Is the West Midlands about to steal the initiative on devolution?

Not gonna lie, we're starting to run out of stock images of the West Midlands. Image: Getty.

Every ministerial speech at last week’s Conservative Party Conference was peppered with praise for Andy Street – the party’s new candidate to be mayor of the West Midlands in 2017. It now appears a second devolution deal for the area is close to being agreed, this time focusing on allowing the region to retain more of the tax generated locally to reinvest in housing and infrastructure.

Although details of this latest proposed deal remain sketchy, and there has been no official confirmation from central government, any deal that marked a progression in the financial freedoms available to local areas would be hugely significant.

Despite the devolution deals agreed to date, the UK remains overwhelmingly centralised, with UK cities having limited say in the big decisions that shape their future. The level of taxes controlled locally or regionally in the UK is roughly 10 times less than in Canada, seven times less than in Sweden, and nearly six times less than in Germany.

But potentially just as significant is that it is the West Midlands which is now being touted as the area likely to receive fiscal devolution – as opposed to Greater Manchester, which has to date led the way with the most expansive and ambitious devolution deal of all those agreed.

The prime minister has been at pains to differentiate her approach to economic development outside of London from that of her predecessors, and to emphasise that the Northern Powerhouse – while important – is not the be all and end all for her government. And if the aim is to demonstrate this broader focus, there are a number of good reasons for the government to shift its focus to the West Midlands.

For starters, the area itself is large, with significant economic potential. The West Midlands Combined Authority comprises 12 authorities (including non-constituent members), is home to roughly 4m people, and boasts an £80bn a year economy. Having struggled for decades to shake off its post-industrial hangover, Birmingham city centre saw private sector jobs growth of 17 per cent between 1998 and 2011, and is now home to 40 per cent of the UK’s national conference trade, as well as Europe’s second largest insurance market.

In addition, unlike those mayoral races in Manchester and Liverpool, the Conservatives could feasibly win in the West Midlands in 2017. Labour’s lead over the Conservatives in the region was less than ten points at the 2015 General Election, and in the year since, this gap could have narrowed even before local campaigning begins.

The politics of England's city regions. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.

In the spiritual home of the Labour “right”, the region’s traditional Labour voters may be turned off by its more recent leftward shift and the second leadership success of Jeremy Corbyn in the last twelve months. Furthermore, turnout will almost certainly be lower in May 2017 than in the general election. If, as usual, younger people (who are more likely to vote Labour) do not turn out, but older people (who largely lean to the Conservatives) do, that could help to tighten the race between the two leading parties and give Andy Street a real chance of victory.


A Conservative mayor of the West Midlands may also shift the political dynamic of devolution. Much of the Northern Powerhouse agenda and devolution to Greater Manchester was shaped by the close relationship and trust shared between Manchester City Council CEO Sir Howard Bernstein and George Osborne. But with the former retiring and the latter now on the backbenches, it is conceivable that, should he win, the future of the devolution agenda could instead be shaped by Andy Street’s relationship with Phillip Hammond and Theresa May.

Of course, we shouldn’t get carried away. The political leaders of the West Midlands have come a long way in a very short space of time in order to reach common agreement on a devolution deal and establish the West Midlands Combined Authority. But in terms of the strength and longevity of local institutions and the powers currently included in their deal, Greater Manchester remains the leading light of UK city devolution.

Yet there are signs that this could change in the months and years ahead. Should the West Midlands secure an ambitious second devolution deal which includes new fiscal powers, and should the Conservatives triumph in the region in 2017, then Greater Manchester may find it is no longer alone in the vanguard of UK city devolution.

Such increased competition would be good news for those keen to see devolution remain at the top of the political agenda – and if it leads to greater economic control being transferred to Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and other big city-regions, then it would be good news for the national economy too.

Ben Harrison is director of communications at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article was previously published.

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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.