between the North and South. For southerners, dragons lurk any further than Watford; while terrible beer and folk with the fortitude of Kenneth Williams in a Carry-On film await northerners venturing below Birmingham.

People mostly know when something newsworthy happens in Wales, while Northern Ireland is currently getting its 15 minutes of fame, and Nicola Sturgeon is straight on the phone the minute Scotland slips out of the news.

But what about the south-west, the ‘North’ of the South. A place, according to YouGov, with a regional identity as strong as Yorkshire’s.

For most Londoners, the south-west is one of two things. You’ve got Bristol – a (slightly) more affordable, yet still trendy, smaller version of London – and the Cotswolds, both of which provide many a Kensington resident with a weekend retreat. Then everywhere else is a patchwork of fields and muddled pirate/farmer accents.

Unfortunately, these both leave the south-west somewhat overlooked in London’s political circles.

Traditionally the 258-mile stretch between Land’s End and Chipping Campden in the region’s north was something of a Lib Dem stronghold. In 2010 the south-west had 15 yellow seats, 36 blue, and just four Labour. Despite national losses in 2017, Conservative seats rose to 47 and Labour climbed to seven, leaving the Lib Dems with just one MP – the newly-elected Wera Hobhouse in Bath.


Devolution hasn’t been fruitful. Although in recent years Bristol has been thriving, first under former mayor George Ferguson and then his incumbent successor Labour’s Marvin Rees, there’s few else championing the interests of the south-west to Whitehall. Inexplicably the role of the West of England’s metro mayor, Tim Bowles, also covers Bristol, along with bits of South Gloucestershire and north-east Somerset.

Rivalry in the region is strong – don’t confuse a Bristolian and Gloucestershire accent* in the presence of natives – yet the policy problems are shared.

Regional income per head is higher than in parts of the North, but so are house prices. Yet it’s often overlooked that market prices in Bristol and Bath, where young professionals might look to escape the capital, skew the numbers.

Cornwall is one of the ten poorest regions in the EU, with pockets of Gloucestershire and Somerset not far behind. Despite often being forgotten by our urban-based media, rural poverty is a real problem, with economic and cultural opportunities thin on the ground.

Transport only makes the problem worse. I grew up in a town 20 miles from Bristol, not much more than half an hour in the car. Yet the train takes over an hour, with the Cam and Dursley train station an inexplicable five miles out of the town. Bus services might come once a week, but they aren’t guaranteed to bring you back. Cuts to local government have made many services unviable. It's little wonder that in Dursley JK Rowling found inspiration for Harry Potter’s cruel relatives.

Tourism offers a local economy boost; people come from all over the world to enjoy Somerset Scrumpy, Cornish coastline and Cotswold cottages. But weather on the western front is an unreliable business partner, and second homes push up living costs for locals.

The south-west gets the investment its national presence deserves. Whilst local politicians are trying to deliver for local people, there’s been a lack of join-up between its MPs.

The Lib Dems struggle to marry their liberal pro-EU messages with the more conservative region, whilst Labour doesn’t have the support outside of cities to recognise its problems. Media darling Jacob-Rees Mogg has hardly used the national spotlight to find solutions for those struggling in his North East Somerset constituency. Liam Fox prefers to make the case for investment in the Philippines than Portishead.

Devolution has struggled to appeal. That London policymakers tried to lump Cornwall and Devon together says it all. There is also a deep-seated indifference to politics; Brenda from Bristol isn’t the only one who’s had enough.

But the south-west needs a champion. Marvin Rees could do more to talk about the importance of connections throughout the south-west to benefit both Bristol and its surroundings. Theresa May could even use investment in the region to sure up her reputation with Tory backbenchers.

As local press dwindles, national commentators should take more trips down the M4 and M5 and find out not everything in the UK has to be binary between North and South, Leave and Remain.

*Gloucestershire accents are slower and lower. Bristolians pepper rapid speech with phrases not heard anywhere else in the world.

 
 
 
 

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.